Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The latest State of the Nation’s Housing report reveals some troubling trends for buyers.
People of the Generation X persuasion tend to remember 1993 fondly. It was the year that Dazed and Confused and Jurassic Park hit theaters. The year Liz Phair put out Exile in Guyville and Counting Crows gave us August and Everything After. Man, ‘93 was righteous. It was also the year that Gen-Xers started buying homes—and a basement for the housing market that wouldn’t be seen again, until now.
A new report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University spells out bad news for Gen-X homebuyers, and worse news for the Millennials waiting in the wings. According to the 2015 State of the Nation’s Housing report, homeownership rates are down to the their lowest levels since 1993. And they don’t show any signs of improving.
The Great Recession hit Gen-X homebuyers especially hard. People who were born from 1965 to 1984 were either buying their first homes when the housing crash hit in the 2000s or just starting to think about trading up. When the market tanked, young homeowners suffered a real blow to their equity; would-be buyers, on the other hand, were simply frozen out.
So maybe it’s Gen X’s turn—again—to buy homes for the first time. That could be one reason for the reluctance among Millennials to enter into the housing market: competition from their (infinitely cooler and more jaded) elders. Another explanation for the sluggish homeownership rates among Millennials would be the one–two punch of rising rents and soaring debt. Nearly half of renters age 25 to 34 now pay more than 30 percent of their incomes toward housing. Almost one-quarter pay more than half. These buyers simply don’t have the savings.
But to explain how so many demographic groups could be doing worse than their similarly aged peers were 20 years ago—and all of them are, except for the retiring Baby Boomer set—requires a broader view. The severe strains on credit and liquidity triggered by the housing collapse make up parts of the panorama; so do stagnant wages, soaring land prices (especially in productive-but-NIMBY job markets), and other factors contributing to a sharp rise in income inequality.
The uptick in jobs, if it persists, will eventually see Millennials shake off their uncharacteristically Gen-X–ish malaise and start buying homes. But only if credit markets loosen up a little. The Joint Center for Housing Studies cites an Urban Institute estimate that indicates a stunning 37 percent drop in home-purchase loans for borrowers with credit scores in the 660–720 range from 2001 to 2013—and a 9 percent drop among borrowers with even better credit.
The housing market will eventually require building new homes, too, since Baby Boomers are unlikely to leave their present homes for upgrades, now that they’re rapidly retiring. (Until they reach their elderly years, when living alone gets more difficult, but that’s still a good decade off.)
In terms of jobs, the nation has finally found the road to recovery. But in terms of housing gains, the country is lost without a map. Virtually all of the gains that the housing market made since 1993 have been wiped out. It’s another measure of the severity of the Great Recession and housing crisis: the mark it left on not just one but several generations of Americans.