On an otherwise sleepy Saturday morning, cars were parked bumper to bumper along a suburban street. Couples formed a line around the block, nervously sipping coffee and double-checking paperwork. They were there to see a charming but decidedly modest house—early-’90s suburban, vinyl shutters, holly bushes—that had just come on the market. Twenty-four hours later, the home had sold for 20 percent above the asking price and $100,000 more than it had sold for in 2006 at the height of a so-called housing bubble.
That’s a story we’re used to hearing about the frenzied housing markets of coastal suburbs such as Orange County and Long Island. But this house wasn’t far from where I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky—a midsize city where local boosters are given to bragging about affordability. It’s a scene that’s playing out in more and more cities across the country, especially in regions once accustomed to a low cost of living, such as the South and the Mountain West.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the shift to remote work was supposed to ease the long-festering housing crisis in “superstar” metros such as Los Angeles and New York. Prices would fall as workers once tethered to offices in Century City or Midtown Manhattan left for affordable suburbs near Las Vegas or Orlando—or so the thinking went. In reality, two years later, housing costs in those superstar metros are at record highs, while the wave of pandemic-era migrations has helped spread the affordability crisis nationwide.
Absent deep reforms to the way we plan cities, it’s only going to get worse.
2021 was always going to be a horrendous year for housing markets.
Let’s start with the demand side. As pandemic restrictions wound down, consumers found themselves with a glut of savings. A shift to remote work—likely here to stay—made a finished basement or an extra bedroom even more tantalizing. And for many prospective buyers, plunging interest rates made those upgrades affordable.
These factors might sound good for consumers seeking better housing, but paired with a snarled supply side, they spelled disaster. A nationwide labor shortage hit right as high tariffs and chaotic supply chains made building materials unavailable. By one estimate, a quarter of all construction positions remain unfilled, a situation unlikely to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, prices for key materials skyrocketed: Softwood-lumber prices, for example, increased nearly 500 percent from March 2020 to 2021.
Supply-side problems were especially apparent in major cities such as Atlanta, where residential permitting hit lows not seen since the Great Recession. Yet even where permitting remained steady, an unprecedented number of projects were scuttled. Within a block of my Los Angeles apartment, two half-built apartment buildings sit empty, casting shadows over tent encampments. With interest rates back up and the economy sputtering, the gap between permits and completions is almost certain to persist.
You don’t need to study economics to know that surging demand amid stagnant supply causes prices to rise. According to the Case-Shiller Index, nationwide home prices jumped by nearly 20 percent last year alone. That’s the highest rate since 1979, another year of crippling inflation and economic uncertainty.
Rents followed suit. The national median rent for a one-bedroom apartment also surged nearly 20 percent over the course of 2021. The average renter in any major U.S. city now spends more than a third of their income on housing, qualifying as “rent burdened” under federal standards. In Miami and Los Angeles, the typical renter now spends more than half of their income on rent.
If the problem were simply low interest rates or international-trade hiccups, we could reasonably expect prices to come back down. For all their faults, markets have a way of solving issues like those. But the current housing crisis is a symptom of something much deeper.
We walked into the coronavirus pandemic with a national housing crisis already brewing. According to a recent report by Up for Growth, a group advocating for solutions to the national housing shortage, the United States was short 3.79 million homes in 2019, a 130 percent increase over 2012. Researchers estimate that 169 metro areas—from Boston to San Diego—weren’t building nearly enough housing to keep up with demand, up from 100 metro areas in 2012.
At the start of the pandemic, many eagerly predicted that the “death of the city” would help solve this. A shift to remote work, the story went, would cause a wave of migration out of high-cost cities in the Northeast and on the West Coast—long suffering from self-imposed housing shortages—and into low-cost cities in the South and the Mountain West. This would benefit everyone, easing pressure on housing prices in the former regions while spurring economic growth in the latter.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Yes, places such as Manhattan and San Francisco lost some of their population. And pre-pandemic migration patterns—from California to Texas, for example, and from New York to Florida—ramped up. By one measure, approximately 360,000 people moved out of the Golden State last year, many of them going to states such as Nevada and Arizona in a kind of a modern exodus to the desert.
But if prices are any indication, these migrations were too little, too late: Rents in most high-cost coastal cities are rapidly rising, while home prices in California have never been higher. Even with unprecedented population losses, demand so exceeded supply that prices are unlikely to come down without a building boom. If you lose 360,000 residents but have a housing shortage of 978,000 units—as Up for Growth estimates for California—don’t expect home prices to fall by much.
That’s not to say that these migrations didn’t affect housing. On the contrary, all of those migrating households carried the crisis with them. The fastest home-price appreciation last year was in Phoenix and Tampa, where populations grew and prices increased by nearly a third. Apartments followed a similar trajectory, with rents in Florida’s four largest cities increasing by 25 to 55 percent. In Mountain West cities such as Boise and Bozeman, planners are now scrambling to accommodate an unprecedented surge in new arrivals.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a family moving from a coastal hub to relative peace in states like North Carolina or Colorado. But if they’re moving because housing shortages have priced them out of their community, that’s a policy failure. Worse yet, if they’re moving to a place with many of the same constraints on housing development, they might well be displacing the next generation of locals, spreading—rather than solving—the problem.
The COVID-19 reshuffling of Americans was supposed to buy us time in tackling the housing shortage. Instead, it likely took the crisis nationwide.
We’ve become used to hearing about arbitrary constraints on housing growth in “superstar” cities and their suburbs. (I wrote a whole book on it.) Policies such as segregationist apartment bans in the Bay Area, onerous parking mandates in Southern California, and community-input requirements leading to raucous public hearings in New England have made those regions prohibitively difficult to build in. If we want to contain the spread of high housing costs, these constraints have to go.
But what about all the “affordable” destination cities? Restrictions there are, in most cases, just as bad. Duplexes and fourplexes are banned in 84 percent of residential neighborhoods in Charlotte. In Salt Lake City, minimum-parking mandates mean that apartments can’t be built without either towering garages or huge lots. In Austin, naysayers have successfully delayed a liberalizing zoning overhaul for a decade. And even in pro-growth states such as Georgia, California-style NIMBYism stands in the way of new housing in most suburbs.
To the extent that these cities were ever affordable, it was because they had undeveloped land on their periphery, where developers could build low-density residential subdivisions—just about the only thing that zoning doesn’t prohibit. But as Dallas is discovering, you eventually run out of vacant land within a reasonable commute of job centers. In Miami, local policy makers are even rolling back flexible-zoning rules in a brazen attempt to block new infill development.
Until recently, policy makers in states like Utah or Tennessee were used to dismissing housing affordability as a coastal issue. If they thought about it at all, they certainly weren’t looking to the coasts for solutions. But as the housing crisis comes to more places, they’ll soon find that they have a lot to learn from states such as California, where policy makers have streamlined approvals for affordable housing and legalized fourplexes over the past few years. The silver lining of being further along in a crisis is that you’re also further along in solving it.
There’s an apocryphal Mark Twain joke: “If the world ends, I’ll just head on down to Kentucky, because they’re always 20 years behind.” When it comes to housing, our grace period is over.