Locals can afford to buy a house again

A silver lining in the foreclosure crisis is that Stanislaus County once again has become a place where most families can afford to buy a home.

According to national home affordability statistics released this week, Stanislaus' median-income families can afford to buy more than 80 percent of the houses on the market today.

The reason, of course, is not that family incomes have risen, but that housing prices have dropped so dramatically -- which is discouraging to people trying to sell and depressing to those who owe more than their homes are worth.

But think about it: In 2005, only 3 percent of houses were affordable to average-income families. Many people were squeezed out of the market. Other people did buy -- but shouldn't have. They started spending too much of their monthly income on housing and/or fell for subprime loans and other shaky deals that have led to today's housing mess.

To restart the housing market, the state and federal governments initiated income tax credits for homebuyers. In addition, some first-time buyers may be eligible for down payment assistance programs. Put all of this together with low mortgage rates and it's obvious that housing truly is far more affordable.

In fact, Stanislaus now has the highest affordability rate in the state. San Joaquin and Merced counties are right up there as well.

This dramatic turnaround has its negative sides, which are all too familiar. Lower home values have contributed significantly to the budget troubles facing cities and the counties because today they are collecting far less in property taxes than they did a few years ago.

Lower home prices also are prompting homebuilders to start pressing government agencies to reduce building fees or to delay when they are collected. And our valley still has a shortage of affordable rental units for the lowest income individuals and families -- people for whom buying is not currently an option and may never be.

The sharp decline in home prices is not a panacea for the many economic ills of today.

But being an affordable place to buy a home is a very good thing. And it's good for morale and consumer confidence that our county ranks near the top of a list rather than at or near the bottom of one, as all too often has been the case.