Is the Western growth machine coming out of its coma?

 

I like to keep an eye on what the housing market’s doing in the West. That’s not because I’m invested in it -- my family and I have been happy renters since we sold our house a year ago. I’m interested in the housing market because this one data set can tell so much about a place. That’s particularly true in the many Western communities that have tied their economic fate to growth.

The greater Phoenix, Ariz., metro area is surely the best example of this. Housing values climbed steadily there from the 1980s until 2003, then they went berserk, doubling between 2003 and 2007. Thousands of acres of desert and farmland were gobbled up by the building frenzy that resulted, and construction jobs were plentiful. Then the collapse hit. The average house lost half its value between 2007 and 2009. Growth ground to a halt, Arizona lost some 40,000 construction jobs and the population of Phoenix actually started shrinking. The pattern was mirrored in Las Vegas and other growth-happy places.

For the next two years, housing markets stagnated or even kept dropping, leading many -- myself included -- to wonder whether the growth machine was permanently broken.

Starting several months ago, however, story after story popped up indicating that the Phoenix housing market, at least, was recovering. I spoke with Phoenicians who were in the market for a new home, but sales were so brisk that the good ones were snatched up as soon as they were listed. In the beginning, there was a caveat: Yes, sales did go up, but they were driven in part by the fact that houses were so cheap, or foreclosed-upon, and purchased en masse by investors and rich Canadians.

Now, however, the Arizona Republic reports that Phoenix is months into a steady climb in housing values. In fact, Phoenix, with a 19 percent jump over the past year, led the nation in home price recovery, according to the Share