Danielle Kurtzleben

Vicious cycles of debt and irresponsible lending helped to cause the Great Recession, and now another vicious cycle of housing weakness and unemployment is keeping many cities from recovering.

It's unfair, but it's true: a list of the cities where housing prices remain depressed has striking similarities to a list of the cities with the worst employment problems. Residential housing prices are low and falling in many of U.S. News' 10 cities with the worst job markets.

"The biggest single thing [contributing to high regional unemployment] is the housing boom and bust." says Jim Diffley, chief regional economist at IHS Global Insight.

Of the 10 metropolitan areas with the toughest job situations, seven are in California. Cities in the Golden State, as well as in Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, have suffered greatly from falling housing prices and high unemployment. These places saw skyrocketing home prices during the housing bubble. After it became clear that many buyers had purchased homes well out of their price range and the market collapsed, many of those houses went vacant.

Diffley explains the aftermath in these Sun Belt areas: "Not only is [the housing sector] taken away, but the people left behind ... have incredibly high mortgages, a lot of foreclosure activity, and the whole concept of household wealth has been shot because of their home equity values."

"U.S. Metro Economies," a report released this week by the United States Conference of Mayors and IHS Global Insight, shows that the housing market in many of the most jobless cities continued to tumble last year.

According to the report, median existing home prices in Merced, Calif., fell more than in any other city between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the fourth quarter of 2011, from $101,076 to $81,379 -- a drop of 19.5 percent. Likewise, prices in Stockton and Modesto fell by more than 15 percent.

Unhealthy housing and job markets reinforce each other in myriad ways. Homeowners who lose their jobs often cannot make their mortgage payments and risk foreclosure. High jobless rates among young workers have pushed that demographic to put off homebuying. The depressed housing market has helped reduce construction employment by nearly 2.2 million people since the start of 2007. And a sticky housing market can hurt workforce mobility, as people unable to sell their homes stay put.

Figures from the U.S. Conference of Mayors report suggest that many of those cities with flagging housing markets also have far to go to regain their lost jobs. Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, N.C., for example, is projected to only recover 7.4 percent of the jobs it lost during the Great Recession by the end of 2012, and Atlantic City is expected to regain just 13.9 percent.

Among U.S. metropolitan areas with 200,000 people or more, here are the 10 worst metro areas for finding a job.


Rank Metro Area Unemployment Rate Y-Y Change

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau (population counts)

1.Merced, CA16.9-1.7
2.Fresno, CA15.7-1.7
3.Modesto, CA15.5-1.7
4.Stockton, CA15.5-2.3
5.Visalia-Porterville, CA15-1.8
6.Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ12.40.1
7.Bakersfield-Delano, CA13.4-2.2
8.Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC11.7-0.7
9.Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA12.5-2.0
10.Brownsville-Harlingen, TX11.2-0.5


Methodology: For each metropolitan area, the percentage change in unemployment rate from Nov. 2010 to Nov. 2011 was determined. That percentage change was then subtracted from a given city's Nov. 2011 unemployment rate. For example, Fargo's unemployment rate fell by nearly 14 percent year over year. 14 percent was then subtracted from its Nov. 2011 unemployment rate. The above cities are the 10 with the highest resultant figures.

These cities have both high and sticky unemployment -- jobless rates that are elevated and, given those high levels, have not fallen far over the last year. Some cities have higher unemployment but have taken it down faster over the past year. For example, Las Vegas' unemployment rate was 12.5 percent in November, but had fallen 2.4 percentage points since November 2010.

Getting all of these double-digit unemployment rates to come down more quickly, says Diffley, is a matter of getting more momentum in the job market, which could help to jumpstart local housing markets.

"In a sense, housing is no longer subtracting from the economy ... but the question is when we can get some gains in that sector to boost the economy," says Diffley. "Once you get job gains in other sectors, that creates a new demand for housing, that helps the construction sector, and then you're in the virtuous cycle."

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