As the price of crude keeps plunging and the oil and gas layoffs mount, more and more bad news is coming from Houston’s residential real estate market, even as some developers are building or planning still more luxury condo projects.
Welcome to the Bayou City, where unbridled optimism dies hard.
First, a little about jobs (or the lack thereof). A year ago, just as oil started its plunge, Patrick Jankowski, chief researcher at the Greater Houston Partnership (Houston’s chamber of commerce), predicted that Houston would add 62,900 jobs in 2015. In April, he announced that number would need to be revised downward, but wouldn’t say by how much: “We’ll still have job growth this year; it could be 5,000 or 50,000 jobs. I don’t know yet because I don’t have enough information.”
A few months later, the GHP came up with a range of 20,000 to 30,000 jobs added, but Jankowski went on to announce that 2016 might see overall job losses. That grim forecast later proved to be 2015’s reality, at least through September, as only December, the GHP announced that Greater Houston had in fact lost jobs through the first nine months of 2015, and it was October’s total of 21,000 new jobs that finally put the region in the black. Up that point, we’d lost 13,000 jobs.
Worse, the bulk of the cuts have come in O&G, still indisputably the locomotive that pulls the rest of Houston behind it. Just how many of those high-paying gigs the city and its suburbs have lost is devilishly hard to count, but one high-end estimate puts the Houston-area number at 50,000 since last December, while the GHP claims 29,000 for 2015, and also predicts 18,000 more to come in 2016. According to the Houston Business Journal, plunging stock prices caused two Houston companies to lose compliance with the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq in 2015.
According to the GHP, the bulk of jobs added over that same time have come in fields like medicine, construction, retail, hospitality, and government, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
“It’ll be different this time. We diversified.”
When you make the comparison to the oil bust that devastated Houston’s economy in the 1980s, that’s the mantra you inevitably hear from those who have remained bullish on the Houston economy since oil went in the tank late last year. (For the record, comparing 2015 to 1982 exasperates the hell out of Jankowski: “This is in no way going to look like the ’80s and hopefully this is the last time I have to say that to anybody,” he said when the GHP released its official economic outlook for 2016 in December.)
Almost all of those people cite the booming Texas Medical Center as exhibit A in defense of Houston’s diversity, but as we pointed out in October, though it’s true that the Med Center has grown, O&G has grown even more. At its peak it was proportionally even more important to Houston’s economy last year than it was in the 1980s.
Many of those optimists struggle to come up with an exhibit B, but some of those who do cite a boom in the construction industry, which brings us back to real estate, and how we are just starting to see how oil patch job annihilation is trickling down into the residential real estate market.
It’s becoming apparent in home sales. Since we last looked in on the market, they have fallen 10 percent in October and 10.5 percent in November. Townhouses and condos fell 10.3 percent in November, and now the apartment market is starting to soften. That comes on the heels of a Forbes report that shows Houston has permitted more residential projects than any other large U.S. urban area between 2011 to 2014.
That extends to rentals. Neal Verma owns 16 apartment complexes in Houston, totaling 6,000 units. A quarter of those are Class B (8 to 20 years old) and the remainder Class C (older than 20 years.) Verma told the Houston Chronicle in December that many of his Class B tenants work in O&G, and many of his Class C tenants are construction workers. He is seeing a decline across the board. As oil workers get their walking papers, they move out. As oil companies tighten their belts, they stop building new office buildings, and thus construction workers pack up their toolkits and beat feet out of town as well.
The decline isn’t drastic—yet. Verma said that his complexes have dipped from 100 percent occupancy to 95 percent at his Class B properties and 98 at his Class Cs, but there’s no way to spin those numbers positively, especially not with a grim year ahead. The bulk of Houston’s top paying white-collar jobs are in energy, and construction stands atop the heap for blue-collar jobs. Now that the oil downturn has cooled construction, we have seen the first ripple, and barring a sudden, drastic upswing in the price of crude, it seems inevitable that these losses will soon become apparent in retail and restaurants, if they have not already.
When the locomotive runs out of steam, the train grinds to a halt, no matter how diverse the cargo in the boxcars behind it. DFW, Austin, and San Antonio have hitched up a few more cars to their trains, but despite its best efforts over the last 30 years, Houston has still yet to do so. The good times all too easily erase memories of the bad.
And yet even as job losses mount and leasing weakens for some of Houston’s most affordable apartments, construction and planning of luxury condos continues apace. Oddly, all but two of the dozen or so now underway sport unit prices starting north of $500,000. Indeed four of them will have a seven-figure baseline: 3615 Montrose’s 30 units and four penthouses will range from $1 million to $2.5 million; the Aurora’s 36 units and four penthouses will set you back anywhere from $2 million to $5 million; the Monroe’s nine units will go for $1.4 million to $3.8 million; while the least pricey of the Belfiore’s 46 units will set you back a mere $2.5 million. (There is one exception to the Miele appliance/neolith countertop rule: The 24-story Ivy Lofts, Houston’s first experiment in large-scale micro-living. The project just east of downtown is offering wee 300-square-foot condos for $119,000.)
With all that upscale development underway, you’d think crude was going for $350 a barrel and not $35. Where are all these millionaires coming from?
Potential buyers, many of them empty nesters from the suburbs, are seeking a new way of living, Sims said. They’ve made their money and are beyond worrying about seesawing oil prices.
“Our clients are business owners, entrepreneurs and professionals who have built a business, raised their families and are now looking for a shift in lifestyle. They’re ready for a change,” Sims said last week in a sales center in an Uptown Park storefront. “I don’t think the vagaries of stock market and oil patch will make a significant impact on their decision of if they do that or not.”
So, this wealth is coming from nearby places like Sugar Land, The Woodlands, and Memorial, and also, increasingly, faraway China.
Houston now has the largest Chinatown in the South, and leery of their own unstable and lagging economy, many of their wealthy overseas countrymen are investing in Houston real estate. And when Chinese investors buy American, they tend to buy big:
Overseas buyers tend to hunt for trophy properties. This helps explain why the median purchase price to international clients ($268,284 last year) is significantly higher than for all sales ($199,575). That’s particularly true of Chinese buyers, where the average purchase price topped $590,000 and the median exceeded $523,000. Canadian and Mexican buyers, by contrast, appear to buy much more modest homes.
But how many well-heeled, gray-haired suburbanites are out there, and how long until Chinese investors start to see that Houston’s economy is starting to sputter as much or more as their own? Will oil fall another 33 percent to a historic (inflation-adjusted) low of $20 a barrel, or vault back up to $100, as one “outrageous” forecast foresees? The gulf between those conflicting predictions says it all: nobody knows, and those who do know ain’t telling.