In his magisterial 2005 history, A Nation of Realtors, Jeffrey Hornstein laid out the country-shaping effect of 20th-century housing policy. In the decades following the Great Depression, the federal government—as well as states and cities—subsidized the creation and consumption of single-family homes. The American dream’s most important archetype became buying a home. “Americans,” Hornstein wrote, “particularly white Americans, came to think of themselves as inhabiting a classless society, composed of one big ‘middle class,’ its membership defined to a large degree by actual or expectant homeownership.”
Recently, however, we’ve lost the plot on the classic life arc of yesteryear. Places where real estate is cheap don’t have many good jobs. Places with lots of jobs, primarily coastal cities, have seen their real-estate markets go absolutely haywire. The most recent evidence of this remarkable change comes in a new report by the real-estate firm Unison. The company, which provides financing to homebuyers by “co-investing” with them, calculated how long it would take to save up a 20 percent down payment on the median home in a given city by squirreling away 5 percent of the city’s gross median income per year.
Nationally, the gap between income and home value has been rising. Using Unison’s methodology, it took nine years to save up a down payment in 1975. Now it takes 14.
But the aggregate numbers make the decrease in access to the real-estate market seem gradual, albeit troubling, and underplay the spikiness of the country. In Los Angeles, it would take 43 years to save up for a down payment. In San Francisco, 40. In San Jose and San Diego, 31. In Seattle and Portland, 27 and 23, respectively. In the east, New York and Miami topped the list, requiring 36 years to save up that down payment. Only Detroit, at seven years, was under the national average from 1975
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