A critical component in the rise of market-oriented democracy in the modern era has been the dispersion of property ownership among middle-income households—not just in the United States but also in countries like Holland, Canada, and Australia, where it was closely linked with greater civil and economic freedom. In its early days, this dispersion was largely rural, but after the Second World War, it took on a largely suburban emphasis in the U.S., including within the extended metro regions of traditional cities like New York and Los Angeles. American homeownership soared between 1940 and 1962, from 44 percent to 63 percent.
Today, the aspiration of regular people to own homes—arguably one of the greatest achievements of postwar democracy—is fading. But the dilution of this key aspect of the American dream is not the result of market conditions or changing preferences, but rather the concerted effort of planners and pundits. California offers the most striking example. Housing affordability was once a hallmark of life in the Golden State, but over the past three decades, and particularly since the imposition of draconian climate policies, stringent land-use regulations have driven up land prices so much that middle-income, single-family housing is now virtually impossible to build, helping make prices of existing homes prohibitive. Median house prices in the state’s coastal metropolitan areas (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and San Jose) have risen to nearly 250 percent above the national average, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. Median gross rents, which tend to follow house prices, are more than 75 percent higher than the national average. According to the National Association of Realtors, it takes a household income of $273,000—almost five times the national average—to qualify for the median-priced house in the San Jose metropolitan area. In San Francisco, an income of $208,000 is needed. In San Diego, it’s $138,000, and in Los Angeles, $122,000—both more than double the national average.
Many younger people, wanting to live and work in the wealthy metros, have little choice but to become permanent renters, usually in smaller apartments. In California’s San Jose metropolitan area (Silicon Valley), homeownership among post-college millennials (aged 25 to 34) dropped by 40 percent in 25 years, compared with a less than 20 percent national drop during that same period. Few are saving sufficiently to make homeownership a reality. Millennials with college debt would need up to 27 years to accumulate enough for a down payment in the San Francisco metro area, according to one study.
Without owning a home, however, younger people face major obstacles to boosting their net worth, because property remains crucial to long-term financial security. Homes today account for roughly two-thirds of the wealth of middle-income Americans, and homeowners have a median net worth more than 85 times that of renters, according to the Census Bureau. Lower homeownership rates are a major reason why (according to2014 Census numbers) black households had a median net worth of just $10,000 and Hispanic households just $18,000. By contrast, white, non-Hispanic households had a median net worth of $130,000. Asians were even more affluent, at $157,000.
Seeking to address the crisis of affordability in prosperous metro areas, California’s recently shelved SB50, sponsored by state senator Scott Wiener, would have overridden local zoning by allowing fourplexes (four-unit apartment buildings) to be built in areas zoned for single-family dwellings. But SB50, operating on the assumption that increasing the supply of units would be enough to bring housing costs within reason, didn’t address other state and local regulations and fees that constrain housing supply, including measures that have blocked expansion of lower-density housing construction on the urban fringe. Urbanist Alain Bertaud has described how such regulations can worsen housing shortages, raising costs in both urban and suburban areas and harming the poor especially. As we’ve noted elsewhere, prior to the adoption of such measures, California’s housing prices weren’t that much higher than the national average, during a period when the state’s population was expanding rapidly.
Some of the support for such measures is openly hostile to single-family housing. Social-justice advocates, for their part, maintain that, since single-family neighborhoods have been historically white, their perpetuation is thus racist, as Seattle’s leftist weekly The Stranger contends. But we’re not living in Jim Crow times. Even in deep-South Atlanta, more than 70 percent of blacks and Hispanics live in the outer suburbs, where single-family housing predominates. In the 53 metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents, more than two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics now live in lower-density outer metropolitan areas. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine policies more disadvantageous to blacks and Hispanics than California-style land-use regulations, which have pushed up median house prices well beyond their grasp. Another source of opposition to single-family housing comes from today’s density activists, who claim that living close together fosters greater community spirit and positive social results. Yet surveys continue to find suburbanites more satisfied with their living conditions than those in the urban core or rural areas.
The most persistent opponents of middle-class, single-family housing, though, are the Greens. The environmental magazine Grist envisions millennials as a “hero generation” that will escape the material trap of suburban living and work that engulfed their parents, despite surveys and migration data demonstrating the opposite. That most families still prefer such housing is problematic, since, as one Grist editor put it, “a lot of green good comes from bringing fewer beings onto a polluted and crowded planet”—in other words, single-family homes encourage people to have more kids. Indeed, there is an association between suburbia and fertility: Census Bureau data show that people living in high-density neighborhoods have fewer offspring and are less likely to be married.
In fact, suburban houses, according to data in one Australian study (conducted by coauthor Cox’s consultancy), use less energy than do the dwellings of inner-city urbanites. As British scholar Hugh Byrd has noted, suburban roofs would be ideal places to site photovoltaic solar technology. In the future, he suggests, if this usage becomes commonplace, “suburbia will have a renewed role as both a collector and supplier of energy, a characteristic that cannot be achieved in the higher density CBD [Central Business District].”
Such opposition to single-family housing is occurring even as millennials, many entering their thirties, are demonstrating a preference for lower-density living. Since 2010, 80 percent of millennial population growth has been in the suburbs. Some of this is simply demographics: most people with young children, or contemplating the prospect of having children, prefer single-family houses. Nearly three-quarters of millennials want single-family detached houses, according to a 2019 report on homebuyer preferences by the National Association of Homebuilders. A 2018 Apartment List survey found that 80 percent of millennials aspire to homeownership.
These preferences can be seen in the marketplace. In America, among those under 35 who buy homes, four-fifths choose single-family detached houses. Since 2010, a net 1.8 million people have moved away from the urban-core counties of major metropolitan areas, largely to lower-density counties, where single-family houses predominate.
A strong land-owning middle order has been essential in democracies going back to ancient Athens and the Roman and Dutch republics, to say nothing of the United States. It was essential to the thinking of the Founding Fathers and writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville. Today, often through deliberate policy, we are undermining this critical property-owning middle class—and impeding not only the economic future and family prospects of a young generation but also the wellsprings of liberal democracy. If the trend persists, America will become increasingly feudal in its economic and social form.