The latest quarterly National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Home Building Geography Index (HBGI) shows: the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to hasten a housing trend already taking place across the nation–residential construction activity that is expanding at a more rapid rate in lower density markets such as smaller cities and rural areas. Multifamily development is also proceeding at a brisk pace in areas where education and health services dominate, according to the HBGI.

“We expect the virus could affect future housing preferences for those currently living in the hardest-hit, high-density environments like central cities and that housing demand will continue to increase in medium- and low-density communities,” said NAHB Chairman Dean Mon.

An unavoidable lesson of the public health crisis associated with COVID-19 is that major metropolitan areas faced greater challenges. High-density lifestyles, championed by some urban planners over the last decade as a rival to suburban living, proved to be vulnerable to a virus due to crowded living conditions, dependency on mass transit, and insufficient health and public sector infrastructure.

“The first quarter HBGI data reveals construction growth expanded over the last year more quickly in low population density areas than high-density regions,” said NAHB chief economist, Robert Dietz. “This trend will continue as households seek out single-family homes further from urban cores, particularly as telecommuting continues in greater numbers.”

The HBGI found home construction activity was increasing at a higher rate in inner and outer suburbs than in high-density markets before the pandemic hit.

First quarter HBGI findings show:

  • Single-family construction expanded across all seven economic geographies, posting the strongest growth (9.1%) in outlying suburbs of small metro areas, as measured on a one-year moving average.
  • Over the past year apartment construction growth in less dense markets has outpaced expansion in larger metropolitan areas.
  • All economic geographies reported net growth over the past year for single-family and multifamily construction.

The HBGI is a quarterly measurement of building conditions across the country and uses county-level information about single- and multifamily permits to gauge housing construction growth in various urban and rural regions.

The first quarter HBGI also features a new economic geography class based on local employment in the education and health services sector (EHS). Given the public health crisis associated with COVID-19, this sector is of critical importance. The HBGI designates EHS-focused regional markets as the top quartile of counties based on this employment share. These counties also make up 23.2% of the U.S. population.

This analysis finds:

  • 4% of single-family construction occurs in EHS markets;
  • 4% of multifamily construction occurs in these markets;
  • Multifamily construction has outpaced single-family construction in these markets over the past year;
  • Multifamily construction has expanded at nearly twice the growth rate of the rest of the construction in EHS markets over the past year; and
  • Single-family construction was growing in EHS markets, but the rate was slower than the rest of the nation.

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