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Understanding the American Housing Survey: An Interview with Dav Vandenbroucke

In this column, Dav Vandenbroucke, HUD Senior Economist, talks about the American Housing Survey.

Photograph of a low-rise, multifamily residential building with a façade that includes siding and stone.
The American Housing Survey gathers information about the housing stock in the United States, including whether existing housing units were modified or remodeled.

How often is the American Housing Survey done and what geographic level does it cover?

The American housing Survey is done every other year in odd numbered years. This is 2015, we’re about to go into the field for the new survey. So we’ll do it in 2017 and 2019, etc. There’s a national survey, which can be used to produce estimates at the level of the four census regions and eight census divisions, but nothing below that. We can’t do places like census tracts and that kind of thing. There’s also a series of metropolitan surveys. This year we are doing 25 surveys for specified metropolitan areas, 15 of those are repeated every 2 years. There’s another bank of 20 that’s repeated every 4 years. So we’re doing 10 this year and will do the other 10 in 2017, and so forth.

How is the American Housing Survey different from the American Community Survey?

The American Housing Survey is a survey of the housing stock in the United States. It collects some information about people, but it’s mostly about the housing unit. The American Community Survey is mainly a survey about people. It does collect some information about their housing, but it also collects information about the computers they own, and their work experience, and other things that have nothing to do with housing. Now the American Community Survey is much bigger than the American Housing Survey. The American Housing Survey has a sample of about 116,000 every 2 years whereas the American Community Survey has 3 million every year. And because of that, the American Community Survey can show much lower levels of geography. It can show places and counties, down to the census tract level, whereas the American Housing Survey cannot. But the American Housing Survey has a lot more information about housing than the ACS does.

What is HUD’s role in the American Housing Survey and how is it different from that of the Census?

HUD is the sponsor of the American Housing Survey. That means we pay for it. It’s entirely paid for by HUD, and HUD specifies the content, what questions we want to ask. It specifies what metropolitan areas we survey, how big of a sample we want, the kind of geographic coverage we want to get out of it, and so forth. The Census Bureau acts essentially as our contractor doing the survey research part. They design the survey instrument. They test the questions. They select the sample. They send out field representatives to conduct the survey. They prepare the data for publication. Census Bureau has the expertise in the federal government for running survey work, and so we essentially pay them to do that part of the survey.

How has the American Housing Survey data changed over the years and how has access to the data changed?

The American Housing Survey started in 1973 which is more than 40 years ago now. At the time, it was the Annual Housing Survey, which shows you one way it changed. It was annual up until 1983 and then it became every other year. It started out as a paper and pencil survey where the field representatives would go out with big forms and stand in people’s doorsteps and fill in answers to the questions on paper. It eventually became a computer-assisted personal interviewing survey, where the Census workers use laptop computers, ask their questions, and type in the answers, which are recorded electronically and then transmitted to the Census Bureau. Some of the surveys are now done by telephone with the field representatives using their laptops from home. Turning to access to the data, it started out as you might expect in 1973 with computer tapes and printed publications on paper. It’s gone through all of the evolutions we’ve seen for data dissemination with the development of computers and the internet. The current way of disseminating data is through the Census Bureau website, which is a fairly new development. We used to divide the dissemination between HUD User and the Census Bureau. Now most of the data is available just at the Census Bureau website, where you can get all of the data sets going back to 1973, all of the summary tables going back to 1973, and they’re all available for download. A new feature that we’ve just instituted is that you can now start doing your own custom tabulations. We have a new table-building application that will allow you to build custom tables to answer the particular question you want to know about housing.

How is the American Housing Survey data used?

Well, the main point of the American Housing Survey is to provide a standard of information about the facts of the housing stock in the United States that everybody can refer to. So whatever different persons’ positions are on all of the different issues about housing policy, they always go to the American Housing Survey just to find out what the facts are, what is real about American housing. HUD uses the American Housing Survey to measure housing affordability. We produce a series of reports called the Worst Case Needs reports that look at people who are in trouble in terms of being able to afford rental units. We produce another series of reports called Components of Inventory Change, which uses a special feature of the AHS, which is that we go to the same housing units in every data collection. So we can see how particular units have changed. We can see if they’ve added rooms or if they’ve changed from being owned to rented or if they’ve been torn down. The AHS is pretty much the only source of data about the loss of housing in the United States. You get a lot of surveys about sales and construction and so forth, but AHS is the only one at the other end, about what happens to housing at the end of its life. AHS is used by industry groups — the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the Manufactured Housing Institute all use AHS data. It’s used by nonprofit organizations such as the Low Income Housing Coalition, National Center for Healthy Homes, and by research groups such as the Joint Center for Housing Studies, which use AHS a lot in measuring the remodeling market. Another feature of AHS is that we ask a lot of questions about remodeling activities for owner-occupied housing. So academics, and trade associations, and nonprofit organizations all use AHS as the main source of information about just the facts of what’s going on in the housing markets.