The High Cost of a Home Is Turning American Millennials Into the New Serfs

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American greatness was long premised on the common assumption that each generation would do better than the previous one. That is being undermined for the emerging millennial generation.

The problems facing millennials include an economy where job growth has been largely in service and part-time employment, producing lower incomes; the Census bureau estimates they earn, even with a full-time job, $2,000 less in real dollars than the same age group made in 1980. More millennials, notes a recent White House report, face far longer periods of unemployment and suffer low rates of labor participation. More than 20 percent of people 18 to 34 live in poverty, up from 14 percent in 1980.

They are also saddled with ever more college debt, with around half of students borrowing for their education during the 2013-14 school year, up from around 30 percent in the mid-1990s. All this at a time when the returns on education seem to be dropping: A millennial with both a college degree and college debt, according to a recent analysis of Federal Reserve data, earns about the same as a boomer without a degree did at the same age.

Downward mobility, for now at least, is increasingly rife. Stanford economist Raj Chatty finds that someone born in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of earning more than their parents; a boomer born in 1950 had a 79 percent chance of earning more than their parents. Those born in 1980, in contrast, have just a 46 percent chance.

Since 2004, homeownership rates for people under 35 have dropped by 21 percent, easily outpacing the 15 percent fall among those 35 to 44; the boomers’ rate remained largely unchanged.

In some markets, high rents and weak millennial incomes make it all but impossible to raise a down payment (PDF). According to Zillow, for workers between 22 and 34, rent costs now claim upward of 45 percent of income in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Miami, compared to less than 30 percent of income in metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth 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.

Like medieval serfs in pre-industrial Europe, America’s new generation, particularly in its alpha cities, seems increasingly destined to spend their lives paying off their overlords, and having little to show for it.

Rather than strike out on their own, many millennials are simply failing to launch, with record numbers hunkering down in their parents’ homes. Since 2000, the numbers of people aged 18 to 34 living at home has shot up by over 5 million.

One common meme, particularly in the mainstream media, has been that millennials don’t want to buy homes. The new generation, as Fast Company breathlessly reported, is part of “an evolution of consciousness.” Other suggest the young have embraced “the sharing economy,” so that owning a home is simply not to their taste. The well-named site Elite Daily asserts that the vast majority of millennials are headed to “frenetic metropolis” rather than becalmed suburbs.

And it’s not just ideologues claiming millennials have evolved out of home ownership. Wall Street speculators like Blackstone are betting that the young are committed to some new “rentership society,” with that firm investing $10 billion to scoop up existing small homes to rent, and even building tracks of homes exclusively for rent.

It’s not a lifestyle choice, but economics—high prices and low incomesthat are keeping millennials from buying homes. In survey after survey the clear majority of millennials—roughly 80 percent, including the vast majority of renters—express interest in acquiring a home of their own. Nor are they allergic, as many suggest, to the idea of raising a family, albeit often at a later age, long a major motivation for home ownership. Roughly 80 percent of millennials say they plan to get married, and most of them are planning to have children.

Overall, more than 80 percent of millennials already live in suburbs and exurbs, and they are, if anything, moving away from the dense, expensive cities. Since 2010 millennial population trends rank New York, Chicago, Washington, and Portland in the bottom half of major metropolitan areas while the young head out to less expensive, highly suburbanized areas such as Orlando, Austin, and San Antonio.

Age will accelerate this process. Economist Jed Kolko notes as people enter their thirties they tend to head out of core cities to suburban locations; roughly one in four people in their mid to late twenties lives in an urban location but by the time those people are in their early thirties, that number drops precipitously and continues dropping into their eighties. In fact, younger millennials, notes the website FiveThirtyEight, are moving to the ’burbs at at a faster clip than previous generations. What’s slowing that trend is economics. Many can’t afford to move or transition to a traditional adulthood.

The millennial housing crisis is reshaping the geography of opportunity. Although millennial rates of homeownership have dropped nationwide, the most precipitous declines have been in such metropolitan areas as New York, Miami, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. In all these areas, public policy has regulatory barriers in the way of suburban and exurban affordability. It is in these markets where such things as “tiny houses” and “micro-apartments”—not exactly a boon to people looking to start families—are being touted as solutions to housing shortages.

Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in California, where the state government has all but declared war on single-family homes by banning new peripheral development, driving up house prices throughout metropolitan areas. Regulatory fees typically add upward of $50,000, two-and-a-half times the national average; new demands for “zero emissions” homes promise to boost this by an additional $25,000.

Due largely to such regulatory restraints, overall California housing construction over the past 10 years has been less than half of that it averaged from 195 to 1989, forcing prices up, particularly on single-family houses. The state ranks second to the last in middle-income housing affordability, trailing only Hawaii. It also accounts for 14 of the nation’s 25 least affordable metropolitan areas.

Home ownership rates in California are among the nation’s lowest, with Los Angeles-Orange having the lowest rate of the nation’s 75 large metropolitan areas. For every two homebuyers who come to the state, five families leave, notes the research firm Core Logic.

The irony is that the state’s progressive policies are contributing to a less mobile society and a potential demographic crisis. For one thing, fewer young people can form families—Los Angeles-Orange had one of the biggest drops in the child population of any of the 53 largest metros from 2010 to 2015.

This also has a racial component, as homeownership rates African American and Latino households—which often lack access to family wealth—have dropped far more precipitously than those of non-Hispanic Whites or Asians. Hispanics, accounting for 42 percent of all California millennials, endure homeownership roughly half that seen in other parts of the country.

This is not the planners’ happy future of density dwelling, transit-riding millennials but a present of overcrowding, the nation’s highest level of poverty and, inevitably, a continued drop in fertility in comparison to less regulated, and less costly, states such as Utah, Texas, and Tennessee that have been among those with the biggest surges in millennial migration.

Once identified with youth, California’s urban areas are now experiencing a significant decline in both their millennial and Xer populations. By the 2030s, large swaths of the state—particularly along the coast—could become geriatric belts, with an affluent older boomer population served by a largely minority servant class. How feudal!

Ownership of land has always  been a critical component of middle-class wealth and power. Those celebrating the retreat from homeownership among millennials are embracing the long-term decline of that middle class, two thirds of whose wealth is in their homes.

The potential decline in ownership also represents a direct assault on future American prosperity. Jason Furman, who served as chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, calculated that a single-family home contributes 2.5 times as much to the national GDP as an apartment unit. Investment in residential properties has dropped to its lowest share of overall spending since World War II; by some estimates reviving that would be enough to return America to 4 percent growth.

With so many millenials unable to afford homes, or even to see a path to future ownership, household formation has been far slower than in the recent past. Rather than a surge of middle-class buyers, we are seeing the rise of a largely property-less generation whose members will remain economically marginal into their thirties or forties. Indeed by 2030, according to a recent Deloitte study, millennials will account for barely 16 percent of the nation’s wealth while home-owning boomers, then entering their eighties and nineties, will still control a remarkable 45 percent of the nation’s wealth.

If this continues, we may have to all but abandon the notion of the United States as a middle-class nation. Instead of having a new generation that strikes out on their own, we may be incubating a culture that focuses on such things as the latest iPhone, binge watching on Netflix, something they do far more than even their Xer counterparts.

Progressives who embrace these developments are abandoning one of the central tenets of mainstream liberalism. In the past, many traditional liberals embraced the old American ideal of dispersed land ownership. “A nation of homeowners,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed, “of people who own a real share in their land, is unconquerable.” Homeownership is not only critical to the economy but provides a critical element of our already fraying civic society; homeowners not only tend to vote more than renters, but they also volunteer more and, as Habitat for Humanity suggests, provide a better environment for raising children.

On the flip side, high housing prices tend to suppress birthrates. Many of the places with the highest house costs—from Hong Kong to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco—also have very low birthrates. The four U.S. areas ranked among the bottom 10 in birthrates among the 53 major metropolitan areas in 2015. Over time these can have a dampening impact on economic growth, as is clearly seen today in places like Japan and much of Europe, and increasingly here in the U.S.

It’s time for millennials to demand politicians abandon the policies that have enriched the wealthy and stolen their future. That means removing barriers to lots of new housing in cities and, crucially, embracing Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of Broadacre Cities, with expansive development along the periphery.

These new suburbs, like the Levittowns of the past, could improve people’s lives, while using new technology and home-based work  to make them more environmentally sustainable. They could, as some suggest, develop the kind of urban amenities, notably town centers, that may be more important to millennials than earlier generations. One thing that hasn’t changed is the demand for affordable single-family homes and townhomes. But the supply is diminishing—those under $200,000 make up barely one out of five new homes.

There are some reasons for hope. The soon-to-develop tsunami of redundant retail space will open up millions of square feet for new homes. A move to prefabricated homes, already common in Europe and Japan, could help reduce costs. Certainly there’s potential demand at the right price—ones that young people can reasonably aspire to and then build lives in.

The alternative is to travel back to serfdom and a society sharply divided between a small owner class and many more permanent rent payers. By then, the American dream will be reduced to a nostalgic throwback in an increasingly feudalized country.

This piece first appeared in The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.