Affordability in Seattle and elsewhere is a complicated problem, but it has one major driver that has nothing to do with housing.
To hear Jenny Schuetz tell it, housing affordability is not a national problem but a local one in such coastal regions as California, Florida, the D.C. area and, ahem, Seattle.
“It’s not an issue for most of the nonurban population or small cities,” she told me. Schuetz should know, studying the issue as a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. (It should be noted that five of the nine fastest-rising housing markets in the nation were in Washington state, including the smaller cities of Wenatchee, Bellingham and Mount Vernon.)
Where buyers and renters are stretched, blame constrained supply — and in many regions, such as the Bay Area, a resistance to building, especially denser housing on smaller lots. These places are also drawing large numbers of higher-paid people chasing after the available real estate.
“It’s not a national problem, but because so much media are located on the coasts, they drive the issue,” she said.
But then come the qualifiers.
The bottom 20 percent of American households face severe affordability challenges, pretty much wherever they live. High prices have also spilled over to other noncoastal cities, such as Austin, Denver and Nashville. Finally, we do have a national problem of income. Half or more of income brackets haven’t seen a meaningful bump for decades.
Welcome to the rabbit hole of trying to get our arms around the housing market beyond Seattle.
Paying for shelter may not be a national problem to the extent seen here. But when Boston University researchers interviewed more than 100 mayors of cities in 39 states, only 13 percent said their housing stock was doing a good job keeping up with needs.
Last year, a report by Freddie Mac found that the number of apartments considered affordable for very low-income people declined by more than 60 percent from 2010 to 2016.
Zillow reports it takes a typical single person (a rising demographic) 11 years to save enough for a down payment on the typical house in the United States. Meanwhile, rents last year took more than 29 percent of typical household income, up from 26 percent during 1985 to 2000. The higher-than-historical-trend rents were found in 34 out of 35 markets studied.
Among African Americans, the homeownership rate is unchanged over the past 50 years. At 40 percent, it trails whites by 30 points, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.
So for a problem mostly confined to the coasts (where nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population lived in 2010), it’s pretty widespread. Even in Phoenix, known for its constant building, affordability stress is rising.
Pull the lens out, and a different perspective emerges, at least for owners. The national homeownership rate was 64.2 percent in the fourth quarter (these are households that are owner occupied).
It’s down from a high of 69.2 percent in 2004. But today’s level is around the rate in 1970, when the middle class was at its peak. Is the income composition of today’s homeowners the same as then? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Owning a home, once the greatest source of wealth-building for average Americans, has become a more exclusive club — even if not everywhere.
To be sure, this is hardly new in our history. At the turn of the 20th century, millions lived in rental tenements in big cities or worked as sharecroppers on land they didn’t own in the South. Even when the federal government began encouraging homeownership, it spent decades on policies that worsened segregation and limited opportunities for minorities.
The Clinton and George W. Bush administrations pushed policies to increase ownership (no, this didn’t cause the crash — the banksters did).
But the Great Recession, with its massive foreclosures and people owing more on their mortgages than the houses were worth, was a blow.
Partly as a result, a modern record 43.3 million households were renting in 2016, up nearly 27 percent since 2006.
Today, finding a Goldilocks city — with affordability, economic strength and quality of life — can be tough.
In 2016, the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis published a paper attempting to do just that. It found Omaha, Neb.; Oklahoma City; and Des Moines, Iowa, in the sweet spot. There, the trade-offs among affordability, economic strength and quality of life were the least.
Can America build its way out of the shortage? Single-family housing starts in January were weaker than any similar point in an expansion, going back to the mid-1960s real-estate dip. Construction starts of multiunit structures are stronger than the 2000s, but not compared with the 1970s and ‘80s.
The challenge isn’t just NIMBYs, but also capital flowing to only certain kinds of real-estate assets (e.g. in Seattle) and wary of another housing bubble. Runaway sprawl is a challenge, too, because it causes high transportation costs and large-scale environmental damage.
Tokyo, which keeps growing even as Japan’s population slows, has shown how a city can build abundant housing. But this does little for affordability because Tokyo is a world destination with well-paid people bidding for the inventory. And the Japanese are willing to live in small spaces. Many Americans still want a huge house and yard.
But a different kind of building is needed to address a root cause of unaffordability: low incomes. Decades of weak growth were punctuated by a Hamilton Project report last week. It showed that men who entered the workforce between 1957 and 1967 were the last of their cohort to see increased lifetime earnings relative to their predecessors.
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Women have seen an increase, but not substantial enough to overcome the larger stagnant trend. Middle-wage jobs have declined and rungs in the skill ladder have been pulled out. Inequality has grown sharply. No wonder so many struggle with housing affordability.
From a policy perspective, the nation is too divided to embark on bold initiatives such as wide expansion of federal investments in infrastructure and education, plus a stronger safety net and unions.
Locally, measures such as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s promise of free community college for Seattle high-school graduates are a good start. But until an American consensus can reform, we’re stuck as a nation.
Funny, whites supposedly backed Donald Trump and the Republicans because of these economic struggles. They got tax cuts largely for the rich. Go figure.