There’s little argument that inequality, and the depressed prospects for the middle class, will be a dominant issue this year’s election. Yet the most powerful force shaping this reality—the rising cost of housing—has barely emerged as political issue.
As demonstrated in a recent report (PDF) from Chapman University’s Center for Demographics and Policy, housing now takes the largest share of family costs, while expenditures on food, apparel, and transportation have dropped or stayed about the same. In 2015, the rise in housing costs essentially swallowed savings gains made elsewhere, notably, savings on the cost of energy. The real estate consultancy Zillow predicts housing inflation will only worsen this year.
Driven in part by potential buyers being forced into the apartment market, rents have risen to a point that they now compose the largest share of income in modern U.S. history. Since 1990, renters’ income has been stagnant, while inflation-adjusted rents have soared 14.7 percent. Given the large shortfall in housing production—down not only since the 2007 recession but also by almost a quarter between 2011 and 2015—the trend toward ever higher prices and greater levels of unaffordability seems all but inevitable.
The connection between growing inequality and rising property prices is fairly direct. Thomas Piketty, the French economist, recently described the extent to which inequality in 20 nations has ramped up in recent decades, erasing the hard-earned progress of previous years in the earlier part of the 20th century. After examining Piketty’s groundbreaking research, Matthew Rognlie of MIT concluded (PDF) that much of the observed inequality is from redistribution of housing wealth away from the middle class.
Rognlie concluded that much of this was due to land regulation, and suggested the need to expand the housing supply and reexamine the land-use regulation that he associates with the loss of middle-class wealth. Yet in much of the country, housing has become so expensive as to cap upward mobility, forcing many people to give up on buying a house and driving many—particularly young families—to leave high-priced coastal regions for less expensive, usually less regulated markets in the country’s interior.
The Rise of the Exclusionary Region
The regions with the deepest declines in housing affordability, notes William Fischel, an economist at Dartmouth College, tend to employ stringent land-use regulations, a notion recently seconded by Jason Furman, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. In 1970, for example, housing costs adjusted for income were similar in coastal California and the rest of the country. Today house prices in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles are three or more times higher, when adjusted for income, than most other metropolitan areas. For most new buyers, such areas are becoming what Fischel calls “exclusionary regions” for all but the most well-heeled new buyers.
The biggest impact from regulation has been to diminish the supply of housing, particularly single-family homes. In a recent examination of permits across the nation from 2011 to 2014 for Forbes, we found that California regions lag well behind the national average in terms of new housing production, both multi-family and single family. Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, areas with less draconian regulations, have issued three times as many permits per capita last year. Overall California’s rate of new permits is 2.2 per 1000 while across the Lone Star state the rate was nearly three times higher.
In the “exclusionary regions” along both coasts, high land prices have made it all but impossible to build much of anything except luxury units. In Manhattan this has taken the form of high-rise towers that have been gobbled by the rich, including many foreigners, but this new construction has done little to make New York affordable for most residents. Between 2010 and 2015, Gotham rents increased 50 percent, while incomes for renters between ages 25 and 44 grew by just 8 percent.
Making of Two Americas
Real estate inflation is redefining American politics and could eventually transform the nature of our society. In the dense, increasingly “kiddie-free zones” around our Central Business Districts (CBDs), according to 2011 Census figures, children between ages 5 and 14 constituted about 7 percent of the population, less than half the level seen in newer suburbs and exurbs. The common habitués of these high-cost, high-density urban areas—singles and childless couples—have emerged, according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, as key elements of the progressive coalition.
The bluer the city, generally, the fewer the children. For example, the highest percentage of U.S. women over age 40 without children—a remarkable 70 percent—can be found in Washington, D.C. In Manhattan, singles make up half of all households. In some central neighborhoods of major metropolitan areas such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, less than 10 percent of the population is made up of children under 18.Perhaps the ultimate primary example of the new child-free city is San Francisco, home now to 80,000 more dogs than children, and where the percentage of children has dropped 40 percent since 1970.
In contrast, familial America clusters largely in newer suburbs and exurbs, and increasingly in the lower-cost cities in the South, the Intermountain West, and especially in Texas. Overall—and contrary to the bold predictions of many urbanists—suburban areas are once again, after a brief slowdown, growing faster than the urban cores.
America remains a suburban nation. Overall, 44 million Americans live in the core cities of America’s 51 major metropolitan areas, while nearly 122 million Americans live in the suburbs. And this does not include the more than half of the core city population that live in districts, particularly in the Sunbelt, that are functionally suburban or exurban, with low density and high automobile use.
The Geography of Inequality
Inequality may be a big issue among urban pundits, but, ironically, inequality is consistently more pronounced in larger, denser cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Manhattan, the densest and most influential urban environment in North America, exhibits the most profound level of inequality and the most bifurcated class structure in the U.S. If it were a country, New York City overall would have the 15th-highest inequality level of 134 countries, according to James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, landing between Chile and Honduras.
In our core cities in particular, we are seeing something reminiscent of the Victorian era, when a huge proportion of workers labored in the servile class. Social historian Pamela Cox has explained that in 1901 one in four people, mostly women, were domestic servants. But is this—the world portrayed in shows such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs—the social norm we wish most to promote?
In contrast, research by the University of Washington’s Richard Morrill shows that suburban areas tend to have “generally less inequality” than the denser areas. For example, in California, Riverside-San Bernardino is far less unequal than Los Angeles, and Sacramento less so than San Francisco. Within the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1 million in population, notes demographer Wendell Cox, suburban areas were less unequal (measured by the Gini coefficient) than the core cities in 46 cases. And overall the poverty rate for cities is close to 20 percent, almost twice that of suburban areas.
The differential of housing cost accounts for much of this disparity. High housing prices tend to stunt upward mobility, particularly for minorities. One reason: The house remains the last great asset of the middle class. Homes represent only 9.4 percent of the wealth of the top 1 percent, but 30 percent for those in the upper 20 percent and, for the 60 percent of the population in the middle, roughly 60 percent. The decline in property ownership threatens to turn much of the middle class into a class of rental serfs, effectively wiping out the social gains of the past half-century.
The Geographic Shift
High housing prices are also rapidly remaking America’s regional geography. Even areas with strong economies but ultra-high prices are not attracting new domestic migrants. One reason is soaring rents: According to Zillow, for workers between 22 and 34, rent costs claim upwards of 45 percent of income in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Miami compared to less than 30 percent of income in cities like Dallas and Houston. The costs of purchasing a house are even more lopsided: In Los Angeles and the Bay Area, a monthly mortgage takes, on average, close to 40 percent of income, compared to 15 percent nationally.
This is leading to a renewed shift even among educated millennials to such lower-cost regions as Atlanta, Orlando, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and even Cleveland. As millennials enter their 30s and seek to buy houses, these changes are likely to accelerate.
Millennials may be staying in the city longer than previous generations, but their long-term aspirations remain fixed on buying a single-family house. This trend will accelerate in the next few years, suggests economist Jed Kolko, as the peak of the millennial population turns 30. Faced with a huge student debt load, a weaker job market, and often high housing prices, millennials face tougher challenges than some previous generations, but retain remarkably similar aspirations.
Bringing Back Levittown
Clearly America needs a new approach to housing. Democrats may enjoy their strongest base in the cities, but many of their young constituents likely will end up in the suburbs, or will continue to move to smaller, less reflexively progressive cities. Finding ways to make suburbs more sustainable, both environmentally and for families, will have more long-term appeal than trying to eliminate their preferred way of life.
Some attempts to force developers to build low-income units have, if anything, worsened the situation by discouraging new production while actually boosting prices for the vast majority. In some cases, as in New York City, the forced construction of low-income units in otherwise market-rate buildings has resulted in such absurdities as the so-called “poor door,” through which low-income residents, who are denied most of the amenities offered to wealthier residents, must enter.
Republicans too may need to change their tune. As suburbs become more multi-cultural, and dominated by millennials, the GOP will have to embrace some of the environmental and social priorities of the new residents. They also have to realize that middle-class homeowners do not always share the same interests as Wall Street investors. Under the current regulatory regime, slavish adherence to the ambitions of big investors could undermine the dispersed ownership culture, replacing it with one primarily rental-based, even in single-family homes. Essentially this could transform large areas, including suburbs, into far less socially stable areas, particularly for families.
One potential solution would be to draw on the successful policies enacted after World War II. At that time, the nation suffered a severe housing crisis as servicemen returned from the war. The solution combined governmental activism—through such things as the GI Bill and mortgage interest deductions—with less regulatory control over development. The result was a massive expansion of the country’s housing stock, and a dramatic increase in the level of homeownership.
Bringing back the Levittown approach would require jettisoning ideological baggage that now accompanies the contemporary discussion about housing. Libertarians tend to favor loosened regulations—something welcome indeed—but seem to have less than passionate interest in addressing the housing interests of working- and middle-class Americans. As we saw in the late ’40s, at least some government support for affordable housing is critical to expanding ownership.
But increasingly the worst influence on housing stems from the proclivities of contemporary progressivism. Whereas earlier Democratic presidents, from Roosevelt and Truman to Johnson and Clinton, strongly supported suburban single-family growth, contemporary progressives display an almost cultish bias toward the very dense, urban environment. The fact that perhaps at most 10 to 20 percent of Americans prefer this option almost guarantees that this approach would be unacceptable to the vast majority.
How we deal with the housing crisis will shape our future, and will largely determine what kind of nation we will become. Although some developers outside the coastal areas are trying to revive smaller “starter homes,” at least in more reasonably priced markets, this may prove all but impossible to accomplish in “exclusionary regions” unless there is serious change.
Following our current path, we can expect our society—particularly in deep blue states—to move ever more toward a kind of feudalism where only a few own property while everyone else devolves into rent serfs. The middle class will have little chance to acquire any assets for their retirement and increasingly few will choose to have children. Imagine, then, a high-tech Middle Ages with vast chasms between the upper classes and the poor, with growing dependence—even among what once would have been middle-class households—on handouts to pay rent. Imagine too, over time, Japanese-style depopulation and an ever more rapidly aging society.
Yet none of this is necessary. This is not a small country with limited land and meager prospects. A bold new approach to housing, including the reform of out of control regulations, could restore the fading American dream for tens of millions of families. It would provide the basis for a greater spread of assets and perhaps a less divided — and less angry — country. Rather than waste their time on symbolic issues or serving their financial overlords, candidates in both parties need to address policies that are now undermining the very basis of middle-class democracy.
This piece originally appeared at The Daily Beast.
Cross-posted at New Geography.