Some yardsticks show that housing has not only come back from the worst of the Great Recession but even getting into hot territory. Is it time to worry? Yes, but not about a new bubble.

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Median house prices, which fell 30 percent in the crash and 50 percent in the worst Sun Belt epicenters, are headed back toward pre-recession highs by some measures.

That’s certainly true in hot technopolis Seattle, where the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Composite Index showed the area at 183.84 in its most recent sounding, for August, compared with a July 2007 peak of 192.30.

Nationally, there’s no cause for immediate concern, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Housing starts remain at levels where they stood in the slow early 1990s and construction jobs are down 1.3 million from the 2006 peak.

Critically, exotic financing and especially subprime mortgage lending that was securitized and sold on Wall Street (Kerry Killinger, call your office) are not a part of the mix now. Also, there’s “an outright decline in the ratio of household mortgage debt to personal disposable income—a pattern that is very different from the prior episode.”

A new bubble isn’t our problem, but let me tease this out more than the report.

Indeed, many Americans are still hurting from the housing crash. They saw their major source of household wealth either lost or significantly declined in value. Millions remain underwater, owing more on their mortgages than the house is worth, a major problem in Pierce County.

In addition to lost wealth, middle-class families have been hurt by the continued stagnation or decline in wages, and lower earners have next to no chance to ascend into the middle class. Buying a house is increasingly elusive.

Soaring housing prices, especially in the places that performed best after the recession, add to their dilemma. This is one of the unintended consequences of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE), a big part of which involved buying vast amounts of mortgages.

This addressed the crisis at its heart but homeowners were given no serious relief. Instead, the big banks and their shareholders were further bailed out. The overall effect on the economy may have been helpful — especially because neither the Obama administration nor Congress proposed ongoing fiscal stimulus. But it further widened inequality, in this case for owning a house.

According to research from earlier this year, it would take a first-time buyer earning the median household income more than 20 years to save enough for the 20 percent down payment on a mortgage in Seattle, eighth-highest in the nation. In No. 1 Silicon Valley, it would take more than 35 years. And even in Phoenix, with its enormous inventory of tract houses (but low wages), 15 years would be needed.

Not everyone wants a house. And some should not take on the debt. But that so many are shut out now is only one sign of our increasing pulling apart in income and opportunity. Fixing this will take years — and different policies.


 

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Will water damper

Towering anxiety

When the big one hits?