Commentary: Our houses are much more grandiose than 30 years ago

This is one in a series of articles concerning data included in the 2010 Census of American Samoa, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Warning: there are a lot of numbers to digest.

A man’s home is his castle, if you own it, and about 70% of the households in American Samoa are living in their own homes.

About 27% of those castles have a value of more than $100,000. Another 27% live in more humble quarters, with a value of $50,000 or less.

In 1980, half of the owner-occupied homes in the territory were worth less than $11,200 and half were worth more than that. In the language of statistics, $11,200 represents the "median value" (half the results were higher and half the results were lower).

In 2010, the median value of an owner-occupied home had increased from $11,200 (1980) to $68,175 (2010). That's a huge increase. If we adjust the 1980 figure for inflation, in order to make this analysis credible, the 1980 figure rises to $30,000 (in 2010 dollars), which suggests that the typical American Samoa house in 2010 was more than twice as grandiose as the typical American Samoa house in 1980.

(By contrast, an inflation-adjusted typical California house in 2010 was only 10% more grandiose than its 1980 counterpart.)

I would have expected that the root cause of this spectacular increase in the value of a typical American Samoa home was due to the increased availability of mortgage financing over the past few decades.

Mortgage financing allows people to borrow money to build a nice house now and then repay the money over 20-30 years. Without mortgage financing, people are limited to using available cash to build their homes.

Thirty, forty and fifty years ago, mortgage financing was not readily available in American Samoa, because local banks did not want to extend mortgages to houses built on communal land. But mortgage financing became more widely available in the 1980s and 1990s. Or so I thought.

But the 2010 Census shows that very few home owners have a mortgage in American Samoa. In fact, 90% have no mortgage, while only 10% have a mortgage loan to be repaid. Half of the people who pay a mortgage owe the banks $900 a month or more.

(Compared to the United States, more housing units in American Samoa are owner-occupied and fewer are mortgaged. We have 70% of our housing units owned by the occupants themselves, while in the U.S., the comparable figure is 63%. But the contrast is much greater when looking at the percentage of owner-occupied homes that are being financed with a mortgage. Only 10% of American Samoa homes have a mortgage, while 68% of U.S. houses have a mortgage requiring monthly payments to the bank).

Because so few homeowners have a mortgage, half the home-owning household devote 10% or less of their income to pay for their homes. But a mortgage can be expensive. Half the people with mortgages pay $900 a month or more on their mortgage loans.

Not everyone rents of course. About 30% of local householders are considered renters because they live in homes they don't own. But in the Samoan way of life, that doesn't mean they pay rent.

In fact half of the "renters" pay no rent in the conventional sense. Of those who pay rent, half pay at least $500/month and half pay less than that amount.

About half of us live in houses or apartments that we moved into since 1990, while the other half have been living in the same house even longer than that.

Only 10% of the population has been living in their present house since 1980.

How long have our homes been around? Check out the chart below. It shows that 58% of our housing is less than 20 years old. It also shows that there are almost 300 houses that are more than 50 years old!

ASPA now supplies water to 88% of local households. I don't have the historical figures, but that is a huge increase over the situation 30 years ago.

Almost half of the households (44%) are now hooked up to the ASPA sewer system, while the majority are hooked up to septic tanks or less desirable wastewater systems (e.g., old-style cesspools). Air-conditioning can be found in 35% of local houses or apartments.

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