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State Of The South: Jobs Rise But What About Real Estate?

It wasn't so long ago that the terms "industry" and "housing" meant two things throughout plenty of the South: a huge textile mill, and the mill village of modest homes that was built around it.

Most of those textile mills closed down and moved overseas, and many of those villages were razed to make way for new development.

Other industries have stepped in to help fill the gap — from auto manufacturing and defense systems to technology, building supplies and telecommunications.

Four states in the Southeast — Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina — ranked among the top 10 states in terms of the manufacturing share of nonfarm employment in November 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four also ranked in the top 10 for the manufacturing share of gross state product: Louisiana, North Carolina, Kentucky and South Carolina.

This is, of course, all good news as far as housing is concerned.

"Manufacturing means more employment — not just from the facilities themselves, but also from the suppliers and other commercial businesses that locate near them. This should have a positive effect on housing," said Carl Hudson, director of the Center for Real Estate Analytics at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Regional Rise

To be sure, data on home sales in the South are encouraging. In September, existing-home sales in the region rose 9.9% year over year to an annual level of 2.1 million units, according to the National Association of Realtors. The median price in the South was $171,600, up 13.9% from a year earlier, more than in any other region but the West.

The Commerce Department reported that new-home sales in the South rose 28.2% year over year in August, the most recent data available. That was the highest growth figure of the four regions surveyed.

With many economic sectors contributing to the South's growth, incremental additions to one — say its rising auto industry — tend to have a minor impact on housing.

"What we've seen around some of the large plants is that the housing growth is not necessarily from their employees, but from overall economic growth in that area," said Steve Sewell, executive vice president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.

There's no question that growth in the auto industry over the last 20 years has had a big impact on some parts of the South, though. These operations include, among others: Daimler (DDAIF) and BMW plants in South Carolina; Honda Motor (HMC) and Daimler facilities in Alabama; General Motors (GM) plants in Tennessee and Kentucky; a Kia Motors plant in Georgia; a Hyundai plant in Alabama; Nissan (NSANY) facilities in Mississippi and Tennessee; and Toyota Motor (TM) plants in Kentucky and Mississippi.

Among the more recent auto manufacturing plant openings was the Volkswagen (VLKAY) assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., that began production in April 2011. That facility employs about 2,000 workers.

Last month, South Korea's Hankook Tire said it will build its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Clarksville, Tenn. The $800 million facility is expected to create 1,800 jobs.

Most of those states also have benefited from growth in other industries, which muddies the picture in terms of the direct impact auto manufacturing has on housing.

Sewell cites a Mercedes plant located in Vance, Ala., about 20 miles from Tuscaloosa. The plant opened in 1999 and is being expanded this year to include production of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

"The Mercedes plant will contribute more to the residential growth in Tuscaloosa than in Vance," Sewell said. "But it's difficult to say how much it drives growth in Tuscaloosa because we're talking about a pretty diverse economy. Tuscaloosa is a regional retail and education center.

Hudson points to the Kia plant that opened in West Point, Ga., in 2009. According to economic estimates, it created about 3,000 direct jobs and another 10,000 jobs tied to suppliers to the plant. But of the handful of surrounding counties, only one showed a big shift in housing permits as the plant was built.

"The only one that really exhibits anything significantly different is Chambers County, Ala.," Hudson said. "When everyone else was going down, Chambers County had a big increase in housing permits.

The Backdrop

One reason the other counties saw a drop in permits was that the plant was being built and preparing to open just as the housing bubble, financial crisis and recession hit, which created job losses in other sectors of the economy.

For the most part, however, the South has fared better than other regions of the country in job growth, says Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors. This, in turn, has driven its housing growth.

"Where there is faster job creation, there is also higher home sales and a better housing market," he said.

A lot of that growth has come from industries outside the manufacturing sector.

"You have the Triangle region in North Carolina, which is a high-tech cluster center," Yun said. "You have a very diversified economy in Atlanta. Charlotte (N.C.) is a banking/financial center. These sectors of the economy have all seen growth and contributed to more jobs and more home sales.

South Carolina is often cited as a state where the auto manufacturing and automotive supply industries have driven rapid job and population growth, and for good reason. According to data provided by the Upstate South Carolina Alliance, the state's auto industry — including core assemblers and suppliers, second-tier suppliers and related businesses — employs about 159,000 people.

That's a big figure. But it still represents less than 8% of total employment in the state, according to July data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS notes that manufacturing ranks fifth in total employment in South Carolina behind trade/transportation/utilities, government, professional/business services and leisure/hospitality.

"In some cases when a new plant is built, you might see a rise in housing permits in certain neighborhoods," Hudson said. "But in most cases you already have growth from professional and services jobs."