St. Tammany Parish’s housing sector has been on a roller-coaster ride for the past decade, zooming up when the parish saw an influx of new residents following Hurricane Katrina and plummeting in the economic meltdown that began in 2008.
But the parish has seen steady growth in both single-family building permits and sales of existing homes since 2010, according to a St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation report that examines economic indicators from 2003 through 2013.
Brenda Bertus, the group’s chief executive officer, said in a statement accompanying the report that the numbers show St. Tammany’s housing market is stabilizing.
Building permits for new homes grew by 78 percent from 2009 to 2012, and the number of existing home sales rose by 44 percent over the same time. The average price of homes also increased in 2013 for the first time in several years, hitting $225,540 after falling steadily from a peak in 2007 of $248,682.
Steve Dixon, president of the North Shore Area Board of Realtors, agrees that the market has stabilized, but he thinks the recovery will take a little longer. New housing starts were so scant in the depth of the recession that even modest growth appears significant when looking at percentages, he said.
Data in the report bear that out. Building permits for single-family homes hit rock bottom in 2009, when only 535 permits were issued. While that number increased to 951 in 2013, it’s still far below the peak of 2,920 single-family building permits issued in 2004, the year before the storm.
But Dixon agrees that housing has recovered in the past two years especially, and he is anticipating not just continued stabilization but an actual surge in the north shore housing market next year.
The signs are there, he said, noting that November and December usually are slow months for real estate. Buyers don’t feel like house-hunting in the evenings after work when it’s cold and wet, and they have busy holiday schedules. But Dixon said he has seen an uptick in interest since the Nov. 4 elections. “It’s like this sigh of relief. ... People are calling to say, ‘What’s my house worth? Maybe I’m ready to sell,’ ” he said.
St. Tammany is still a post-Katrina market, he said, but he added that the buying boom that immediately followed the storm was a once-in-a-lifetime event. People who got settlements quickly had cash to buy homes, and many seized on the opportunity to move to the north shore, he said.
The report reflects that fact, showing residential housing sales peaking in 2005 and 2006 with 6,506 and 6,464 sales, respectively.
But in many cases, the new arrivals were in a hurry and bought without getting an appraisal, Dixon said. The immediate post-Katrina bubble burst quickly, he said, and people discovered that in some cases they had paid more than their homes were worth — a situation that played out visibly when the St. Tammany Parish Council was inundated with homeowners appealing their property tax assessments as too high.
But St. Tammany saw less property devaluation than other parts of the country, Dixon said, pegging it at 1 to 2 percent.
Now, Dixon is seeing what he calls a perfect storm for home buyers: A good inventory of houses is available, prices are still somewhat down and interest rates remain low. He expects activity that normally peaks in April or May to happen as early as February.
As for sellers, Dixon said he’s advising them to wait until summer, when increased demand will start to push prices up, or even until 2016, which he sees as an even better year. He also expects to see more new home construction.
St. Tammany has continued to grow over the past decade, with the report showing a 5.6 percent increase in population overall since 2003. The number of residents has increased every year, from 205,883 in 2003 to 242,333 in 2013. That tracks the experience of the parish’s public school system, which has seen growth in enrollment every year since Katrina, according to spokeswoman Meredith Mendez.
But while the parish as a whole and Covington and Mandeville have seen steady growth, Slidell, which was hit harder by Katrina than other areas in the parish, still has fewer residents than it did before the storm. The parish’s largest city, which had a population of 28,237 in 2003, actually saw a decline before the storm, dropping to 26,845 in 2004. Slidell saw another drop in 2007, reaching its lowest point in the decade with 26,632 residents. Now, the population is at 27,526.
“We had a lot of devastation here,” Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan said. But he also thinks Slidell is rebounding, fueled by families looking for good schools, low crime rates and recreational opportunities.
Dixon also sees the eastern part of the parish as a prime area for growth, in large part because of traffic congestion in the western part, where he said infrastructure has not kept up with growth.
While Slidell’s main thoroughfare, Gause Boulevard, has heavy traffic twice a day, motorists can get through that in 20 minutes, and at some points during the day, it’s possible to hit every green light on the road, Dixon said. In the Covington and Mandeville area, it can take an hour and a half to travel four miles.
He also pointed to another economic indicator: the fact that Wal-Mart is building two of its Neighborhood Markets in Slidell.
“When I see a Wal-Mart going in, I know they’ve done their homework,” he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.