The real cost of expensive housing

Innovation Hub
A "For Rent" sign in focus in font of a house.

The American dream has long depended on people being able to pick up and move. If you can’t do that, you can’t follow opportunities. But today, those opportunities are frequently concentrated in places like Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, New York City and Washington, DC, and one thing those areas all have in common is expensive housing. For many, that makes the move impossible to begin with, which means that some Americans find themselves unable to pursue the careers that could most help them and their families.

According to Tamim Bayoumi, a deputy director at the International Monetary Fund and a co-author of the paper “Stranded! How Rising Inequality Suppressed US Migration and Hurt Those Left Behind,” we’ve been seeing this trend for decades.

“What has happened is that internal migration within the United States has fallen very considerably since the early ’80s. It’s approximately halved, so that means that only half as many people as a proportion of the population are moving now as they did 40 years ago,” Bayoumi explained.

During those 40 years, house prices have skyrocketed, especially in prosperous areas. To take Washington, DC, as an example, a family could find a house in the 1980s for $100,000 (which, in today’s money, is roughly $282,000). Today, the median price for a single-family home is north of $800,000, a price many families cannot pay.

“The reason that this matters from an economic point of view,” Bayoumi said, “is that one of the secrets to American prosperity has always been people getting up and leaving somewhere and going somewhere else for a better life. In fact, that’s sort of fundamental to the American dream to some extent.”

Bayoumi said that when such movement slows, we see less “churning” in the labor market. That is to say, fewer people are moving around and “finding the right fit” in their career, and that lack of mobility has long-term consequences.

“These movements allow people to go from places which are less prosperous to places which are more prosperous and thereby make themselves and their families richer, and, perhaps more importantly, maybe their kids [richer],” he said. “There’s a lot of evidence that moving to a more prosperous area is linked to better lifetime achievements for your children.” 

For some, those potential benefits encourage creative workarounds. Twelve years ago, Nakia Adams moved her family from northern Virginia to North Carolina to get away from city congestion and high costs. She hoped to find a “better, slower lifestyle” for her and her family. Unfortunately, while she may have found that slower lifestyle, she didn’t find many career opportunities.

“There are jobs there, but they are few and far between,” Adams said.

She instead took a job in the Washington, DC, area and chose to make a five-hour commute once a week. (The rest of the time, she works from home.)

Adams said the 10-hour round trip takes its toll and that she spends most of her weekend recuperating, but she ultimately called the situation “not too bad.”

“I’d rather make the sacrifice myself than uproot my entire family, and we’ve already kind of built a life here,” Adams said.

Adams is not alone in taking on a long commute to keep the job she wants while still being able to afford a home.

Jillian Nebesar, who lives in the suburbs outside of Boston, called the housing issue “unsustainable for everyone.”

“We opted to buy a house in Salem, which is one of the few communities that we could afford along the commuter rail,” Nebesar noted. “I drive three to four hours round trip, and my husband takes the train for about the same amount of time (if it’s functioning). In my nonprofit agency, we make so little [money] that no one that works there can afford to live there, but yet we all commute to provide services to people in the city.”

Others told us they’re still living in the city — but barely making it work. Stuart Cameron, a Boston resident, shared that he and his fiancée live in a 775-square-foot apartment in town, which he said is not ideal for a growing family. 

“Within the next couple of years, we will have to contend with paying off student loans, upsizing our apartment due to kids, and paying astronomical childcare costs,” Cameron explained. “Even if career advancement goes flawlessly, it is difficult for us to imagine having a family in this city.”

According to Bayoumi, some potential solutions for people being shut out of expensive housing markets could involve making changes to zoning laws and transportation improvements, which would open up opportunities for those looking to enter these markets, as well as those who have been priced out. 

Those solutions would, “increase the labor pool, allow those who have been moved out to come in and actually enjoy the fruits of the greater prosperity, and generally have a better time,” Bayoumi said.

Sarah Leeson is an associate producer for Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahbration.

A version of this story originally appeared on the Innovation Hub.

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