“The Great Affordability Crisis Breaking America” is what industry experts are calling the recent housing shortage. Home prices are rising faster than wages, according to ATTOM Data. Housing affordability is declining in about 160 urban areas such as Reno, Minneapolis and Phoenix. Continue reading to learn more.
In the 2010s, the national unemployment rate dropped from a high of 9.9 percent to its current rate of just 3.5 percent. The economy expanded each and every year. Wages picked up for high-income workers as soon as the Great Recession ended, and picked up for lower-income workers in the second half of the decade. Americans’ confidence in the economy hit its highest point since 2000, right before the dot-com bubble burst. The headline economic numbers looked good, if not great.
But beyond the headline economic numbers, a multifarious and strangely invisible economic crisis metastasized: Let’s call it the Great Affordability Crisis. This crisis involved not just what families earned but the other half of the ledger, too—how they spent their earnings. In one of the best decades the American economy has ever recorded, families were bled dry by landlords, hospital administrators, university bursars, and child-care centers. For millions, a roaring economy felt precarious or downright terrible.
Viewing the economy through a cost-of-living paradigm helps explain why roughly two in five American adults would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency so many years after the Great Recession ended. It helps explain why one in five adults is unable to pay the current month’s bills in full. It demonstrates why a surprise furnace-repair bill, parking ticket, court fee, or medical expense remains ruinous for so many American families, despite all the wealth this country has generated. Fully one in three households is classified as “financially fragile.”
Along with the rise of inequality, the slowdown in productivity growth, and the shrinking of the middle class, the spiraling cost of living has become a central facet of American economic life. It is a crisis amenable to policy solutions at the state, local, and federal levels—with all of the 2020 candidates, President Donald Trump included, teasing or pushing sweeping solutions for the problem. But absent those solutions, it looks certain to get worse for the foreseeable future—leaving households fragile, exacerbating the country’s inequality, slowing down growth, smothering productivity, and putting families’ dreams of security out of reach.
The price of housing represents the most acute part of this crisis. In metro areas such as the Bay Area, Seattle, and Boston, severe supply shortages have led to soaring prices—millions of low- and middle-income families are no longer able to purchase centrally located homes. The median asking price for a single-family home in San Francisco has reached $1.6 million; even with today’s low interest rates, that would require a monthly mortgage payment of roughly $6,000, assuming that a family puts down the standard 20 percent. In Manhattan, listings for sale now ask an average of nearly $1,800 per square foot.
The housing cost crises in the Bay Area and New York might be the country’s most obscene. But the problem is national, driven by a combination of stagnant wages, restrictive building codes, and underinvestment in construction, among other trends. Home prices are rising faster than wages in roughly 80 percent of American metro regions. In 2018, housing affordability declined in every one of the 160-some urban areas analyzed by the National Association of Realtors, save for Decatur, Illinois. Rising prices and housing shortages are squeezing families in Reno, Minneapolis, and Phoenix.
The problem now even extends to rural areas, where income growth has lagged in the post-recession period. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found “sizable” increases in the number of households spending half or more of their income on housing in rural counties across the country. The housing crisis is hitting Bertie County, North Carolina, and Irion County, Texas, too.*
One central effect of the housing-cost crisis has been to turn the United States into a country of renters. The homeownership rate has fallen from a peak of nearly 70 percent in the mid-aughts to under 65 percent today; the numbers are more acute for Millennials, whose homeownership rate is 8 percentage points lower than that of their parents at the same age. Unable to buy, roughly 3.5 million younger families have kept renting—delaying the Millennial and Gen X cohorts’ wealth accumulation, thus consigning them to worse net-worth trajectories for the rest of their lives. And renting, for many families, is not affordable, either: Nearly half of renters are facing uncomfortable monthly bills, and the cost of renting has risen faster than renters’ incomes for a full 20 years now.