By Ryan McMaken*
From crime rates to life expectancy to income levels, statistics at the national level are next to useless when it comes to measuring the daily lives of ordinary people in the United States. This is because the United States — which is a huge and geographically diverse country — is simply too large to be summed up in a single number. This sort of generalizing is inappropriate for pretty much any place that’s larger than a single metro area, but it’s especially bad when applied to a place like the United States. Even the larger European countries are much smaller, more compact, and less diverse than than US.
The importance of looking at things on a more local level is perhaps most important when looking at issues of homes and home prices. After all, even people who have never studied housing know that housing tends to be highly dependent on local issues, such as climate, local amenities, and access to employment. Many people already know that a four bedroom house in a nice Cleveland suburb is dirt cheap compared to a house of the same size in, say, San Diego, California.
So, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising to find that in many parts of the United States, buying a home continues to be quite affordable by historical standards. This fact has started to attract some attention in recent years. In her column titled “Opting Out of Coastal Madness to Live a Low-Overhead Life,” Anne Trubek discusses how its possible to live comfortably on $40,000. But here’s the rub. To do this, one has to live in an un-sexy midwestern city — albeit in a neighborhood with tree-lined streets and solid, four-bedroom houses.
Statistical data seems to bear this out as well. In June, the Brookings Institution released a new study showing that housing affordability varies greatly from coastal cities to the American interior. And by coastal, they mean “ocean coast.” Living near the coastline of the Great Lakes, apparently brings with it even more affordability:
The basic premise of the research is to analyze affordability based on the fact that “U.S. median house prices have been roughly 2.5 to 4 times median income.”Comparing current home prices to incomes in each area, the report concludes:
Metropolitan areas with low price-income ratios are located in very different parts of the country from high-priced metropolitan areas (Figure 5). The lowest ratio metros are mostly located in the Midwest, especially clustered around the Great Lakes, and scattered across Texas. The metros with the highest ratios are primarily along the Pacific and Northeast Atlantic coasts. South Florida, Colorado, and several smaller metros along the Southeast coast also rank among the most expensive areas. Across the U.S., most states have more metro areas with price-income ratios in the normal range (2.4-4.3) than metros with outlying values.
Comparing against incomes, of course, is important. It’s surely easy to find places where home prices are at rock-bottom levels — in places with depressed economies.
In this case, however, we’ll be looking at incomes in relation to housing prices, and it is not at all a given that places with good job markets must also have unaffordable housing.
Texas, for example, has for years had a substantial amount of employment growth. Yet according to the Brookings report, the state has numerous metro areas with “low” and “very low” price-income ratios on housing.
The focus here is on middle-income families, and on for-purchase housing. Low-income households and renters face a different set of challenges, but even middle-income households may daily be told through the media that housing in the United States is quickly becoming unaffordable. Except those articles and news clips tend to focus on housing in places like Seattle, or along the California coast. And there’s no arguing with the assertion that places like that are “unaffordable” for many middle-income people.
And as the Brooking article notes, and as I’ve noted, the lack of affordability in places like California can often be blamed on state and local government measures designed to limit the construction and diversification of housing. Zoning laws and other regulatory barriers to new housing production have decimated housing affordability of housing in many coastal cities. Cities like San Francisco and Seattle have essentially become playgrounds for the wealthy in which existing homeowners fight tooth and nail any attempt to allow sizable amounts of new housing construction. They do this, they tell us, to preserve “the character of the neighborhood.” But what they’re really doing is using government regulations to drive up the prices on their own real estate, while driving lower-income people further and further out into the periphery. Oh sure, these Progressive guardians of the local “quality of life” might allow a handful of subsidized housing units to be built. After all, somebody has to make your cappuccino or do your dry cleaning. But the overall effect is to ensure few people can afford to move in.
This issue, however, is far less prominent in the un-stylish cities of the interior where city officials still welcome new construction and new housing — and where there’s a greater abundance of less-expensive land.
Still Affordable by International Standards
I started out by noting it’s a bad idea to ignore the enormous regional differences in the United States when considering aggregate data. And that’s true.
It is interesting to note, however, that even when we include the price of California and New England coastal housing in our analysis, housing in the United States is still less expensive than in most other wealthy countries.
According to the OECD, housing expenditure in the United States is 18 percent of gross adjusted disposable income. That’s the third-lowest in the OECD. Moreover, housing costs in the US by this metric are only 75 percent the size of what they are in Denmark and the United Kingdom. US costs are 78 percent the size of housing costs in Italy.1
Americans also tend to get more living space for what they pay.
For example, the OECD notes that in the United States, there are on average 2.4 rooms per person. Only Canadians have more rooms per person. In Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, and Japan, however, there are only 1.9 rooms per person. That’s one-fifth less than the average in the US.2
And the number of rooms aren’t the only metric by which US homes are bigger. According to the BBC, floor space in newly built homes in the United Kingdom is less than half of what it is in the United States:
Federal Policy Favors Those Who can Get Into Expensive Markets
As the Brookings report notes, however, federal policy puts homeowners in more affordable markets at a disadvantage by favoring rapidly appreciating real-estate in pricier markets:
In low-priced areas, even families that have paid down their mortgages find it difficult to build wealth. That makes it harder for them to supplement retirement savings or borrow against home equity for their kids’ education. Federal tax policies that strongly favor owner-occupied homes over other asset types are not well suited to support middle-class wealth building in lower-price locations.
Another new study, recently profiled at Bloomberg, shows how post-2008 banking regulations favor building wealth through high-priced real estate over other options, such as building a family business.
So, for middle income people in a city where home prices are not appreciating very much, owners will be at a disadvantage — thanks to federal tax and regulatory policies — more than someone who sacrifices other important household expenses in order to live in a pricey market.
When it comes to simply putting a roof over one’s head, however, there are still many markets in the US where it’s possible to buy a house at a price that’s manageable for middle-income households. It’s true that these places are not the glittering stylish cities often featured in movies and sitcoms.
Those places tend to be controlled by wealthy Progressive elites who don’t want anyone new moving in.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published by the MISES Institute.
- 1. This data point includes rental housing. See: “Better Life Index, Edition 2017” https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=IDD
- 2. Rate = number of rooms divided by the number of people living in the dwelling. OECD states: “This indicator refers to the number of rooms (excluding kitchenette, scullery/utility room, bathroom, toilet, garage, consulting rooms, office, shop) in a dwelling divided by the number of persons living in the dwelling.”