Perhaps the most salient feature of American individualism that has asserted itself in political culture has been a particular affinity for describing systemic problems in terms of individual decisions. In cases where more sweeping explanations are sought, cultural degeneration provides a handy scapegoat. The flexibility of these explanations knows no bounds—and recently Carmel Richardson demonstrated as much in The American Conservative. In a piece entitled “It’s Not a Housing Shortage,” Richardson writes that “It’s no wonder Americans can’t afford houses: they’re all trying to live in the same five places.” The drivers of this problem are, of course, the Instagram set, people who “saw [a city] online and thought it looked cool.” Richardson admits this could be setting the country up for real problems, as a bifurcation develops between those who can afford to live anywhere and those living in towns where they have connections but few housing prospects. Rather than propose reasonable solutions, though, she ends with some more folksy cultural speculation, pandering to a particular ideal of Americana: “One has to wonder what kind of people we would have to become to choose a quiet life over nightlife, and a county fair over a $75 brunch.”
Certainly, for a journalist who can write from anywhere in the country and is unconcerned with living next to family or social connections, the housing crisis is less severe. But this rosy, ‘it doesn’t happen here’ optimism (also deployed against liberal cities on questions of crime, drug use, and other social ills) ignores the reality on the ground well outside of those five instagrammable places.
One issue is that the motto ‘location, location, location’ doesn’t just apply to real estate, but also to income. A person working a physical job in a real location is likely to see their income fluctuate in response to their place of residence. Richardson mentions a house in Toledo selling for $300,000. Of course, the median household income in Toledo is just shy of $40,000, so even with a relatively favorable interest rate and a healthy $45,000 down payment, a median household would end up paying nearly half their income on their mortgage, property taxes, and insurance to live in such a house. Indeed, the median rent in Toledo is actually higher, as a portion of median income, than in San Francisco. For those who can’t take their jobs with them, Toledo is no escape from high housing costs.
In other words, a poor local economy does not make for cheap housing unless you have some other source of income. The division of the country into areas of high and low nominal income is a separate issue—one linked to the transition into a post-industrial economy, the concentration of education, and other deeper trends. Given this, the existence of places with a lower nominal rent is no relief except to those who can take their jobs with them. The reality is that the price of rents reflects supply and demand, and the low demand that creates lower rents in some areas is caused not by cultural aversion to living in Ohio so much as the lower incomes of the people there and the lower-paying jobs available to those who move there.
Even those with some flexibility will find that many lines of work force them to face much higher rents. Cultural factors aside, the infrastructure that allows for higher incomes correlates with higher housing costs. Take, for instance, careers that require some proximity to government. State capitals all around, from Austin (where rents rose by a quarter in 2021) to Atlanta (where home prices are up a fifth), Boise (where prices have more than doubled in ten years) to Boston (where one quarter of renters spend half of their income or more on rents), have become less affordable. Those who are looking to work in or attend a university are also feeling the crunch, as a lack of student housing reaches crisis levels. Four-year state schools are the backbone of educational mobility, but rising rents in places like Missoula or Anne Arbor add to the difficulty of attending college, even for students with generous scholarships, and drive up the cost of education by increasing housing costs for faculty and staff as well.
And this presents a problem not just for those who would benefit from government or university (or production, tourism, or other kinds of place-specific jobs), but also for the millions of people who are deeply tied to these communities. Those with family or long standing jobs that hold them into these rising mid-sized cities are perhaps in the worst position of all: if they don’t own their homes, they see rents rise with median incomes, but it’s unclear that their own incomes are keeping up. Preferring county fairs to trendy brunches does little good if one’s county is Gallatin, MT or Latah, ID—counties with relatively small populations whose county seats host state universities and face rapidly rising prices.
It’s true that there are places in the country where housing is still relatively affordable in nominal terms—especially across the Midwest, where the populations of old industrial cities have fallen in the past half century, leaving space open. But this is merely a second half of the same problem: rents are often high relative to wages in these cities as well. Low home values simply reflect a lack of well-paying jobs. Moreover, any kind of turnaround in city popularity can quickly run up against an aging, dilapidated housing stock and drive relative rents even higher. Detroit, for example, is hardly anyone’s idea of a boomtown, but there too rising rents threaten long-term residents. And in many of these areas, lack of amenities, especially transportation, blunts the advantage of lower rents. Residents of St. Louis or Detroit spend on average a greater absolute sum on transportation—driven by higher automobile spending—than those of San Francisco or Seattle, despite much lower incomes. Renters who can’t afford car ownership find themselves facing higher rents, reflective of better public transit.
Americans hit by the housing crunch are not merely TikTok addicted zoomers wandering bright-eyed into New York or San Francisco. Residents of state capitals and university towns, not to mention huge swaths of the rapidly growing west, are all impacted. Though each locality faces its own unique challenges, there are commonalities: everywhere, housing construction is down, and land values are rising. Those who own land or buildings in any kind of economically successful city—be it a global superstar like San Jose or a pleasant college town like Moscow, Idaho—are reaping the benefits of a housing crisis that is sinking the dreams of millions of Americans. The solution is not to change Americans’ cultural preferences but rather to change how we deal with land, building, and housing. Cordoning the problem off as an issue only for a small subset of Americans is not confronting but avoiding it.
Featured Image is Keep the country country, by Tony Webster