Census: Millions of livable homes stand vacant across the U.S.

Newly released Census data reveal that, as other evidence suggests, the recession has battered some areas harder than others. Census Bureau statistics show that 11.3 percent of residences in the U.S., about 13.2 million homes, stood vacant in 2010. There was a great deal of variation, however, among the 50 states.

The “gross vacancy rate” — the percentage of households that were empty at any time during the year — stands considerably higher, at 14.3 percent. The figure of 11.3 percent comes from the year-round vacancy rate, which is a better metric of economic vulnerability, as it doesn’t include homes that are lived in seasonally or households that often mark seasonal variations in residency, such as apartment buildings in college towns.

The count of vacant homes only extends to residences that are deemed livable. The Census Bureau’s definition of vacancy explains:

Vacant units are excluded if they are exposed to the elements, that is, if the roof, walls, windows, or doors no longer protect the interior from the elements, or if there is positive evidence (such as a sign on the house or block) that the unit is to be demolished or is condemned.

As a CNN Money story from last week reported, Florida has been one of the states worst hit by the abandonment of houses. It’s likely that the so-called “natural decline” — a euphemism for a population dying of old age — common in Florida and the decreased influx of new retirees to fill in the gaps has contributed to vacancies in the state. Other states with high vacancy rates, like Alabama, with 16.9 percent of homes vacant, and West Virginia, with 16.7, have similar levels of natural decline.

Other states and localities don’t have such simple explanations. At times, the vacancies seem downright capricious. Idaho, for example, has seen the greatest increase of any state in vacant homes since before the housing bubble burst. In 2005, 7.8 percent of homes in Idaho were vacant; in 2010, 15.4 percent. Neighboring Montana, meanwhile, was one of just ten states that have actually seen a decrease in the vacancy rate since 2005, and it has the lowest rate overall, with 6.9 percent of Montana homes vacant throughout 2010.

Looking at metropolitan areas rather than states also offers some surprises. Miami and Tampa topped the list in overall vacancy rates, though coming in at number five was Sun Belt boom city Phoenix, Ariz., with a hefty 18.4 percent vacancy rate in the greater Phoenix area. Springfield, Mass., saw the lowest overall vacancy rate, 4.9 percent, which is a return to its 2005 rate; 16 major metropolitan areas also returned to 2005 (or earlier) rates, though most had vacancy rates in the double digits.

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