As the 2016 presidential campaign shifts into high gear, the candidates of both political parties must start speaking to the severe and growing problems in housing.
For far too long, these problems have been largely ignored by the mainstream media and neglected by Washington.
A housing focus has also been noticeably absent from our nation’s political discourse. That needs to end, right now.
Three years ago, the issue of housing was barely mentioned during the Republican presidential primary, even though America was still reeling from a recession that had its very origins in housing. During the general election campaign that followed, housing was mostly an afterthought.
The silence about the continuing crisis in housing cannot obscure the profound and adverse impact it is having on millions of families across America. In its current form, the crisis has two key dimensions: affordability and access.
According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, in 2012, nearly 20 million U.S. households paid in excess of 50% of their incomes on housing costs. More than one-third of households, almost 41 million in total, paid over 30%.
Housing affordability is a particularly severe challenge for those families who rent. In 2012, more than 11 million renter households, constituting 27% of all renters, paid in excess of half their incomes just for housing.
Lack of household wealth, anemic income growth over the past decade, and soaring new demand that has put upward pressure on rents have all combined to make renting a home a much less affordable proposition than in years past.
Another critical factor is the acute shortage of affordable rental homes for those families at the low end of the income spectrum – just 39 affordable rental homes are available for every 100 “extremely low-income” households, according to HUD’s latest “worst case housing needs” report.
While millions of families are being priced out of the rental market, today’s homeownership market suffers from an access problem. For far too many Americans, the dream of owning a home is nothing more than a distant aspiration.
Tougher mortgage underwriting standards and higher down payment requirements have had the effect of excluding large segments of the U.S. population from the opportunity of homeownership. Record-high levels of student loan debt are also likely to have a negative impact on the homeownership prospects of millions of Millennials.
No wonder, then, that the national homeownership rate now stands at a 22-year low – 63.7%. The rate for African-American households has plunged to 41.9%, while that of Hispanics now stands at 44.1%, a six percentage point drop from its high of 50.1% in 2007.
In addition, the share of home purchases by first-time buyers has fallen to its lowest level in 27 years.
Absent a comprehensive public-policy response, these problems of affordability and access will only grow in scope and severity as a result of America’s ongoing demographic transformation over the next decade.
Members of the Millennial generation are now beginning to form households for the first time. In the near term, most of these young adults will find that renting will be their only housing option since they lack the resources for a mortgage down payment.
America is also becoming increasingly diverse, with minorities – particularly Hispanics – expected to constitute a much larger share of the overall population. Lacking significant wealth and income, many minority families will simply not qualify for homeownership. Again, renting will be the only housing option available to them.
With all this new rental demand surging into the market, we can expect rents to soar even higher than they are today. This dynamic, in turn, will be a source of stress and instability for millions of families, diminishing their prospects for social and economic mobility. The ultimate result will be slower economic growth and an America that is less prosperous.
With so much at stake, those seeking the highest office in the land must make housing a central issue in their campaigns and offer some clear-cut solutions.
After all, there are few subjects that can “hit home” with the voters like this one.