Harvey delivers windfall to lucky few who built on high ground

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Just a week after Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, Irma Jalifi was doing something that might sound crazy: closing on a home.

In fact, Jalifi, a real estate agent with Redfin, closed on not one but three Houston houses Tuesday at their asking prices — two at $1 million and a three-bedroom at $450,000 — as the new economics of Houston housing began to take hold.

The calculus of disaster is simple, if cold blooded. Many whose homes have been flooded must move, and those who dodged Harvey now sit upon some of the city’s most desirable addresses. Far from declining, prices and rents are expected to rise given the sudden housing shortage. Out-of-state investors have even started to swoop in to acquire damaged homes to repair and sell or rent.

“It’s as if we hit a reset button on the market,” Jalifi said.

Before the storm, Houstonians enjoyed access to abundant affordable housing in exchange for unzoned sprawl — the metropolitan area covers almost 8,800 square miles, making it larger than New Jersey. Cheap housing, paired with solid growth and abundant jobs, helped draw a gush of newcomers: The city population grew almost 10% between April 2010 and July 2016, Census data show. It is the fourth-largest in the U.S. and most diverse, drawing residents from around the world. Now, poor people and middle-income families find themselves in sudden competition for shelter.

“It’s one of the few cities that’s been fast-growing and relatively affordable. That’s going to change now,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist at Redfin Corp., which provides a web-based real estate database and brokerage services. “At least temporarily.”

Typical hurricanes raise real home prices for years, peaking between 3% and 4% three years after the storm, 2010 Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas research found.

On a hill

Those benefiting amid Houston’s devastation aren’t crowing about it, as high walls of soggy refuse line streets and neighbors assess the damage. Still, homeowners who were spared can’t ignore the unasked-for upside.

Evin Thayer, a professional photographer who has shot celebrities including President George H.W. Bush, is hoping to sell his $1.18 million, three-bedroom house in the Heights neighborhood by year-end. It stands on elevated ground, a couple of miles from the flood zone, and it’s headed for a higher valuation.

“For those that did not get flooded, I think it’s going to make it a high-value commodity,” Thayer said. “I’m kind of holding my breath to see what happens here.”

The 67-year-old, dressed in a navy Lacoste polo and khakis on a breezy Wednesday afternoon, designs houses as a side business and created this 3,000-square-foot structure to showcase his modern-art collection.

Thayer thinks the storm’s after-effects could help him make the sale. That said, he’s worried about how much his new house will cost him — he expects rebuilding will tighten the labor market and drive up the price of building materials.

That’s “the unknown factor,” he said.

Frozen rents

Much is unknown in a market jumbled overnight by the Category 4 storm. Harvey flooded 113,843 homes worth $29 billion, 6.7% of the local market, and may have affected as much as 14.2% of the housing stock, according to Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist at real-estate website Trulia.com.

“A week ago, before Harvey, we were oversupplied, and today, we have more demand than we have supply — it’s just changed overnight,” Richard Campo, chief executive officer of Camden Living, one of the city’s biggest apartment developers, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “We usually lease 70 apartments a week, in the last four days, we leased 300.”

Campo said his company has turned off its dynamic pricing system, which responds to demand increases by boosting rents — freezing the cost of renewals and new leases for September. Camden said most other large owners are doing likewise.

Houston’s gulf

Even with such measures, relocation will be easiest for those with ready cash. Houston has many without.

Harris County, which encompasses the city, already has a deep gulf between rich and poor. Among America’s 25 largest counties, its Gini index — a measure of income inequality — was ranked eighth highest in 2010.

Disasters like Harvey can worsen that divide. Rents are pressed higher, pushing poorer workers away from desirable, job-rich areas. Owners at the bottom of the wealth ladder may lack resources to rebuild, which is especially important given that many Harvey flood victims weren’t insured.

Tim Surratt, Thayer’s real estate agent, said his phone has been ringing constantly as flooded homeowners try to sort out their options. One client had both his Houston house and Hill Country ranch flood, and is now renting a place for $13,000 a month. Usually such a unit would be on the market 100 days. In this case, it was a week.

In Thayer’s unscathed main room, cream walls and tall windows brighten the cavernous space. The pool outside is all clean lines, like something out of a minimalist painting.

“You feel kind of guilty that you escaped the whole thing,” said Thayer, sitting feet from a massive Robert Jessup canvas and a commissioned abstract piece dominated by strong blues. His name for the piece is appropriate for his hometown’s current moment: "Hope From Despair."

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