Permits issued for single-family homes, condos and townhomes and apartment units fell by almost 64 percent from the 9,429 issued in 2008, which was the second lowest year for building activity since at least 1980 in the Denver area, according to data from the Home Builder Association of Metro Denver, obtained by InsideRealEstateNews.com.
“The big picture is that this is sort of a necessary evil,” said economist Patty Silverstein, principal of Littleton-based Development Research Partners. “As painful as this is for builders and developers, we have to see a stop in the increase of the supply, in order to see improvements in the market. While I think that this year will continue to be slow, I think we can see some improvements next year.”
In addition to a lack of demand, banks also have been unwilling or unable to lend, which also has crimped the ability of many small builders, she said.
Whatever the reason for the downturn, one thing is clear – the collapse in Denver-area construction activity last year was unprecedented.
“Historically, if we look over the last 30 years, we have issued an average of 17,000 permits per year,” Silverstein said. The market peaked in 2000, with 28,310 permits issued. And to put last year’s activity into perspective, consider that it was a 78 percent drop from the 15,890 permits issued in 1980. Since then, the population of the area has grown by about 70 percent. Overall permit activity in the Denver area has dropped from the previous year every year since 2005. Permit activity is down 88 percent from its 28,310 peak in 2001 and is down 77 percent from 2007, when 14,729 permits were issued.
The biggest hit last year was to the apartment market. Permits were issued for only 438 apartment units last year, a 90 percent drop from the 4,413 in 2008. Jeff Hawks, co-owner of the Denver office of Apartment Realty Advisors, said that rental rates in the Denver area need to rise by 20 percent to 30 percent to justify new construction. Because inflation of rents does not appear to be in cards anytime soon, especially given the poor state of the economy, there is no need to build more market-rate apartment communities in the metro area for four or five years, he argues.
What little appreciation people have seen in their homes recently, in large part is because builders are not increasing the supply, noted Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.
On one hand, that is good for individual home owners, “although sometimes we view affordable housing as an economic advantage,” for attracting companies to the area and encouraging companies to stay, he noted. Hawks noted that unlike the mid and late 1980s, when Denver was mired in a recession because of the collapse of oil prices and an economy that was not diversified, “now there is no place to go.” Indeed, people continue to move to Colorado with the hope that our economy will recover faster than other parts of the country, Clark said.
Still, the construction industry coming to a standstill hits the overall economy hard, Clark said.
“Construction is sometimes a leading indicator and sometimes a lagging indicator, depending on what kind of recovery you are having,” Clark said. “But when you look at the unemployment rate in construction approaching the levels we have not seen (since the Great Depression) of the 1930s, it has a huge impact. A large percentage of the people in the construction industry get paid well and they turn over their money very quickly in the marketplace. It has a huge multiplier associated with it, because the housing market touches so many other parts of our economy.”
In years past, Denver has used huge construction projects to pull itself out of its economic doldrums.
“Historically, we built ourselves out of a crisis. We built DIA, and the Colorado Convention Center,” as well as Coors Field and Invesco Field,” Clark noted. “Unfortunately, when the financial institutions are in meltdown and people have lost 30 percent of their net worth, it is hard to get excited to fund these massive projects.”
One bright spot is the redevelopment of Union Station as part of FasTracks, thanks to the federal government planning to provide a $300 million loan. “The federal government did its part in that instance,” Clark said. “But what we really need from Washington is to point which direction we are going. The federal government has never been very good at execution, but it is usually very good at finger pointing. There is no finger pointing, at least not in the direction they expect us to head. If they did that on health care, for example, companies could pull out their calculators and look at their expected profits and losses. But there is no fingers pointing us in a direction that will get us out of this mess. I blame both Republicans and Democrats. I think Congress should be ashamed of itself. There is no reaching across the aisle to accomplish what needs to be done.”
As grim as it is, it is far worse in other parts of the country, Clark noted.
“At least we’re not Phoenix, or other markets, where a great number of people have experienced huge losses in their home values,” Clark said.
What ultimately will get the construction industry back on its feet is jobs, especially well-paying ones, he said.
“Construction always follows jobs,” Clark said.