The Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancy Survey (CPS/HVS) reported significant homeownership gains in the second quarter of 2020, especially among households headed by young adults under 35. National vacancy rates for both rental and homeowner housing also declined in the second quarter. The reported gains for homeownership are consistent with increases in both existing and new home sales in June.
However the magnitude of homeownership gains, both nationally and among all age groups, is surprisingly large and potentially reflects the data collection challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic period. As a result of the pandemic mitigation efforts, HVS in-person interviews were entirely replaced by telephone contact attempts for all housing units, including those that would normally have been in-person interviews, throughout the second quarter of 2020, according to the Census Bureau. The challenges to identify contact information for sample housing and/or knowledgeable proxy respondents (such as neighbors, landlords, and postal workers) increased the number of units that are eligible but no data collected/refusal (Type As) and decreased the number of CPS/HVS eligible but vacant units (Type Bs) relatively to their historical averages. The overall response rate for the second quarter of 2020 was 67%, 12 percentage points lower than the 79% response rate for the second quarter 2019.
The current CPS/HVS weighting and methodology, however, cannot deal with the differences in response rates in the subgroups, such as rental versus homeowner units, and vacant versus occupied units. If the suspension of in-person interviews increased the challenges of collecting data for rental units more than homeowner units, response rates for rental units would decline further than homeowner units. Under this circumstance, the effects on CPS/HVS estimates would be a lower estimate of the number rental households, a higher estimate of the number of homeowner households, and a higher estimate of homeownership rate. Similar, if the suspension of in-person interviews disproportionately affected the response rates of the HVS-eligible vacant units compared to occupied units, the vacancy rate estimate would be lower. The homeownership rate by mode in 2019 before the suspense of in-person interviews indicates that a lower share of homeownership and a higher share of renter under in-person interviews than other modes across all regions.
The CPS/HVS data collection issues make comparing second quarter estimates to previous quarters challenging. Furthermore, it is impossible to tell whether the homeownership gains and vacancy rate declines are due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic or the effects of data collection issues.
Unfortunately, these challenges are likely to persist with the third quarter data as well.