March 1st, 2023
Can We Afford Today’s Unaffordability?
I have a friend who lives in California, and I remember when he moved out there how stunned I was by the costs for real estate. This was 20 or more years ago and even back then the best you could do for around $500,000 was a very small, major fixer upper. About three to four years ago, he told me that it looked to him like prices in my area (of Virginia) had gotten just as bad as where he lives. When he first said this, I was dismissive. But after kicking around the idea of moving, I’ve noticed he isn’t far off. These days, it’s hard to find anything under half a million dollars where I live. And while we aren’t considering new construction, new homes start at more like $600,000—or more—for what used to be around $400,000. Now, upgrading from our current three-bedroom, two-bath home looks like a pipe dream.
With [DWM], affordability is an issue we discuss often, as we monitor its influence over construction and demand for doors and windows, but mainly from the perspective of new homes. What we don’t talk about as often are the implications for everyday families. New construction aside, between 2020 and 2022, the median-priced existing single-family home rose from just over $300,000 to $392,600, all while mortgage rates climbed from 3.17% to 5.4% (and higher). That pushed the monthly payment for mortgages on a median-priced home from $1,035 to $1,764. These days, to afford a median-priced home, families need to make at least $84,672. But in 2021, a median household income in the U.S. was $70,784. The numbers don’t line up.
I’ve heard plenty of debate over whether or not every American is “entitled” to home ownership and as a journalist I have no interest in tossing my opinions into that arena. On a personal note, however, I witnessed what happened 20-plus years ago, when underwriting terms loosened to a degree that the mortgage industry handed out loans to just about any and everyone. From where I sat (as someone who worked on legal documents for mortgages and real estate closings) it didn’t take a genius to see that a crash was approaching in the coming years. (Though I was long gone by then and working as a journalist.) But regardless of how you feel about home ownership and affordability, the fact is: Everyone must have a place to live. And not only have the recent upsurges in home prices driven home ownership out of reach for a large swath of Americans, but they’ve also dragged rental rates along for the ride. Add to that general inflation and now many Americans are in a very tight spot.
But it’s more than just coast-to-coast price comparisons that has me thinking about affordability. In recent days, other important news sparked my thoughts: President Jimmy Carter. Political views and affiliations aside, when I heard the news that Carter was declining medical care and would instead spend the remainder of his days at home, in hospice, immediately I realized that we’re on the verge of losing one of the nation’s biggest proponents of affordable housing. Or that’s how I’ll remember him at least.
Starting just a few years after the conclusion of his presidency, President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, began working tirelessly to promote affordable, decent housing—including through the work of their hands via Habitat for Humanity’s Carter Work Project. According to Habitat officials, over the past more than 30 years, the Carters have worked alongside over 100,000 volunteers, including in 14 countries, building, renovating and repairing well over 4,000 homes. “That’s one of the things Habitat has given to us: an ability to share, side by side, building a home with families that have never had a decent place to live,” Carter once said.
Now, as he faces what looks to be life’s final, brief chapter, bipartisan efforts are underway to address the need for more affordable housing.
“Today is a day when we celebrate bipartisanship,” said Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.), in a recent full committee hearing. Federal housing policy has long been disconnected from economic reality, Scott suggested, while thanking his constituents for working together to understand “the plight of so many Americans who are suffering through the challenges of homeownership or renting.”
I’m certain that President Carter is pleased to hear about these efforts, including Scott’s suggestion that effective housing policy should be driven by communities—exactly the type of communities that Carter has spent the latter part of his life serving.
Just this week, a family member announced that Carter has “still got some time in him.” If you’ve seen the photos and news reels of Carter in his 90s, swinging a hammer on Habitat jobsites, then you know how tough and determined this man is. By that token, I would not be surprised to find him—in however much time he has left—doing his part to spur along developments. At 98 years of age, I think we can all agree that he’s run the race for affordable housing to its fullest.