As we have pointed out over the last few weeks, America has a homelessness problem; over a million individuals and families are temporarily or chronically homeless.  While the statistics don't fully address this aspect, there is at least anecdotal indication that some of these people are in shelters or on the street because their own home or one they were renting was foreclosed.  There is also purely anecdotal information that a lot more homeowners are hanging on by their fingernails; savings and unemployment exhausted, legal remedies gone, as lenders churn through a backlog of pending foreclosures and subsequent evictions.  In other words, the problem could well get worse.

It is also clear that the country is deep into what we are going to abuse poetic license to call a "home problem."  A large number of homes uninhabited, unmaintained, even unclaimed.  The size of this problem is probably impossible to deduce from what is a fairly large collection of data from sources that overlap and duplicate each other while still leaving huge information gaps. 

First, there are homes where owners have been caught up in the stagnate economy and have lost or will lose their homes through foreclosure.  Information on delinquencies, actual and pending foreclosures are coming from Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and FHA with reports delinquency and foreclosure reports from the Mortgage Bankers Association and RealtyTrac partially overlapping as well as augmenting the other data.  What we do know is that there have been an estimated 1.24 million foreclosures in the last few years, and RealtyTrac is projecting the total will reach 3 million by the end of the year.  It is doubtful that anyone knows the actual size of what is being called "the shadow inventory." i.e. the number of homes that may yet come on the market because of an owner's financial hardship.

Then there is the real inventory, the number of homes that are listed for sale by owners who would like to move or have been foreclosed and being actively marketed.  Reports last week from The National Association of Realtors® for existing homes and the U.S. Census Bureau for new homes showed an inventory of unsold homes of 3.99 million and 210,000 homes respectively.

On another housing front, the Census Department released its survey of Residential Vacancies and Homeownership for the second quarter of 2010 which indicated that vacancies of both homeowner and rental properties are hovering near historic highs.

The survey put the vacancy rate for rental housing at 10.6 percent of rental units, unchanged from the first quarter of 2010.  The vacancy rate in homes that are considered homeowner properties was 2.5 percent compared with 2.6 percent in the previous quarter.  The incidence of vacant properties, both rental and homeowner have increased more or less steadily since the Census Department first published it in 1996.  The first report pegged rental vacancies at 7.9 percent and homeowner vacancies at 1.6 percent.

The report estimates there were 131.2 million housing units in the U.S. in the 2nd quarter. 112.2 million of which were occupied, with  75.1 million of those units owner occupied and 37.1 million rented.  The number of vacant properties has increased by nearly 400,000 units to 18.9 million in the last year, and the number of those properties which were year-round as opposed to seasonal units increased even more.

The Census Bureau does not explain it, but the number of vacant properties that are not available for sale or rent or used sporadically as housing for the owner or family,  has increased dramatically - by a quarter million units - in the past year.

There are now 3.74 million of these "unavailable" (Other)  housing units.   We wonder how many of these units are unfit for habitation and, if that is the case, if the numbers are increasing in part because unoccupied housing is being allowed to decay at an accelerating rate.

Vacancies in both owner-occupied and rental housing are highest in the South.  The current rental vacancy rate is 13.2 percent, down from 13.8 percent a year earlier while the homeowner rate is up, 2.9 percent compared to 2.7 percent a year ago.  Rental vacancies in the Midwest are running at 11.3 percent, up from 10.4 percent and homeowner vacancies are also up from 2.4 in the second quarter of 2009 to 2.5 percent.  Rental vacancies in the Northeast and Midwest were both up sharply, from 7.1 percent to 8.3 percent in the Northeast and from 10.4 to 11.3 percent in the Midwest.  Homeownership vacancies, however, declined sharply in the Northeast, dropping to 1.4 percent to 2.0 percent while the Midwest increased from 2.4 percent to 2.5 percent.   Vacancies in principal cities averaged 11.1 percent compared to 11.2 percent a year ago and suburban vacancies increased from 10 to 10.2 percent.

The Census Bureau reported that the homeownership rate in the U.S. was 66.9 percent compared with 67.4 percent in the second quarter of 2009.  While this rate was consistently above the historical highs of 68 to 69 percent recorded throughout the 2002-2006 period, it is still well above the 63 to 65 percent rate during the first ten years after the survey began in 1985.

Non-Hispanic Whites continue to have the highest rates of home ownership - 74.4 percent, down .5 percent in the last year.  Hispanics have a homeownership rate of 47.8 percent, down from 48.1 percent a year earlier; the rate of homeownership for African Americans is 46.2 percent compared to 46.5 percent a year ago.

Homeownership among the most senior of homeowners - those over age 65, is unchanged from one year ago at 80.4 percent, as is homeownership among the youngest - those under 35 - at 39.0 percent. The rate among the population aged 55 to 65 and 35.44 both declined by 1.2 points to 65.6 percent and 78.7 percent respectively.

The highest rate of homeownership was found, as it nearly always is, in the Midwest which has a current rate of 70.8 percent compared to 69.2 percent in the South, 64.2 percent in the Northeast, and 61.4 percent in the West.  The numbers in three of the regions were relatively unchanged since the previous year, but homeownership in the West, which has been hard-hit by foreclosures, is down over one percentage point.