The U.S. Census Bureau says the Lehigh Valley has 270,143 housing units, and if you’re in the market, you can find one at just about any type, size, condition or cost.
Growth and diversification in residential development is having a significant impact on the housing market of the Lehigh Valley. Housing sales volumes and median sales prices are up and the diversity of housing types built in recent years has reduced the dominance of single-family detached. At the same time, new apartments in urban centers and developed suburbs have drastically increased available rental housing – leading to growth in the percentage of renters in the region.
The diversification of the housing stock allows the market to better meet the needs of the region’s residents. However, much of the construction in recent years has been on the higher-end of the market for both single-family housing and apartments, and many middle-cost housing units have seen their prices increase. Combined with lower than average housing development in the last decade and consistent regional population growth, prices are expected to continue to rise. Despite this pressure on prices, median sales price and rental prices remain attainable by middle-income households in the region.
Jobs + Housing At Risk
The COVID-19 Pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the global economy and the effects in the Lehigh Valley have been particularly troublesome in the areas of housing and employment. The LVPC, in partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, has worked to analyze the risk faced by residents and workers across the Lehigh Valley, so government, non-profit and community leaders can direct resources to where they’re needed most. The region’s growth and success have always been directly tied to people being able to find attainable housing and their ability to pay for that housing rests with the region’s employment market.
A household that is cost-burdened is paying more than 30% of gross income on housing costs, and is more likely to struggle to pay for other basic needs such as utilities, healthcare, childcare, transportation and food. They are also likely to have less disposable income, which impacts the economic vitality of their community and the larger region. The analysis shows that these households at risk of being unable to afford rent or mortgage payments are located throughout the region, in rural, urban and suburban municipalities. In fact, some communities have neighborhoods in which more than 80% of households are cost-burdened.
It should be noted that cost-burdening is not always a forced situation, as some households elect to devote more income to housing costs than is recommended by housing experts as a lifestyle choice, to live closer to a job or to live in a specific school district, for example. However, the unexpected and rapidly evolving employment conditions caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic are likely to increase the risk of foreclosure and evictions for households that were previously financially stable, as well as those lower-income households that have limited financial flexibility.
In partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, further analysis was done to estimate the risk of job loss. The risk of housing loss has been increased because of Pandemic-related job loss, especially for workers in at-risk jobs. Many of the communities with the lowest percentages of at-risk workers are in rural and suburban areas of the Lehigh Valley, particularly in western Lehigh County, though there are several rural and suburban communities that have high percentages of at-risk workers.
The Slate Belt and each of the three cities – Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton – have areas with some of the highest at-risk worker rates. Industries at risk of job loss resulting from the Pandemic are also among the lowest-paying, increasing the vulnerability of housing loss due to the inability to keep up with payments.
It’s important to consider both the percentage and number of at-risk workers and households because it gives the most complete picture of the extent of risk in each neighborhood. The Lehigh Valley's communities with moderate or high instances of all three categories – cost-burdened owners, cost-burdened renters and at-risk workers – have the highest risk of experiencing displacement of residents. Together, these factors indicate the financial conditions of households both prior to and as a result of the Pandemic, with potentially entire neighborhoods likely to experience concerning levels of housing loss, resulting from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Housing units are considered attainable when, considered along with a household’s income, they are below the nationally accepted maximum monthly cost. This results in what’s known as ‘attainable price’. Attainable prices refer to the maximum monthly housing cost considered affordable for the associated income bracket. The region’s mismatch of housing units to incomes, with overstock in some price ranges and shortages in others, yields only 3,164 units available to accommodate all of the Lehigh Valley’s households. Industry standards for a healthy Lehigh Valley market recommend a net surplus closer to around 10,000 units.
The limited opportunity for movement within communities and throughout the region for lower-income households amplifies the financial burden they carry. The LVPC analysis map of cost-burdened households provides further indication of locations where the greatest financial burdens exist.
Lehigh Valley Housing Attainability
Impacts in Lehigh Valley School Districts
Through identifying the neighborhoods and communities where concentrations of families that are experiencing increased vulnerability are located, the analysis offers concrete information that can be used throughout the Lehigh Valley to mitigate the susceptibility of housing loss and reduce homelessness, resulting from impacts of COVID-19. A report on each of the region's 17 school districts is available by clicking below:
LEHIGH VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT REPORTS
Bethlehem Area School District
Catasauqua Area School District
Northampton Area School District
Northern Lehigh School District
Northwestern Lehigh School District
Pen Argyl Area School District
Salisbury Township School District
Southern Lehigh School District
Whitehall-Coplay School District
Regional Housing Market Report
The Lehigh Valley’s housing unit sales have increased steadily—averaging an increase of more than 450 sales per year—since the recovery from the Great Recession began in 2011. After several years of modest median price increases, limited inventory created by a wait-and-see approach by developers in recent years caused median sales price to skyrocket in 2020. Despite a slight drop in the number of homes sold in 2020, likely caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic, median sales price increased by $25,000 in 2020—an amount equal to the combined median price increase of the previous six years. Though developers in 2020 proposed building the most new homes in a decade, an improving economy and a continued low inventory of available homes for sale are expected to keep prices rising through 2021 and beyond.
Single-family detached housing represents the most common type of housing in the region and, even as the market diversifies, continues to reflect the biggest share of sales each year. However, over the past five years the market share of single-family detached units has decreased by 0.6% per year, while the share of attached housing has increased by 1.4% per year. As market demand for housing types such as condominiums and mobile homes declines, there is a growing preference for single-family attached units, like twins and townhouses.
Unlike the slow but steady trend of diversifying home types sold, median sales prices have increased rapidly over the last six years. After sales prices dropped as a result of the Great Recession, they remained relatively stable year to year. More specifically, while multi-family housing has been experiencing annual value gains since 2010, the region’s remaining housing types began to recover value beginning in 2014. The term 'multi-family' represents structures that have 2-4 housing units, but are in single-ownership, and do not include twins or condominiums, which are owned individually. Finally, likely due to market demand decreases prior to 2020, condominium prices have remained relatively stagnant over time and mobile home prices have been falling since 2008. However, the recent uptick in housing prices is reflected in condominiums and mobile homes as well, with climbing median prices, which likely reflect a lack of available units making these previously less popular housing types more appealing. The shifting trend in housing sale prices is indicative of increasing market demand caused by Lehigh Valley population growth, creating pressure as need outpaces new construction.
Price increases are also directly correlated with unit availability. Available units are a specific type of housing vacancy, representing only units that are for rent or for sale and eliminating units that may be vacant but are not on the market, such as seasonal worker housing. It was previously noted—in analysis of data through 2018—that unit availability was nearly as low as 2005, despite climbing rates of new construction. That trend sharpened in 2019, particularly in regard to rental unit availability, which is more than 1% lower than the 2005 benchmark. As unit scarcity climbs, the Lehigh Valley's renting households, from young adults to new families to retirees, face increasing pressure and constraints in their ability to secure housing, whether or not it's priced appropriately for their income.
Renters make up nearly 86,000—or one in three—households in the Lehigh Valley. That’s a 7% increase since 2005 and a 2% increase between 2018 and 2019 alone. Across the region, increasing social preference for rental over ownership mirrors national trends and is supported by the private sector's increased focus on apartment construction—a change that's been emerging in the Lehigh Valley since rebounding from the Great Recession. A lack of attainable housing due to decreasing vacancy, increasing sales prices and difficulty for some in saving or qualifying for a mortgage are also contributing factors. Combined, these factors are a striking demonstration that the market can absorb a significant increase in rental construction or conversion.
2019 LEHIGH VALLEY OWNERS VS. RENTERS
Rental Market Trends
The Lehigh Valley rental market has grown consistently since the mid-2000's, adding an average of 460 new rental units annually. In 2020, the 866 apartment units approved for development were nearly double the long-term average, indicating that the private sector is pushing to meet the rising demand for rental units. The rental market plays a critical role in providing housing opportunities because it can meet various needs. Rental units are temporary in nature and allow for flexibility, require lower upfront costs, facilitate first-time homebuyers saving for a down payment, provide housing solutions for families in transition and have limited maintenance costs. Higher-end luxury apartments provide additional amenities that offer a unique lifestyle option. While luxury apartments cater to a portion of the region's renters, it is vital to ensure that a wide variety of units—in terms of size, type and price—are available to meet the region's housing needs.
Even as more rental units are built, prices have increased. The most recent rental data indicates that 57% of the region's apartments cost $1,000 or more per month, compared to 43% of units for previous years. One-bedroom units make up over one-quarter of existing rental units, and while this is a significant portion of the market, this figure reflects a decrease in share since 2015. Most of the new units being added are two- or three-bedroom apartments, which explains the overall increasing average monthly cost and a decline in the market-share of one-bedroom units.
The recently released LVPC analysis of household susceptibility to Pandemic-related economic impacts found that renter households throughout the region are more than twice as likely to be overly burdened by housing costs as homeowners. Renters aren’t alone in this. The trend in increasing housing sales and rental prices is expected to continue, but as the eviction and foreclosure ban is lifted and the immediacy of stimulus relief packages wane, the housing market could significantly shift.
Navigating the Interactive Rental and Sales Data Map
The interactive Housing Rental and Sales map shows data for rental units and rent prices by unit type, the number of sales and sale prices by house type, and the trend of prices in recent year. Data figures are available by municipality or school district, and the map shows housing prices by Census Block Group.
How to use the interactive map:
Select a tab in the upper left of the map to view data by municipality or school district. Use the dropdowns at the upper right to see data for the selected geography and year.
Use the layers tool in the top right corner of the map to turn data layers on and off. Use the legend tool at top right to identify trends by color.
School District Housing Market Trends
A school district’s perceived benefits in education and property values are often so important to a homeowner that many are willing to stretch beyond their financial means to be in their school district of choice.
That condition has grown in recent years as home prices increased in nearly all Lehigh Valley school districts between 2019 and 2020, though to varying degrees. The six school districts with the highest sales prices—Southern Lehigh, Nazareth Area, Parkland, Northwestern Lehigh, East Penn and Saucon Valley—remained on the sale price trajectory they’ve experienced the past six years while the market recovered from the recession. Southern Lehigh School District, with the region’s highest median sale price at $359,950, for example, saw an increase of $100,000 over 10 years.
However, school districts with middle- and lower-priced homes saw the steady incline of the past six years rise more quickly in 2020. The Allentown and Easton Area school districts were already experiencing moderately rising housing prices each year, and that increased slightly last year. And after five years of prices going up an average of $6,000 a year, Northampton Area and Salisbury school districts each saw an increase of more than $20,000 between 2019 and 2020.
Bangor Area was among the districts with the biggest relative increase, with median sales prices increasing by $30,000 over the past four years to $209,000 in 2020. Pen Argyl, Northern Lehigh and Wilson Area school districts each also had over a $25,000 increase in median sales from 2019 to 2020. While it is not uncommon for school districts with the highest home prices to experience sales increases by more than $20,000 annually, this increase is significantly more meaningful for the school districts with middle- and lower-priced housing markets, especially compared to sales trends of the previous decade. Meanwhile, the number of houses sold across the board remains consistent with previous years—a clear sign that the region’s population growth is outpacing housing availability.
Although the region’s median household income has increased at a steady rate of just over $2,000 per year, the pressure of demand on housing units is outstripping those wage increases. Households are now more willing, or are forced, to pay more for houses in areas that have historically been lower-priced, emphasizing the need to reduce housing attainability mismatches between household incomes and unit prices throughout the region.
Median gross rent prices for most school districts have followed similar trends as home sales prices since 2015. Allentown and Bethlehem Area school districts have 51% of all rental units, and that market share increases to 60% when adding the Easton Area school district. Rising rent prices in Allentown and Easton Area school districts have been increasing between $30 and $50 per year the past five years, compared to increases of about $10 annually between 2013 to 2015.
Southern Lehigh and Nazareth Area school districts, while having the two highest housing sales prices in the region, also have relatively low rental prices, largely because most units in those school districts have one or two bedrooms. A limited number of apartments with three or more bedrooms increases market demand for these types of houses and is a contributing factor in rising prices in these and other districts.
East Penn and Parkland school districts have relatively high shares of the region's rental units, the next two highest after Allentown and Bethlehem Area school districts. East Penn and Parkland also have the highest median gross rents in the region at over $1,200 per month, with almost every unit type having a median gross rent price higher than $1,000.
Some school districts, such as Pen Argyl Area and Catasauqua Area, have seen rising rent prices over the past few years while their total number of rental units has decreased, creating greater market pressures for available units that limit housing options .
Ultimately, rapidly increasing home prices make it more difficult for renters to buy, while at the same time, rental prices are increasing just as quickly. With not enough inventory for buyers and shortages in the type of apartments many families need, it has created mismatches in many communities between how much people make and what housing is available to them. It is a condition likely to continue until developers add new housing in price ranges that match incomes of Lehigh Valley residents.