It seems everyone is obsessed with claiming millennials and Gen Z don’t want to own homes—that they’re happy living in expensive urban apartments, grabbing lattes, riding electric scooters and roaming around walkable areas. Yes, these urban centers have their perks, including walkability and design, but we ultimately still want to own a home, townhouse or condo. The bottom line is we live here out of necessity; we can’t afford to own. Housing prices have more than doubled since 1970, even after factoring in inflation. And it’s almost impossible for millennials to build wealth through real estate. Why did housing become so expensive? There are a few reasons why.
First, local governments tell us where to build and where not to build. Bottom line: Because laws limit increasing density, the result is that land is getting more expensive and many people can’t afford to buy into the neighborhoods they call home. You often have to move away from where you grew up to become a homeowner. And this is happening in places as dissimilar as California and Missouri.
It’s not that we are against having laws to ensure that our cities are beautiful, walkable and environmentally sustainable. Zoning laws are needed to preserve the environment, create design standards and promote sustainability. You can’t just break ground for a nuclear waste facility next to an elementary school or dump your industrial waste into the nearest river. But the flexibility to increase housing stock brings prices down, and people are so opposed to change that it’s producing a housing crisis on the national level. Further, Forbes reports that zoning laws “decrease national economic output by around 8 percent, or close to $2 trillion per year.”
Next, let’s talk about how Uncle Sam makes housing expensive. We could debate the politics and decry who’s responsible, but in the past 20 years, we’ve leaned toward printing our way out of economic quandaries. And asset prices are increasing: Recently, we’ve seen how inflation is hiking up the prices of lumber, labor and many other construction materials. Building or renovating a house is too expensive for most people these days. To make money on a sale, sellers must set egregious listing prices.
And lastly, we can’t forget how mortgages make houses expensive. The federal government backs 70 percent of mortgages. Like many government programs, these “good” ideas don’t play out exactly as planned in the real world. Mortgages were meant to help increase homeownership, but they may actually be locking people out at this point in history. People can’t save up enough money for down payments between the cost of food, housing, health care and education and specifically rent. Forty-six percent of millennials cited the down payment as the most significant barrier to homeownership.
It’s the cold hard facts of millennial economics: Most people pay too much in rent to afford to save up for a down payment. At least 38 percent of people were rent burdened in 2015. As inflation increases every year, that number could only grow. Millions of people are stuck spending half of their income on housing and are locked out of ever owning a home.
What does this all mean? We’re becoming a society of renters. And a lot of the media tries to make it seem glamorous and youthful. In reality, most Americans would like the stability of owning a home but face various barriers to entry.
How do we make housing more affordable? That’s easy: Build more of it. We need updated zoning laws that make sense for people and the environment. We need a government that isn’t spending money with no regard for the butterfly effect. We need mortgage programs that fulfill their purpose: to increase the number of homeowners. If we’re going to change the trajectory of homeownership society to include young people, we must change our public policy at the local, state and federal level.
So, tell your elected officials that you’re interested in more affordable housing. Whether it’s a local, state or federal politician, we are all focused on the same outcome: Let’s give millions of Americans locked out of the housing market a chance at stability and prosperity.
David Grasso is the host of the Follow the Profit Podcast, where he shares simple ideas for financial success and lessons learned the hard way. He is also the CEO of Bold TV, Inc, a nonprofit media company dedicated to entrepreneurship and cultural empowerment.