Housing USA, Culture Fuels the Housing Crisis

6 min read

While regulations are one big reason for the housing

affordability problem, there are larger economic and

societal factors, too.

Sometimes it can be hard to fathom that various American governing bodies are actually inflicting a housing crisis onto their people. And yet that’s what is happening. To be specific, countless municipalities—particularly in major metro areas—are caving to political pressure from existing homeowners, by refusing to allow more construction for newcomers. This has caused housing shortages and price inflation—a textbook case of a government-created problem.

Yet, as bad as this may seem, there are other factors behind the crisis—and some have little to do with the government. Just as certain segments of the population can’t afford healthcare, higher education and reliable transport—and must therefore be subsidized by taxpayers—they also cannot afford housing. This population spans every city and town, and their problems are rooted in larger economic, cultural and even personal factors that, for better or worse, add to the fabric of modern American life.

But before getting into those, just consider the extent of the housing crisis. According to data from BetterInstitutions.com, Americans today are more burdened by housing than by any other expense, with housing costs growing dramatically over the years. Between 1901 and 2012, the share of total consumer spending on housing grew from 23 percent to 33 percent, while the percentage remained in or near single digits for food, clothing, healthcare, entertainment and education. In 2016, the U.S. homeownership rate dropped to 62.9 percent—the lowest level since the Census Bureau began keeping track in 1965—and has ticked up only slightly since. In the 53 largest metros, nearly half of households are rent burdened, spending over 30 percent of their income on housing.

Some of these burdens result from structural economic factors, says Stephanie Coontz, an Evergreen State College history professor best known for her book on American family life, called The Way We Never Were. Depending on certain metrics, the U.S. economy—and our general standard of living—is greater now than ever before. In September, the Census Bureau announced that median household incomes were at an all-time high of $59,039. Even adjusted for inflation, these medians have steadily ticked upward since the 1960s. The U.S. poverty rate has remained more or less stable through the decades, now standing at 12.7 percent.

But where America’s rising economic problems become evident, said Coontz by phone, is in the details. The incomes that men earn throughout their work careers have been declining since the 1960s. Millennials are struggling too; while they have higher education levels than their parents, they have 20 percent lower incomes than Boomers did at the same age. Millennials have also adopted the American penchant for debt, trying to pay off five- and six-figure student loans, often while working service jobs. And while the gap is narrowing, there is still significant economic disparities by region, leading to specific housing challenges depending on the context. In hot coastal city markets, housing is just plain expensive, and ownership hard for most any income group. While housing is cheaper elsewhere in America, job markets are often worse thanks to deindustrialization, so ownership remains a difficult goal.

This is exacerbated, said Coontz, by the fact that school quality has become such a driver of where people live, causing money and population to flood, and a severe bidding process to ensure, in select areas.

“A big part in the run-up of housing costs is because we do not have, like many other countries, a standardized education system where all the schools are basically the same,” said Coontz. “So there is tremendous pressure among families to buy into an environment where you can go to a good school.”

The bigger factor, though, may be cultural – namely the decline of traditional families. Coontz noted that the ongoing rise of median household income was not because individuals were making more—in fact, wage growth has been uninspiring—but because of the rise these last few decades of female workers, and thus two-earner households. The problem, though, is that such households have become rarer. Since 1960, the share of Americans who were married went from 72 percent to about half.

In many cases, traditional marriages are being replaced by couples who live together but don’t wed, a group that has increased 15-fold since 1960. This is an unfortunate trend, according to Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and director of the National Marriage Project. Many of these relationships fizzle out with time, creating instability for adults and children alike, and seem particularly bad for men. Wilcox has found that married men are more productive economically, and in many respects emotionally, as they are likelier to avoid counter-productive behaviors like crime and drug addiction.

This means a lot of potential wealth in America is sacrificed to delayed marriage. Coontz added that one cause for the delay, namely for Millennials, is the economic situation: couples don’t want to wed if both parties don’t have stable jobs. But there is no doubt that cultural norms have—to the disgruntlement of Wilcox and other conservative commentators—also changed, so that traditional marriage is a less-valued institution. This means there are fewer stable, dual-earning households around to pay off that mortgage together.

This isn’t to say that the housing situation, at a broader national level, is necessarily in crisis. After dropping during the recession, permit numbers have ticked upward every year, and Americans are living in vastly nicer housing than they once did – housing that is bigger, sturdier and filled with more luxury features. U.S. homeownership rates are comparable to Canada, Australia and various advanced European countries.

Where the situation gets complex is with specific demographics and locations. And this complexity is due to the economic and cultural factors mentioned above, along with countless other ones. They include high rates of drug addiction in certain parts of the country; increased longevity that has placed more people on fixed incomes; and the fact that Americans are less willing than before to move to more economically-robust areas. Really, the inability to afford housing boils down to the case-by-case scenarios of individuals. Of course, it doesn’t help that government regulations make practically every home more expensive – and dramatically more expensive in certain markets.