How the Housing Shortage Warps American Life

Atlantic writers explain why a lack of housing makes everything worse.

A real-estate sign is displayed in front of a home on February 22, 2023, in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle / Getty

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

Housing shortages color all aspects of American life, my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote over the weekend, including bagels, music, and education. The solution seems simple: Build more homes. But that’s much easier said than done, especially when Americans disagree about the basic facts of the crisis.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


“Nowhere Is Immune”

“In my mind, bagel shops open at 6 a.m.,” my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote over the weekend. “That’s how it works. You should be able to feel caffeinated and carb-loaded at 6:03 a.m. every day of the year, including Christmas.” But in San Francisco, where Annie lives, it’s tough to find a bagel place that opens before 8:30 a.m. She blames the housing shortage.

Annie’s theory might sound a little far-fetched, but she goes on to explain the evidence to back it up: San Francisco is not building nearly enough homes to keep up with the jobs it has added in the past decade, and rents are higher in the city than pretty much anywhere else in the United States. This means that many families navigating child-care costs can’t afford to live in San Francisco; the city has the smallest share of children of any major American city. That’s all to say: San Francisco is not full of people “who might be up at 5:51 a.m. on a Sunday morning, ready to hit the bagel store.”

And this kind of cause-and-effect goes far beyond bagel stores, and far beyond San Francisco, Annie writes:

Housing costs are perverting just about every facet of American life, everywhere. What we eat, when we eat it, what music we listen to, what sports we play, how many friends we have, how often we see our extended families, where we go on vacation, how many children we bear, what kind of companies we found: All of it has gotten warped by the high cost of housing. Nowhere is immune, because big cities export their housing shortages to small cities, suburbs, and rural areas too.

A trio of analysts recently coined a term for this: a “housing theory of everything.” “You now hear it everywhere, at least if you’re the kind of person who goes to a lot of public-policy conferences or hangs out on econ Twitter,” Annie writes. The theory has caught on, she argues, because it’s true: “Housing costs really do affect everything.”

She explains:

[Housing costs are] shaping art by preventing young painters, musicians, and poets from congregating in cities … They’re shaping higher education, turning elite urban colleges into real-estate conglomerates and barring low-income students from attending. They are preventing new businesses from getting off the ground and are killing mom-and-pops. They’re making people lonely and reactionary and sick and angry.

So what do we do? The solution is simple on its face: “Build more homes in our most desirable places—granting more money, opportunity, entrepreneurial spark, health, togetherness, and tasty breakfast options to all of us,” as Annie puts it. But this fix isn’t easy to achieve, in part because many people struggle to even recognize that a housing shortage exists—even when the evidence is right in front of them.

My colleague Jerusalem Demsas reported on this problem a few months ago: “Before I get to the veritable library of studies, our personal experiences compel us to recognize that housing scarcity is all around us,” she wrote, in an essay aptly titled “Housing Breaks People’s Brains.”

Even the rich are struggling to find homes, a sign of how wide-ranging the shortage is. As Jerusalem noted, video clips have gone viral showing “hundreds of yuppies lining up to tour a single Manhattan apartment.” But many people don’t necessarily connect these real-estate woes with the reality of housing scarcity.

People also doubt the effects of building more housing: A study published last year noted that 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe that if a lot of new housing were built, rents and home prices would rise, when in actuality, the evidence—and economic theory—suggests that prices would fall.

In her article, Jerusalem offers a few theories for what’s behind these forms of denialism, but the consequences are clear: These types of thinking “push against the actual solution to the housing crisis: building enough homes,” she wrote. “After all, if there is no shortage or if building new homes doesn’t reduce rents, then no one has to tackle NIMBYism, no one has to work to bring down housing-construction costs, and no one needs to build millions of new homes in America’s cities and suburbs. In fact, this magical thinking goes, we can fix our housing crisis without changing much of anything at all.”

The first step toward solving the housing crisis might be aligning Americans around a shared reality—and as we’ve seen time and again, that’s not easy to do.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. Newly released documents show that former Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich put out a report that withheld details of his office’s investigation of Maricopa County voting in the 2020 election; the county is Arizona’s largest voting jurisdiction.
  2. A strong winter-storm system hit much of the continental U.S., leaving at least 75 million Americans under winter-weather warnings or advisories.
  3. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency threatened the Norfolk Southern Corporation with a legally binding $70,000 fine for each day the transport company fails to clean up the toxic waste from its train derailment in Ohio earlier this month.

Dispatches

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

photo illustration of a woman trying to cure hiccups
Getty; The Atlantic

The Cure for Hiccups Exists

By Uri Bram

Hiccups are a weirdly distressing physical experience. In their normal version, they are benign and, given enough time and patience on the part of the sufferer, end by themselves. Yet there is something oddly unbearable about that brief eternity when you’ve just hiccuped and are waiting, powerlessly, for the next one to strike.

The search for a cure has, naturally enough in the age of the internet, resulted in a multitude of Reddit threads. Many claim a 100 percent, never-fails guarantee: putting a cold knife on the back of your tongue, saying pineapple, closing your eyes and gently pressing on your eyeballs, drinking water while holding down an ear. Specifically, your left ear.

Spoiler: None of these is a 100 percent, never-fails, guaranteed cure. As common and discomforting as experiencing hiccups is, remarkably little medical research has been done into the phenomenon—and even less into how to end a bout.

Read the full article.

More from The Atlantic


Culture Break

A still from the film 'Emily'
Bleecker Street

Read. There You Are,” a poem by Victoria Adukwei Bulley.

There you are

this cold day

boiling the water on the stove,

pouring the herbs into the pot,

hawthorn, rose;

Watch. Emily, a new film about the “most vexing” of the literary Brontë sisters.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

In a recently published article adapted from his new book, The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration, Jake Bittle writes about how climate change is affecting housing dynamics: Rising sea levels are turning coastal homes across the U.S. into sticks of dynamite, passed on to less and less wealthy owners with each sale—and at some point, they’re going to explode. Bittle’s work is another reminder that housing is inextricable from every other issue that touches American life, and life on our planet.

— Isabel


Kelli María Korducki contributed to this newsletter.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will join The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, Thursday, February 23—one year after Russia invaded Ukraine—to discuss the war’s latest developments and implications for U.S. foreign policy. Register for the virtual event here.