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Still Renting After All These Years
Thoughts on the generational aspect of our housing crisis
Every time I drive through Great Falls, Virginia, I discover a little bit of my inner Robespierre.
To the extent that I am a conservative, I am one of the Burkean variety—I do not believe in revolution or the guillotine. But in driving the winding roads of northwest Fairfax County, it’s difficult not to think about the inequality brashly displayed through my windshield. The houses are cavernous, probably too big to even call McMansions, though aesthetically they are no improvement. In fact, many of them are breathtakingly ugly, making no attempt to enliven a public realm. These displays of wealth are not like Andrew Carnegie endowing a library; they are more like Clint Eastwood’s daughter setting fire to a $100,000 handbag.
Not long ago, I met a fellow urbanist from out of town for lunch in an early suburban neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. Arlington is the next county over, bordering Washington, D.C. We met at the same Italian deli as the one I mentioned here, and walked around the surrounding neighborhood and commercial strip after we finished our cold-cut subs.
It’s a stately, pleasantly aged, rather ordinary neighborhood. Modest single-family houses, duplexes, garden apartments, all within very close walking distance to the commercial strip, which has minimal setbacks from the street and relatively few parking spots. The lot sizes are small, the buildings are close together, and the densities are reasonably high for suburbia.
As we strolled through these late-prewar blocks, which could be anywhere in America, we happened to be discussing zoning. My interlocutor was concerned that too much upzoning would imperil a lot of pleasant, well-loved architecture, and we were talking through the balancing act of preservation versus housing shortages. I’m more sanguine on upzoning; he was a little more skeptical.
“Say, what would a house around here cost?” he asked, gesturing at a pretty ordinary one. “Oh, close to a million,” I answered coolly. “Maybe more. Maybe $800,000 for that one. Depends on the house.”
His jaw dropped. He understood.
On a recent road trip my wife and I took with my parents (that inspired this post and this one) we passed some multi-family structures, three stories tall, way out west of D.C. along I-66, which is being widened. (That will momentarily ease rush hour commutes, but it will also spark, and already is sparking, new peripheral development, which will fill up the extra road capacity in a shorter time than the DOT will ever admit.) My dad pointed to the three-story buildings as an example of high density. “High density?” I replied. “Those are kind of on the lower end!”
But wherever such structures fall on the density scale, why, exactly, are there clusters of them going up way out at the exurban edge of the D.C. metro area? Well, ask the folks in Arlington, where huge amounts of land are locked up under single-family-only zoning, effectively freezing the area’s land-use in 1950, or even 1930, while the region’s economy and population grow. Contra the Malthusians who still bring up The Population Bomb in housing debates—a book that advocated forced sterilization as a condition of food aid for the Third World—new people are a given, and they’ve got to live somewhere. If that somewhere can’t be in communities that have already been developed, it’s going to be in a matchstick apartment complex off a ten-lane traffic-choked Interstate nearly an hour from the urban core.
A lot of debates over housing seem to come down to people’s experiences in their own places, which are often wildly different from the dynamics in other places. In my hometown of Flemington, where my parents still live, several blocks of three-story apartments would indeed be high density. Here in the D.C. area, they feel like the same category as townhomes. They would stand out in Flemington as large or unusual—here I barely notice them at all.
Some people look at 20-somethings, or young 30-somethings, who aren’t homeowners and who live with roommates or rent a unit in a small building, as having failed to fully grow up and/or make decent money.
But what, exactly, are they supposed to do? Have rich parents? Marry someone rich? Sometimes these conversations go in the direction of “move to an affordable city.” That may be a solution for some people, depending on their education and professional backgrounds and regional job markets. But it doesn’t really solve the fundamental social problem: housing markets are not allowed to keep up with job markets in popular and growing metro areas.
My wife and I know a number of other young couples, mostly our grad school classmates. Most of them are not married, and most are renting somewhere. Some have roommates. They are all gainfully employed, some making better money than we do. One lives in a triplex building in a quiet neighborhood. Several of our old classmates rent and share a midcentury house a couple of towns over—the kind that a single couple several years younger might easily have owned in the 1950s or 1960s.
This is simply the reality of living and working in this region. Young people have not become interested in housing for esoteric reasons, or because they hate the rich (no matter what may flash through my mind as I explore Great Falls). We are simply realizing that it is economically near-impossible to copy the trajectory of our parents without the benefit of serious family money. This says nothing about our sense of entitlement, and everything about a broken system that encourages homeownership and family and then dangles them as distant, future rewards.
Take a look at the graph in this article. Millennial homeownership lags seriously behind every other generation. Yes, some of this has to do with age, but recall that the oldest Millennials are now in their 40s.
For all of its flaws, the postwar suburban building boom was effectively a national policy to build housing. Few in those days questioned the basic idea that housing—in or reasonably close to places that people wanted to live—should keep pace with population growth. It’s ironic that places like Arlington, now frozen under a decades-old land-use regime, were once the forefront of the national effort to house every American. The fact is that the World War II vets and the Baby Boomer generation, however hard they may have worked, were the beneficiaries of an incredible, national, government-backed effort to build housing.
Perhaps Millennials really are lacking in certain character traits or attributes. Perhaps we lack some of the grit, initiative, and work ethic of earlier generations. Perhaps a certain number of us would be in far superior financial positions today if we had made different choices. And if this is true, perhaps it is entirely to be expected, given the long period of affluent peacetime in which we were raised.
But it defies reality and beggars belief to think that my generation could be so lazy, so lacking in financial literacy or delayed gratification, that poor personal choices alone could account for such dramatic and sustained generational inequality.
Some people—often conservatives, but not always—argue that if we really wanted to own a home and raise a family, we’d find a way to make it work. As I’ve acknowledged, perhaps, in some cases this is true. But it requires one to exert great willpower, to effectively refuse the cornucopia of consumer delights which the same people in other contexts cite as the wonders of capitalism. Televisions are 20 times cheaper than in 1950! How dare you buy one!
Moreover, this view endorses a notion that entirely unnecessary hardship is a good thing: an opportunity to build character. It seems to equate ordering society to make doing the right easier to a handout or a welfare program. As I wrote in a different context:
Matthew Crawford does something that right-leaning intellectuals do often, and almost never notice. They find justifications for hardship or risk, and praise the character that can face them, without distinguishing between natural or inherent risks and manmade ones. They treat policy failures, or problems easily remediated by policy, as opportunities to build character. They betray a touch of self-loathing masquerading as self-reliance. They implicitly view solving problems through policy as cheating one’s way through a life that is supposed to be difficult.
Not all conservatives (or a certain kind of Boomer leftie) think this way, to be sure. But many do. The people who beg for grandkids while ensuring they have no place to live. The people who paint starter homes as magnets of crime and poverty, and who seem to think, like a cat with its tail sticking out behind the curtain, that such problems disappear when they are not visible. (There are also progressive or “left-NIMBYs,” who come to much the same conclusions, covered in opposite language. A rose by any other name.)
The humble triplex that my friend lives in would be illegal to build in most places in America. Heck, it may even be illegal to rebuild it where it already exists. Many municipalities have tightened their zoning codes so aggressively that many existing buildings are considered “non-conforming,” and cannot be replaced. The house that several of my friends have rented and split for many years works well enough, but it was not designed for that arrangement. Many locals supported the densification near the University of Maryland campus because they wanted students “out of the neighborhoods.” That’s half-way to getting it.
Most of us do not want a home that we cannot afford. We want something that is a distinction with a difference: a home that we can afford. The problem is not that there are expensive neighborhoods. The problem is not that there are single-family houses at the top of the ladder. The problem is that our land-use regime has kicked down the ladder, and then made it illegal for anybody to put it back up. Which is why this oft-repeated characterization of our generation’s attitudes about housing rings so hollow:
But this is about more than reasonably well-off young people. Housing is an issue for everybody. And it matters not only for people, but also for places themselves. This region needs its blue-collar workers. It needs its service workers. It needs its students, its young journalists and activists and think-tankers, its restaurant cooks and staff, the children who’ve grown up here, the immigrants who’ve made it one of the most culturally and culinarily interesting places in the whole damn United States. Hell, maybe it even needs its defense contractors and big-government bureaucrats.
That’s okay, because there’s room for all of us. The footprints of our old towns and villages understood that, with their mixing of uses and housing types in very small geographic areas. The real shame here is not, ultimately, that people respond to their incentives and guard their interests. That is a major reason for this country’s housing crisis.
But the real crisis is at a higher level. It is that we’ve forgotten how to build places that naturally and unselfconsciously accommodate a wide range of people, classes, incomes, and professions, and that it is taking long years of politicking and activism to get to a point where we understand it again. But when we do, this will be a freer place: one which credits people as the resources they are, makes room for them in every phase of life, and deserves to be called home.
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