Refinancing Boom Fuels Mortgages to Postcrisis Record

 | Jan 24, 2020

The mortgage market in 2019 had its best year since the height of the precrisis boom, the latest sign that housing is firming up after showing signs of weakness early last year.

Lenders extended $2.4 trillion in home loans last year, the most since 2006, according to industry research group Inside Mortgage Finance. That was also a 46% increase from 2018.

Robust mortgage lending is generally a good sign for housing, which has seen a rebound in price growth and home sales after a period of declining gains. A refinancing frenzy, induced by last year’s trio of interest-rate cuts, fueled the mortgage making and helped steady the industry. The refinancing boom also bodes well for the broader economy, since homeowners saving on their monthly mortgage payments are likely to spend more on goods and services.

“When a large and cyclical part of the economy—housing—is starting to improve, it’s a good sign for the economy at large,” said Sam Khater, chief economist of mortgage-finance giant Freddie Mac.

The Mortgage Bankers Association estimates that refinancings made up 38% of mortgage originations last year.

Kristen Devlin and her husband decided to refinance their south-central Pennsylvania home last fall while trying to pay down a pile of medical bills.

Their rate dropped from 6.25% to 4.99%, cutting their monthly payment. The couple managed to pay down their medical bills and chose to keep paying their prerefinancing payment of $1,250 for their three-bedroom, three-bathroom house. The move will shave six years off their mortgage term.

“I was very pleased to save money and proud of successfully adulting,” Mrs. Devlin said.

In Philadelphia, Annie Heckenberger’s older brother told her it would be smart to refinance the house she bought about a year earlier. His advice helped her lock in a new rate of 3.88%, more than a percentage point lower than her original one.

“It was more paperwork than I anticipated but worth it in savings,” Ms. Heckenberger said.

The average rate on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, the most popular home loan in the U.S., dropped to 3.74% at the end of 2019, down from 4.55% a year earlier. Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate is now around 3.6%, its lowest level in more than three months.

Mortgage making accelerated at the end of the year. Last year’s fourth-quarter totals were the biggest quarter since the third quarter of 2005.

December sales of existing homes jumped nearly 11% from the year before, according to the National Association of Realtors. The NAR said, though, that the year-earlier period had been a particularly weak month for sales in part because of buyers’ uncertainty around the federal government shutdown.

But the uptick in mortgage lending doesn’t mean buyers will have an easy time this spring. Major barriers including a lack of housing supply and relatively tight bank-lending standards are pushing homeownership out of reach for many Americans.

Home prices continue to rise faster than incomes, fueling concerns that affordability will remain an issue for buyers, especially those looking to buy for the first time. And the tight supply that has choked popular coastal markets has started to seep into other cities like Boise and Philadelphia that have traditionally been considered more affordable.

Low rates aren’t always entirely good for those first-time buyers. Low rates can also inflate home prices, since borrowers can afford bigger mortgages and might bid more for homes than they otherwise would.

It isn’t clear how long the mortgage boom will last. Refinancings are expected to decline through 2021, dragging down overall mortgage volume, according to estimates from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Still, an expectation that interest rates will hold steady or even keep falling is a good sign for mortgage lending in 2020, analysts said. Some mortgage brokers said last year’s boom is extending into the new year.

“It’s very likely that the first quarter or first half of 2020 will be bigger than the first half of 2019,” said Guy Cecala, chief executive of Inside Mortgage Finance. “People are encouraged by lower rates.”

Tim Lindsey, an originating branch manager at CrossCountry Mortgage in Greenwood Village, Colo., said the number of mortgages he processed grew more than 25% last year. Mr. Lindsey said he hasn’t had a day off since New Year’s Day.

“There was an incredibly large amount of origination from previous years,” Mr. Lindsey said. “Everyone I know had their best year ever.”

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Real Estate Markets Cooling Across The Country, And It’s Not Just The Winter Effect

In the wake of a booming home price run-up, economists explain the recent real estate market shift caused by homebuyer fatigue and affordability challenges.GETTY

In December 2008, almost a decade ago exactly, Case-Shiller posted a record 18% price drop in home values across the country as the subprime mortgage crisis reached fever pitch.

After a slow and painful recession period, economic prosperity pushed the market out of recovery mode and into a full-fledged real estate boomcharacterized by double-digit price growth, rock-bottom inventory and surging buyer demand over the past few years. It’s been the lowest of lows, followed by a glorified golden age for the country’s trillion-dollar residential real estate business.

In the wake of these tales of two extremes, it’s hard to remember what a more neutral market even looks like. But a new normal, one that’s neither ice cold nor fiery red, does appear to be taking shape.

“There is a definite shift,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors and fellow Forbes contributor. “I would characterize the current state as normalizing and not truly a buyer’s market. It was clearly a seller’s market in spring, but now things appear to be more balanced.”

The trend isn’t a seasonal holiday lull, either. My first tip-off that winds of change were brewing came from an interview with a New York City real estate agent back in June. Over the phone he told me that home prices were down in his area 5-10% from six months ago. I had to listen back through the recording and make sure I’d understood it right. But he’d made no mistake.

Sure enough, in September, a wave of 465,000 new listings came on the scene throughout the nation’s 45 largest metros, an 8% increase that marked the largest annual inventory growth spurt since 2013. At the same time residential construction data shows builders are adding a bit more inventory to the mix, with housing starts up 3.7% year over year.

Home values continue to rise at a healthy clip, though Case-Shiller reports chilling year-over-year price gainsDenver, Seattle, New York, San Francisco—well-known for their coveted, pricey housing and white-hot markets—are all softening in this last gasp of 2018.

Rest easy, no one’s warning of a housing bust 2.0 danger zone. The current price run-up wasn’t artificially bolstered by mortgage fraud, but rather economic fundamentals including a growing jobs market, and that thing we all learned in Economics 101: supply and demand. In fact, economists forecast that sellers will keep their foothold for another couple of years at least, though with weakened negotiating power.

Javier Vivas, director of economic research at, explains:

Many markets are tilting back into equilibrium, but by historical standards, many continue to favor sellers and those trends will continue in 2019. High-cost, overpriced markets and those coming off of significant inventory shortages should see conditions shift more quickly, and feel more buyer-favorable than they have in recent years.

As homebuyer fatigue and affordability challenges have gathered enough momentum to shake up the seller’s gridlock in select markets, here are five trends real estate experts say you can expect to see play out in the housing market throughout the end of the year and into 2019.

1. Mortgage rates will continue to rise and hit 5.5% in 2019. 

The Federal Reserve has implemented four federal funds rate hikes over the course of 2018, and experts say a fourth hike is to come in December. Mortgage rates do not necessarily move in line with Federal Reserve policy, but short-term rate changes do put pressure on long-term rates like the 10-year Treasury note and mortgages.

Over the past year the monthly average 30-year fixed mortgage rate has increased by nearly a full percentage point, from 3.92% to about 4.9%.

With each step up, buyers lose a little purchasing power, but the barrier may be more psychological than financial. When I bought a house in the spring, my rate increased from 4.25% to 4.375% between pre-approval and lock-in, and it felt like a big deal.

Yet despite what seems like swift upward movement, mortgage rates remain historically low (remember the 10% averages of the early 1990s?). The difference between a 4.875% rate and the imminent 5% mark is only $20 per month on the average mortgage.

“Some people are just used to the exceptionally low rates,” said Yun. “It is an increase, but I would say by historical standards we remain at a very manageable level.”

Yun predicts the Fed will “certainly” raise the short-term interest rate three to four more times in 2019, pushing mortgages up to 5.5%.

2. Homebuyers will have more negotiating power, and sellers will need to make more compromises. 

Realtor Kelli Griggs, who services the tri-county area of Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer as well as the San Francisco Bay Area, describes a time at the height of the seller’s market when there were no opportunities for buyers to even make repair requests.

Griggs recalls when sellers would have a 65-page long list of things wrong with their home, or $23,000 worth of foundational issues, and then market it as an “as-is” sale with no trouble.

That’s changing.

“Buyers are pushing back, and they’re saying, ‘Enough,'” says Griggs, owner of Navigate Realty. “They’re saying, ‘We’re done, we’re tired, we’re fatigued, we want to buy a home in good condition.'”

Lawrence echoes: “Buyers are getting some relief. Before they had to pretty much pay for everything—the home inspection, the closing costs, but now with the market shifting, buyers are in a much better position to ask sellers to cover some of the costs and maybe even request repairs before closing.”

Expect bidding wars to become less competitive, and price reductions to become more common.

3. As price gains slow, home values will still appreciate at a 2-3% clip.

In recent years, sellers have enjoyed booming annual price gains in the 5-8% range across the nation, with the hottest markets like San Jose, California and Seattle seeing 11-12% yearly increases.

“Those days are over,” said Yun.

The market’s not currently at risk of any extreme or sudden price drops, and homeowners will generally continue to enjoy moderate price appreciation for the foreseeable future, but at a much slower pace.

Yun says to expect yearly price growth to settle around 2-3%, “with some neighborhoods actually seeing price declines, especially on the upper end of the market.”

4. Markets will cool faster or slower depending on local conditions and tax burdens.  

Real estate is local, so anytime there’s a market shift, it will manifest differently region by region, state by state and even within metros and individual neighborhoods.

States with higher property taxes such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois were hit harder by the 2017 tax reform package that capped the mortgage interest deduction at $750,000 (down from $1 million) and placed limits on state and local deductions, and the effects of that are starting to materialize.

Yun explains: “Now that homeowners cannot fully deduct those taxes as well as some of the mortgage interest on those expensive homes, that’s led to pause in buyer enthusiasm as well as some of the sellers saying, ‘Maybe I need to sell because of the increased tax burden.'”

In addition, cities that experienced an extreme price run-up in a short span of time, like Seattle, San Jose and even Austin, Texas, will be more prone to a market correction, as opposed to some Southern cities such as Atlanta, Nashville and Orlando, which have appreciated at a more tempered pace.

“Those markets that are seeing some downturn and correction—it’s because they have gone up so high in the last 6 years,” says Jack McCabe, owner of McCabe Research & Consulting, a real estate and economic advisory and consulting firm.

5. Upper-tier markets will soften while demand for entry-level housing remains high.

Expect to see a continued disparity between lower-end and moderately priced homes compared to the luxury sector. While the higher-end of the market is noticeably softening, Yun says that as job creation adds a new pool of potential first-time buyers, there’s still strong demand for entry-level housing.

Nevertheless, we’re seeing a slowdown in existing-home sales—completed transactions across the single family, townhome, condo and co-op market declined 3.4% in September over August, and were down 4.1% year over year.

Part of this is because affordability continues to be a challenge with home price growth outpacing wage increases. McCabe explains: “We’ve reached a level of unaffordability in certain markets and prices have shot up far above what household incomes have gained in the same time period.”

However, the deceleration in sales may only be temporary.

“While rising costs to buy and a lack of affordable options for the mainstream buyer will limit overall sales in the short term, the demand outlook is bright and powered by a large, growing demographic, with the highest number of millennials entering their home buying years in the next 5 years,” said Vivas.

I am an enthusiastic real estate writer, proud homeowner, dog mom, Mizzou J-School alumna and Midwest native. Previously I served as the managing editor for Inman News, the leading source of residential real estate industry news and trends for agents and brokers. Today, I ru…


Jobs surge in Bay Area in September, East Bay leads employment gains


The Bay Area job market continues to race ahead, bolstered by big employment gains last month in the East Bay and smaller increases in the South Bay and San Francisco areas, state labor officials reported Friday.

The East Bay added 2,400 jobs, the San Francisco-San Mateo region gained 1,000 and Santa Clara County added 200 jobs, according to a monthly report from the state’s Employment Development Department. Those numbers helped the Bay Area post a gain of 5,700 jobs last month. All the numbers were adjusted for seasonal variations.

The Bay Area now has topped 4 million payroll jobs for two months in a row, extending an employment boom that has chalked up job gains in the nine-county region for 17 consecutive months, the employment department figures show.

One trend has clearly emerged this year, even with the South Bay’s gain of fewer jobs in September compared with other parts of the Bay Area: Santa Clara County’s economy has galloped far ahead of the nine-county region’s two other major urban centers during the last 12 months.

“Santa Clara County is the high-flying part of the Bay Area,” said Robert Kleinhenz, an economist and executive director of research with Beacon Economics. “The South Bay has a remarkable job market.”

Over the one-year period that ended in September, total payroll jobs grew by a hefty 3.7 percent in Santa Clara County.

“There is a bit of a Gold Rush mentality in Santa Clara County,” said Mark Vitner, a managing director and senior economist with San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank. “People come to Silicon Valley from all over the country to seek their fortunes in the tech industry.”

The South Bay posted a much faster pace of employment growth than the 2 percent in California and 1.9 percent in the East Bay, San Francisco-San Mateo region and the United States during the same 12 months.

“We know Santa Clara County is an expensive place to live, but it is a place where people are highly compensated,” Kleinhenz said. “Even though the growth in tech jobs in the Bay Area isn’t as strong as it was in recent years, we are still seeing some nice increases all around the Bay Area in terms of tech jobs.”

Other strong industries in September, the Beacon analysis showed: Retailing gained added 800 jobs in the East Bay, health care employers added 1,200 jobs, and hotels and restaurants added 900 jobs in the San Francisco metro area. Construction companies increased their payrolls by 300 positions in the South Bay.

California added 13,200 jobs during September, and the statewide jobless rate reached a record low of 4.1 percent, the lowest unemployment rate for the Golden State since 1976, according to the EDD.

Unemployment rates in the Bay Area’s three largest urban centers were all under 3 percent, the Beacon-UC Riverside analysis showed.

The September jobless rate was 2.9 percent in the East Bay and 2.2 percent in the San Francisco-San Mateo region and are, in both cases, unchanged from August. The Santa Clara County unemployment rate was 2.5 percent, an improvement from 2.6 percent the month before. The rates in the three regions all matched record lows.

The ultra-low jobless rates are a key indicator that the Bay Area is effectively at full employment and that the great majority of employers have packed their payrolls with essentially every worker they can find.

“Companies have signaled that they want to hire thousands of people, with Facebook, Google, Apple, Adobe, LinkedIn, Amazon all adding jobs regularly,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.

The region’s brutal traffic jams and forbidding housing costs remain the primary yellow flags that could impede the record-setting growth in the Bay Area, experts said Friday.

“The only clouds over the economy are whether we will be able to house people in the Bay Area and whether we can get them to their jobs in a decent amount of time,” Levy said.

Other experts agreed about the primary threats to the Bay Area’s hot economy.

“The high cost of living makes it very difficult for companies to employ people in low- or middle-income jobs,” Vitner said. “It costs so much to live in the Bay Area that it’s hard to make ends meet and hard for companies to pay people enough to stay here.”





4 Ways to Cut Costs and Keep HOA Assessments Stable

Stop raising assessments. It’s a universal request, whether you’re part of a high-rise association in Los Angeles or an active adult HOA in Palm Springs. And while there are many good reasons to raise assessments (let’s face it, keeping assessments low at all costs can actually hurt your community’s relevance and cause property values to suffer), no board wants to be the “bad guy.” So before you raise assessments, take a look at these four cost-savings methods.

To get an in-depth look at these cost savings, read the full article.

1. Energy

In California (and everywhere else), it’s clear that energy costs are on the rise. And making changes to boost energy efficiency is a reliable way to save money in the long run. Partner with your professional community management company to find ways to boost energy efficiency. For instance, you may install light switches on motion detectors so that no lights can be left on when the room is unoccupied. A long-term solution (like replacing all traditional lighting with LED lighting) may require a bigger investment upfront, but will likely save money in the long run.

2. Reserve Fund Investments

Are you getting the most out of your reserve fund investments? Most board members aren’t sure. In fact, In our 2018 HOA budget survey, 72% of board members said that they weren’t completely confident in their returns on reserve funds and/or operating funds (download the full survey results). Partner with your association management company and review your current investment plan to see if there are opportunities to increase your returns. To learn more, read the article, “Reserve Funds: Six Tips to Improve Your HOA’s Returns.”

One single-family home community association in Dana Point partnered with FirstService Financial and increased their annual interest earned by more than $27,000.

3. HOA Insurance

If you haven’t reviewed your HOA’s insurance coverage recently, you may be paying more than you need to in premiums or deductibles. It’s important to work with a trusted insurance broker or agent that has experience with homeowners associations and can work with yours to get the best rate. To learn more about the intricacies of HOA insurance, download the white paper: 4 Things You May Not Know About Community Insurance.

4. Vendor Contracts

In our 2018 Budget Survey, over 57% of surveyed board members said they weren’t sure if their property management company asks vendors whether there will be cost increases in in the following year’s budget. In fact, by reviewing contracts regularly and communicating with vendors consistently, you may be able to uncover cost savings.

Other HOA Cost-Saving Opportunities – Investment Policy

While these four areas of cost savings are a good starting place, it’s important to note that this is not an exhaustive list. A good way to evaluate potential cost savings in your investments particularly is by creating an HOA Investment Policy. An HOA Investment Policy is a guide you can use to help you uncover better returns on your reserve funds and potentially save money in the long run. To learn more, download the guide, How to Create an HOA Investment Policy.

Why You Shouldn’t Get Your Hopes up About an El Niño This Winter

El Nino generated storm waves crash onto seaside houses at Mondos Beach, California on January 12, 2016.  (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

An El Niño is forecast for the winter ahead, and we all know what that means. Or do we?

El Niño – that cyclical warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean – has long been associated with wet winters across much of the West. Which is always welcome news across the chronically water-short region. But in reality, whether El Niño actually delivers greater-than-normal precipitation is strictly a toss-up, says Jan Null, owner of Golden Gate Weather Services, a consultancy based in Saratoga, California.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center tells us, in its most recent forecast of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), that there is as much as a 70 percent chance of El Niño conditions forming during the winter ahead. And it’s likely to be a “weak” El Niño. But what does that mean? Elementally, it means the equatorial Pacific is expected to be warmer than normal, and this may alter weather events around the globe.

But it doesn’t mean you should get your hopes up for a wet winter. Null has taken it upon himself to try to bring a dose of reality to the situation, via an exhaustive breakdown of precipitation results from past El Niño events. In an interview with Water Deeply, he explains why our expectations about this weather phenomenon are often wrong.

Water Deeply: What does an El Niño prediction mean for precipitation in California and elsewhere in the West?

Jan Null: With any El Niño, and especially weak events, there is no strong correlation with either above- or below-normal precipitation in California. For example, in the very important Sacramento Basin, of the 10 weak El Niño events since 1950, five have been above normal and five below normal. And the range of these solutions is from 43 percent of normal in 1976–77 to 135 percent of normal in 1977–78.

Likewise, rainfall in the California portion of the Colorado ranges from 30 percent of normal in 2006–07 to 214 percent in 2004–05 – both weak El Niños.

Water Deeply: Why is forecasting El Niño so difficult?

Null: The accuracy for seasonal forecasts is not nearly as absolute as our weather forecasts in the short term. So with forecasting El Niño, you’re going to run into all the same issues you have with any seasonal forecast. Also, we’re finding out more and more that ENSO events are not happening in a vacuum. It’s not the only thing that’s going on. You also have the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, the Arctic Oscillation. I call it an alphabet soup of different things we have going on in the oceans and atmosphere.

But, of these, the strongest single events are ENSO events, which I think is one of the reasons they get so much attention. But they don’t happen in that vacuum. So sometimes these other things make the ENSO events stronger, or they might subtract from the impacts.

So not only do we have to forecast what the ocean temperatures are going to be along this fairly narrow swathe of the equatorial Pacific. You really have to consider what’s going on in all these other places – looking at pressure patterns in the Arctic or what’s going on in the North Pacific. It’s a complex puzzle. If you forecast one piece out of place, all the other ones aren’t going to fit right together.

Then we also have to discuss the fact that you have climate change DNA in everything that’s going on. The atmosphere and the oceans are warmer, so that’s going to add into the complexity of what’s going on.

Water Deeply: Much of the West is grappling with long-term water shortages. How should we manage our expectations around El Niño and avoid any ‘hype’?

Null: I don’t think it necessarily is El Niño hype. There is always the hope that the next winter is going to be wet. People fixate on the idea that “This is an El Niño storm.” Well, you also have big storms in years that are not El Niño.

Historically, the way we get our “normal” precipitation is typically by having a lot of years that are a little bit less than normal. And that’s really what the drought in 2011–15 was. So that means you have a deficit over those four years. So to make up that deficit, you not only have to have a normal year. You almost have to have a year that would be twice as wet as normal. But something we have learned is that we can recover without making up all the deficit. And I think we saw that with the water supply after what happened in 2016–17, which was a wet year.

It’s really important that water managers, the media and the public get out of the old mindset from 1982–83 and 1997–98 that El Niño means a wet winter for California. I think the attention is appropriate. You just have to put it in context.

I’ve often used, over the years, the analogy of a baseball team. You may have this one player who’s a superstar who helps you get more wins than any other player. But on any given day, somebody else might have a hot day and be the one who’s going to be the star. El Niño is not the only player on the team.

This article originally appeared on Water Deeply, and you can find it here. For important news about the California drought, you can sign up to the Water Deeply email list.

The Sand is Shifting in the Housing Market: Understand the “New” Boundary Lines


Anyone who has been in the real estate industry for more than a few years has seen some dramatic changes in the market. Over time, the average square footage of single-family and apartment homes shrinks and expands to accommodate economic and family unit size fluctuates. Area property values rise and fall based on regional expansion and net migration. Federally-controlled interest rates often define the winners and losers in the investor pool. Through all of these changes, city planners have delineated locations within greater metropolitan areas as cities and suburbs. Today, there is a new dynamic that shouldn’t be ignored, the gradually disappearing line between city and suburban property lines.

Redefining the City vs. Suburbia Boundaries

Since the late 1940s, when William J. Levitt built the first planned community just outside New York City for WWII veterans and their families, we have thought of suburbs as mostly an area detached from the business district. In the early decades, when most women stayed home, and the husband commuted into the city, there were few businesses beyond a grocery, drugstore, gas station and a few shops in these primarily residential areas. When we hear the word “suburbia,” a picture of the white picket fence surrounding a single-family home with flowers lining the path to the front door pops into our head. This quintessential image is pleasant, but no longer the norm.

The twenty-first-century reality, where millions of people work from home – about 43 percent of all working adults work remotely today – means that fewer people feel pressure to live close to the office. That doesn’t mean multifamily housing is losing market share in the city. Hundreds of US cities report more than 50% of residents rent. However, the face of suburban living is changing; suburbia is no longer primarily furnished with cookie-cutter single-family homes. You’ll find sprawling malls, hospitals, commercial tenants, and both detached single-family and apartment homes all within the same area.

Demarking where the city ends and the suburbs begin is very complex today. Market analysts suggest it’s time to cease using geography as the basis for defining markets and embrace density as a more reliable housing intelligence driver. Using this alternative framework provides a more nuanced method of understanding what modern renters need and expect from multifamily housing providers.

Viewing the Changing Landscape Through a New Lens

Rather than continuing to use city limit boundaries to establish metropolitan statistical areas, it’s time to view housing stock with a fresh lens. By defining areas based on density, market analysts get a clearer picture of the true market share of multifamily housing versus detached single-family dwellings. Urban and suburban areas tend to share many common characteristics today, including a growing multifamily housing presence in areas traditionally viewed as suburban. City planners and developers armed with this “new” information can create more realistic development and expansion plans.

Not every renter is looking for a nest in the center of the city, although that will always be an attractive location for some. Likewise, everyone who wants to escape the city, isn’t looking for the white-picket-fence American dream of the 1950s. Some want a well-managed apartment home in a community close enough to visit the city if they chose, with convenient access to everything they need from entertainment and shopping to medical care and work opportunities.

The sands are shifting in the housing market. It’s time for real estate professionals to embrace a new way of studying it. Arbitrary lines on a zoning map are no longer delivering the data we need to respond to the changing multifamily landscape.

Thousands of Californians Live in Cars. Will This Man’s Lawsuit Stop Cities From Impounding Them?

Sean Kayode says he watched his whole world roll away from him at 3:00 a.m. Kayode had been living in his car in San Francisco for about two years. During the early morning of March 5, traffic police towed and impounded his black 2005 Mercedes Benz — for having too many overdue parking tickets.

“I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and there was a guy behind me. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing behind my car?’” Kayode said while standing in the lobby of the Next Door homeless shelter in downtown San Francisco. “He says, ‘I’m just waiting for the tow truck to come get you.'”

For Kayode, who now lives at Next Door, his car wasn’t just a place to sleep, it was how he earned a living, he said, delivering food through Uber Eats. He shakes his head in disbelief at where he was, and where he is now.

“I am a homeless guy that worked my way out of homelessness,” Kayode said. “Bought my own car. Now you’ve taken my car, taken my job and now you’re giving me food stamps. It doesn’t make sense.”

Is it Unconstitutional to Impound a Car for Unpaid Tickets?

An estimated half million cars a year in California are impounded, unclaimed and sold, according to Jude Pond of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. He said many of those cars belonged to poor people living in them.

Pond helped file a lawsuit on Kayode’s behalf to challenge the California law that allows cities to tow a car away if that car has five or more overdue parking tickets. Many cities follow that policy, and Pond said it’s unconstitutional in several ways.

The government should not be allowed to take someone’s property without any notice and without a warrant, he said. That’s doubly true because these vehicles weren’t used in a crime, but were towed simply for financial reasons — just to collect fines.

Cities do not issue warnings, outside of the fine print on a parking ticket, that they’re coming to impound a vehicle. Parking officers just show up and take it away. And in the case of the homeless who live in their cars, city officials are taking their temporary home from them, which raises the stakes above the taking of a vehicle, Pond said.

“We’re hoping that this case sets the precedent that the city should not take people’s only asset — in this case their car — for the purpose of satisfying a debt, based on just outstanding parking tickets,” Pond said.

In San Francisco, officers towing a car with a homeless occupant will contact the police department and social services to help that person get services, according to Paul Rose, spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, who responded by email.

“There will be times when the [Homeless Outreach Team] will not be available to respond. If there is no urgency regarding the towing of the vehicle we will make an effort to delay the tow to allow services to respond,” Rose said. “We cannot completely avoid the removal of the vehicle as this would create an unintended exemption for vehicles that are in violation of city or state law.”

Sean Kayode, outside the Next Door homeless shelter in San Francisco on July 26, 2018. Kayode is suing the city, saying he lost his means of food-delivery employment and his home when his car was impounded in March — for having too many parking tickets.
Sean Kayode, outside the Next Door homeless shelter in San Francisco on July 26, 2018. Kayode is suing the city, saying he lost his means of food-delivery employment and his home when his car was impounded in March — for having too many parking tickets. (David Gorn/CALmatters)

A Tipping Point Toward Homelessness

Tens of thousands of Californians are living in their cars. Because losing those cars to impoundment can mean the loss of work and home, it can be a tipping point into a life on the streets.

For many people, having their car towed for overdue parking tickets is a major annoyance and life disruption. But for homeless people, it’s a permanent loss, because most of them cannot afford to recover their cars.

The costs escalate quickly.

Offenders must reimburse the tow charge, roughly $500. They also need to pay off their original tickets and the accrued fines on those tickets, which can be $1,000 or more. On top of all of that, it usually costs $71 for each day the car is stored at the tow yard.

In Kayode’s case, more than five months after his car was impounded, it would cost him more than $21,000 to get his car back.

That’s about $20,000 more than he paid for it.

Ostensibly, the city is towing the car to collect a debt, but in many cases where cars are unclaimed and eventually sold, the city doesn’t make much money on the sale, if anything. That’s because the tow yard has first dibs on any cash collected.

For the cities, though, it’s not about the money, according to UCLA political expert Zev Yaroslavsky.

“It’s the credibility of the restrictions,” Yaroslavsky said. “If the restrictions were not enforced, then no one would comply with them. The reason you and I rush out to the parking meter when it’s about to expire, to put another quarter in there, is because we don’t want to pay $80 for the privilege of having overstayed our welcome by a minute.”

The quickly escalating costs of having a vehicle impounded usually mean poor Californians can’t afford to get their cars back. Including original tickets, accrued fines and charges for towing and impounding, it would now cost Sean Kayode more than $21,000 to get his car back.
The quickly escalating costs of having a vehicle impounded usually mean poor Californians can’t afford to get their cars back. Including original tickets, accrued fines and charges for towing and impounding, it would now cost Sean Kayode more than $21,000 to get his car back. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Yaroslavsky spent four decades in local government in Los Angeles, most of it on the county Board of Supervisors. He said he understands why cities hold onto their impound power with both hands.

“As a local elected official I was never concerned about the revenue stream we were getting out of the parking,” Yaroslavsky said. “It was motivated by getting turnover in the limited parking spaces we had available at curbside.”

At the same time, he said, there has to be a middle ground when towing cars from the homeless.

“It makes absolutely no sense to take a homeless person’s car, confiscating it, impounding it. If you take away their car, they’re going to be on the street. That’s not a benefit to society. Common sense has to be in play.”

At the moment, though, the middle ground is hard to find.

Homeless advocates say cities could make exceptions for extremely low-income citizens — maybe let them hold onto the car, but pay off the tickets in installments.

Some cities, including San Francisco, have a payment-plan program — but nothing in place to return cars to the homeless or restrict impoundment of those cars in the first place.

A federal district court judge in San Francisco is expected to hear Kayode’s motion in September for a preliminary injunction to get his car back. A hearing on his lawsuit would be scheduled after a ruling on the injunction.

Of course, if the preliminary injunction is granted and San Francisco has to return Kayode’s car, he will still technically owe that $21,000 in parking, towing and storage fees until the case is decided.

Kayode, who has been homeless for the past six years, looks back on the incident and its aftermath with a mixture of anger and despair.

“If I have my car, I have my phone. That’s all I need. I can earn money,” Kayode said. “But right now, they are holding my car hostage. What I want to know is, does taking my car from me help the city budget in one way or another? Is my car going to make them or break them?”

He stops a moment, looks around the crowded and chaotic lobby of the homeless shelter he now calls home.

“I am back in the same hole,” Kayode said. “And I don’t have any way to get out.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the James Irvine Foundation and the College Futures Foundation.

What Do Renters Really Want?


What do renters really want? As property managers and other real estate professionals look for solutions to boost closing and retention rates, this question comes up all the time. Most industry experts agree that authentic, personalized customer service ranks high on the list. Happy customers who feel valued are more likely to stay in a relationship.

Considering that about 60 percent of renters move in planning to relocate within the next 12 months, “wowing” them at the closing is a great first step toward increasing retention rates. What else do renters want that your team isn’t giving them?

Ask Renters About Their Needs And Expectations

Did you know that research shows only 25 percent of apartment seekers who view a property are asked to sign the lease? If your leasing team isn’t confident they are offering a best-fit rental home for a prospect, why should the renter be motivated to take the next step? When you ask what amenities and community characteristics are most important – in-unit laundry equipment, pet-friendly policies, high-end appliances – they will tell you. Ask your current residents what they like most about their current living arrangement and what improvements would convince them to renew the lease when the time comes.

Provide Communication Options That Complement Renters Lifestyles

When surveying your current residents, make sure to use their preferred communication method. Does your team ask new residents if they prefer paper, email, text, or tenant portal notices and updates as part of the welcome home interview? You should.

Keep your survey simple. A form that is easy to fill out, and anonymous, will usually generate more returns, and more accurate responses.

Creating a pre-move-in questionnaire and a follow-up in a couple of months, allows you to identify ways your property is meeting renter expectations, and discover clues for improving community experiences. Consider these questions as a starting point for survey design.

  • Which on-site amenities are your favorites?
  • What could property managers add, change or remove to make the property feel more like home?
  • Do you feel valued and appreciated by the customer service team and policies?
  • How would you rate overall safety and security within the community?
  • Is the maintenance staff responsive and efficient?

Now That You Know What Renters Want …

Are you ready to respond? While 13 percent of Americans don’t have smartphones, the other 87 percent use their devices to manage daily life. Deploying modern, state-of-the-art property management software that responds to the thirst for instant gratification – like an instant confirmation the rent payment is being processed through the tenant portal – will simplify everything they do.

Be bold. Ask your tenants and prospects what they want and need. Modern property management software should enable you to send surveys directly to your renters and easily track responses. Make sure your technology enhances customer service with online maintenance requests, streamlined, efficient communication and tools that make it easier for your team to focus on developing superior customer service strategies to boost retention rates.

Reserve Funds: Six Tips to Improve Your HOA’s Returns

In a 2018 HOA budget survey, 72% of board members indicated that they weren’t confident in the returns they were getting on their reserve funds and/or operating funds. To help, we’ve outlined six ways to improve your returns with the guidance of your HOA management company. Read the full article and download a complimentary guide here > 

1. Only invest in money market accounts and CDs

Your responsibility as a fiduciary is to protect the assets of your association. That means only investing in FDIC-insured money market accounts and CDs and avoiding risky investment vehicles like mutual funds, bonds and stocks.

2. Trust HOA professionals for investment advice

Look to your California community management company and financial services provider to help your board make sound investing decisions. Some boards research investment information themselves via the internet or financial publications, which is time that may be better spent creating better HOA policies.

3. Learn HOA investment fundamentals

Board members should have a basic understanding of HOA financials and state legislation when it comes to managing reserve funds.

For instance, in California, the board must review the current reserve revenues and expenses on a quarterly basis.

4. Work with an HOA-specific financial services company

Work with an HOA financial services company that can help you get the most out of your reserve funds. They should have a large portfolio and existing relationships with banks in order to obtain competitive rates on your behalf.

By utilizing FirstService Financial, FirstService Residential clients typically earn rates that are 4 to 5 times higher than the national average.   In one case, FirstService Financial partnered with a Dana Point association to increase their annual interest by more than $27,000 by leveraging existing bank relationships and evaluating the association’s current investments.

5. Review HOA investments regularly

Reviewing your reserve fund investments on a regular basis is important. Banks often offer teaser rates to customers, which will go away over time. Review your portfolio quarterly to make sure rates don’t change.

6. Create an Investment Policy

Last but not least, create an HOA Investment Policy. Karla Chung, vice president of FirstService Financial said,

Can vacant mall stores alleviate homelessness?

Yesterday’s Sears is tomorrow’s transitional housing facility.

Closed Macy's store at Landmark Mall, Alexandria, Virginia

We already know that shopping mall anchors gone belly-up can serve plenty of purposes in a second life: community college campuses, medical facilities, mega-churches and even public libraries. Transforming a defunct J.C. Penney into a destination grocery store like Whole Foods has proven to be a particularly attractive method of adaptive reuse, so much so that numerous flailing malls are being resuscitated with supermarket-based life support.

And here’s another idea: Turn them into affordable housing hubs for the homeless.

It’s a magnanimous but somewhat radical idea, especially depending on the status of the mall. In a scenario in which the rest of the mall is still active, housing for at-risk individuals where the Sears used to be could potentially drive some shoppers away.

When Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez asked readers last year for their thoughts on the best use for a dying mall, many suggested housing for the homeless with on-site social services. He responds:

I like the thought, but practical realities present some limitations. Some malls are doing fine as is, but even among those that are struggling, the land is still worth a fortune. Owners would want top dollar whether they sell or rent out their land, and I’m not sure a tent city would pencil out.
Plus, changing the use of the land could require zoning changes, and that’s fraught with bureaucratic and political challenges, as well as possible neighborhood opposition.

But in malls that are either truly dead or on their way out, really why not put an empty department store to the most big-hearted kind of use, at least temporarily?

Landmark Mall, Alexandria, VirginiaAlexandria’s Landmark Mall was a big deal when it opened in the 1960s. It’s now awaiting a dramatic makeover … and housing homeless folks in the meantime. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Virginia shelter finds unique temporary home

To prove Lopez to the contrary, you needn’t look further than Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia, where a shuttered Macy’s has been reborn as a homeless shelter.

As grand redevelopment plans for the property continue to be ironed out, the developer has opted to donate the old Macy’s to Carpenter’s Shelter, a local homeless nonprofit, for a year and a half. (One of the original anchors, Sears, remains open for the time being and the mall itself has been used as a filming location.)

Several years back, Carpenter’s Shelter faced a quandary: Larger modernized facilities, complete with adjacent affordable housing units, were planned to be built for the nonprofit across town on the same site of the 60-bed emergency shelter that the organization had operated for the past two decades. It was an ideal situation — Carpenter’s Shelter wouldn’t have to move, it would just get really nice new digs in the exact same spot.

Yet with the so-called New Heights redevelopment project due to take 18 months to complete, Carpenter’s Shelter was in need of an interim home, and the just-closed Macy’s at Landmark Mall fit the bill. In addition to the largesse of property owner the Howard Hughes Corporation, Carpenter’s Shelter wound up in a dead mall because it was one of the only available areas in affordable housing-strapped Alexandria zoned to allow a homeless shelter.

It took 12 weeks for the organization to transform a section of the mannequin-stuffed department store shell into a habitable space. Fifteen months after Macy’s rang up its last purchase, the first residents of Carpenter’s Shelter moved in.

It’s a temporary arrangement, true, but also one helping to make a huge difference for homeless individuals who will be moving out of the Macy’s once Carpenter’s Shelters permanent new home is complete. (Some Carpenter Shelter residents are former employees of the very same Macy’s store.) And, more importantly, it opens up the real possibility of turning vacant anchor stores into much-needed homeless shelters and transitional housing hubs.

Dying mall in ConnecticutOnce invincible stalwarts of consumerism, mall anchor stores are closing at an exponential rate. At the same time, homelessness is on the rise. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Explains the Washington Post:

The idea that spurred this transformation represents a new way of thinking that is bringing together three economic phenomena: the collapse of the brick-and-mortar retail industry, the disappearance of affordable housing in America’s boom towns, and the struggle to reduce homelessness, which remains as intractable as ever.

As the homelessness crisis mounts across the country, there’s a growing chorus of those who believe that repurposing empty mall anchors and big box stores for transitional housing is smart — there’s certainly an ample (and growing) inventory of them. And even if many dead malls will eventually be redeveloped into new mixed-use retail destinations, a large number of these projects, like Alexandria’s Landmark Mall, are years off. (Eventually, as is the trend with many shuttered enclosed shopping malls, the Landmark Mall will be reborn as an open-air “live-shop-dine urban village” complete with apartments and beaucoup public green space.)

Why not make the best of a whole lot of vacant square footage in the meantime?

“The fact is that there will be millions upon millions of square feet of retail space that are not going to be used over the next five years . . . and they can be used for all kinds of things,” Amanda Nicholson, a professor of retail practice at Syracuse University, tells the Post. “I think it would be an inspired idea.”

Re-Habit retail plaza, KTGY Architecture + Planning.A dead anchor store reborn at a regional shopping mall, as envisioned by KTGY Architecture + Planning. (Rendering: KTGY)

A step in the right direction (where the cosmetic counters used to be)

Anticipating that other shuttered mall owners might follow in the same benevolent path of Landmark Mall, the research and development arm of Los Angeles-based KTGY Architecture + Planning has conceived a conceptual blueprint for future Macy’s-turned-transitional housing facilities.

KTGY calls the concept Re-Habit, a “plan for repurposing obsolete big-box stores into essential uses, including smaller retail spaces, housing, employment, and support for homeless individuals.”

“With big box stores such as Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears closing in record numbers, repurposing such vacant spaces becomes increasingly necessary,” says Marissa Kasdan, a senior designer with KTGY. “At the same time, the housing affordability crisis and other factors are driving up demand to house and service homeless individuals. Re-Habit offers one adaptive-reuse solution for multiple problems.”

In the Re-Habit space envisioned by KTGY, an 86,000-square-foot anchor store has given way to a dynamic facility centered around a spacious courtyard and dining hall. There’s also a rooftop garden for resident use and three different sizes of “bed pods” — sleeping rooms of various sizes that become less communal in nature the longer a resident stays in an integrated support program. For example, a new arrival would start in a large bed pod shared by as many as 20 other residents. As the transition process continues, that resident can graduate to a smaller two-person bed pod that offers greater privacy and independence.

And in the true spirit of its retail roots, Re-Habit would feature a “retail plaza” including upscale thrift boutiques, coffee shops and other establishments staffed by residents as a means of providing job training and meaningful employment.

Re-Habit sleep pods, KTGY Architecture + Planning.Re-Habit includes a small handful of different sleeping arrangements for residents including communal ‘sleep pods.’ (Rendering: KTGY)

In conceiving Re-Habit, KTGY consulted with the Long Beach Rescue Mission to glean insight on how such a cavernous raw retail space could best redesigned to accommodate low-income and homeless individuals. What would a housing nonprofit want and need from it?

Robert Probst, the mission’s executive director, considers himself a fan. “I’m very excited about this idea,” he says. “Re-Habit, if run correctly, can be a self-contained environment, with people living, working and then moving into affordable housing. It would be a reward for people who are ready to change their lives.”

Kasdan of KTGY admits that many developers won’t be entirely gung-ho about the potential of resurrecting a dead anchor store as “self-supporting mixed-use transitional housing.” Still, as she explains, the idea has potential.

Re-Habit rooftop garden, KTGY Architecture + Planning.At a Re-Habit facility, residents would grow their own produce grown on the roof of an erstwhile department store. (Rendering: KTGY)

“For most big-box owners, this would not be their first choice for reuse. But on the flip side, many have asked us about new concepts for incorporating residential units into their developments. Re-Habit expands the reuse possibilities and allows everyone to consider communities’ larger needs.”

She adds: “Such a project does not need to appear as a ‘homeless shelter.’ By partnering with the right team of developers, social services, government entities and community groups, it’s possible to create an attractive environment that transforms obsolete space into a real asset.”

Just think, the same Sears appliance department where you bought a washer and dryer for your very first home could someday serve as the sleeping quarters for someone who has experienced a rough patch but is on the road to one day owning their own washer and dryer, too.