How fucked up is the American housing market, one of the biggest drivers of inequality? In many cities, the financial reward for owning a home is even bigger than the reward for having a job.
Owning a home has traditionally been an automatic way for people to save and build wealth—the most common ticket into the stable middle class. Housing markets vary by region, but in places where housing supply has not kept up with demand, housing prices have soared due to scarcity, and cities become economically bifurcated between owners and renters: haves and have-nots. That dynamic, which can be self-reinforcing due to the accumulation of political power among wealthy homeowners and their natural economic incentive to keep housing prices high, is a key factor making cities unlivable for so many regular people.
New research from Zillow shows just how insane this has become. In nearly half of America’s largest cities last year, the average homeowner earned more money through home price appreciation than they would have earned working a minimum wage job all year. In other words, the mere fact of owning a home allows people to get farther ahead economically while doing nothing than an entire year of hard work will for a non-homeowner. And in some places, the gap is even more ridiculous: “The median U.S. household earned roughly $60,000 in 2017 ($58,978 to be exact), or a little more than $28 per hour. But in six U.S. cities – New York, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle and Oakland – owners of the median-valued local home gained more than that in home equity alone. And if earning a six-figure annual salary represents a certain amount of privilege, homeowners in San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle all made comfortably more than that simply by virtue of owning a local home.”
There is nothing just about this. We claim to value hard work, yet we reward homeowners to a greater degree than hardworking people simply because they own an artificially scarce asset—an asset, by the way, that is a natural need for everyone, and should be treated as such. Further driving the economic gap is the fact that non-homeowners need to rent housing, and rents have risen much faster than income over the past 15 years. Middle class people must either pay an ever-greater percentage of their income in rent, or take on ever-greater amounts of debt in order to buy homes, gambling that home prices will continue to rise. The first option makes it impossible to close the inequality gap, and the second both loads people with a huge amount of financial risk and gives them a strong incentive not to solve the greater problem of affordable housing, lest it stop the price of their own home from going up as much.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to start mitigating this entire deplorable situation: Build more housing. Build more housing. Build more housing. Drastically increasing the housing supply in major cities will reduce the artificial scarcity of housing and bring down housing prices and make housing more affordable for everyone.
Building more housing is progressive. Opposing new housing is greedy and exclusive and unjust. We need more housing. Build more housing.
Build more housing.