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Vacant housing jumps 61 percent in Az

16.3% of state's housing sat empty in 2010, Census says

More than 460,000 Arizona units were vacant in 2010, a 61 percent increase over the previous decade, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The vacancy rate — 16.3 percent of all housing in the state — comes after a decade that saw a recession, major job losses and home foreclosures. But the magnitude of the vacancies still caught some experts by surprise.

“That’s staggering,” said Paul Hickman, president and CEO of the Arizona Bankers Association. “It’s stark verification that we cannot emerge from this economic crisis until we move through this inventory.”

Maricopa County alone accounted for 49 percent of the vacancies in the state in 2010, according to the Census. Hickman said it’s largely because of “the one-dimensional” housing economy that has dominated the state for the past decade.

“This recession has hurt us more than the Great Depression,” he said. “Our economy was young back then. We were just barely a state. But being centered on housing really hurt us.”

Cindy Sessions, owner of Sessions Real Estate in San Tan Valley, said a number of different factors have combined to make the housing situation what it is — a terribly difficult market to get in or out of.

“The Census numbers make sense,” Sessions said. “The economy has dive-bombed. People have lost their jobs. They can’t move, they can’t refinance.”

She also said it’s not just homeowners who are having trouble buying homes, but private investors as well.

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“You’ve got all these homes that have great prices, but we can’t get anyone qualified (for a loan), not even investors,” Sessions said.

“You have to have a 720 credit score instead of a 580 score like in the past, so the houses aren’t selling,” she said. “I had someone the other day with a 780 score get turned down.”

Sessions said she thinks the situation has gotten worse since the depths of the recession in 2008. But another Valley real estate agent thinks things have started getting better.

Dean Ouellette, of Thompson’s Realty in Gilbert, agreed that the recession drove up vacancies, but he said housing sales have been on the rise since January. He said there were 10,500 sales in the state in June alone.

“I don’t think people should be concerned with the numbers,” Ouellette said. “The Census was done a year ago. We’ve seen changes in the last year.

“We closed on more houses in June than any other month in history,” he said. “It’s starting to trend in the right direction.”

Hickman said that because it is a national crisis, housing problems elsewhere compound the issue in Arizona.

“The housing market is a big, vexing, complicated problem. It’s hard to boil down to one thing,” Hickman said.  “Arizona is a good place to live, but if you can’t sell your house in Illinois or Rhode Island, it’s going to be hard to move here.”

Hickman praised local lawmakers and business leaders, pointing out that they “have done a good job working on economic development to diversify our economy,” but he said it’s up to the federal government to make sure change continues to happen.

“We don’t need laws that make it harder to lend to responsible, qualified borrowers,” Hickman said. “It doesn’t help.”

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He said Arizona, like the rest of the country, has a long way to go. Still, he’s confident that the economy will rebound eventually.

“I’m not totally pessimistic. The sun will shine in Arizona. People will still come here, and businesses will, too,” Hickman said.

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An abandoned house in Tucson, March 2011.

Is anybody home? Arizona housing vacancy rates in 2010

Number of vacant units, by type of housing, and percentage of total in Arizona in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.

  • Total housing in the state: 2,844,526 units
  • Total occupied housing: 2,380,990 units, 83.7 percent of total
  • Total vacant units: 463,536, 16.3 percent of total
  • For rent: 120,490 vacant, 4.2 percent of vacancies
  • Rented, not occupied: 5,449 vacant, 0.2 percent of vacancies
  • For sale: 64,407 vacant, 2.3 percent of vacancies
  • Sold, not occupied: 10,550 vacant, 0.4 percent of vacancies
  • Seasonal, recreational or occasional use: 184,327 vacant, 6.5 percent of vacancies
  • Other vacant: 78,313 vacant, 2.8 percent of vacancies