It seems that there are two ways to interpret this oxymoron:
1. High construction cost pushed down the construction activity for single-family units in these areas.
Fewer single-family units are built because construction cost is more expensive. One of the most important elements of construction cost is labor cost. Based on Occupational Employment Statistics, we see that the annual wage per employee increased between 2014 and 2015. While labor is already expensive in these areas, the increase in wages makes housing construction more expensive. For example, Honolulu is included in the list of the top paying metro areas for this occupation. The annual wage per employee rose from $64,800 in 2014 to $66,859 in 2015 (3.2 percent increase).
In addition, a survey of single-family builders conducted by NAHB in June 2016 shows that shortages of labor and subcontractors have become more widespread than they were a year ago. According to the survey, the share of builders reporting either some or a serious shortage has skyrocketed from a low of 21 percent in 2012, to 46 percent in 2014, 52 percent in 2015, and now 56 percent in 2016. The net result of the labor shortage, based on the survey, is that 75% of builders say they have had to pay higher wages and bids, 64% have delayed projects, and 68% have raised home prices.
2. Construction of high-end units pushed up construction cost per unit although there are fewer permits.
It is unfortunate that the Building Permits Survey does not collect any information about the square footage of the new units permitted. However, we know that construction cost is affected by the size of the single-family unit and the construction materials. The fact that construction cost increased in high-priced areas while there were fewer permits in 2016 could mean that more high-end units tended to be built in these areas.
Nevertheless, according to first quarter 2017 data from the Census Quarterly Starts and Completions by Purpose and Design, median single-family square floor area decreased to 2,423 in 2016 from 2,466 in 2015 for started units. Similarly, for completed units, median single-family square feet floor area also decreased to 2,422 in 2016 from 2,467 in 2015. This recent small decline in size indicates that builders may be adding more entry-level homes in the inventory.
This is good news for first-time homebuyers and, therefore, the homeownership rate. By increasing construction labor, even more entry-level homes are expected to enter the market. With more entry-level homes and less expensive labor cost, more potential homebuyers will be able to afford a home purchase and, thus, the homeownership rate might go back to norm.