North Americans love their single-family houses. And why wouldn't they? They provide privacy, lots of parking for cars so it's easy to drive to the mall or the doctor. It works wonderfully, especially if you bought your house 30 years ago for a fraction of its current value. That's why so few baby boomers are selling their houses; as long as they can drive, why would they?
That's creating a real problem for young people, especially millennials trying to buy homes. They're now as big a generation as the baby boomers, but new housing is too far out and takes a lot of time to get approved and built. There are lots of existing houses, but the baby boomers are staying put and not putting them on the market — even after their kids have left home. They are grossly over-housed, but hey, they own it and they're keeping it.
According to Bloomberg columnist Conor Sen, the people most affected by the housing bust 10 years ago were younger, Gen X types who bought at the peak of the market. Older homeowners bought their houses long before and were able to ride through the crash. Today, "homeowners over the age of 55 currently own almost 42 million homes, making up 53 percent of all owner-occupied houses in America." And they aren't ready to sell.
Downsizing for older homeowners, to the extent it happens at all, doesn’t begin until age 75 or so. The oldest baby boomers are just now hitting that age. We probably won’t see significant amounts of housing inventory from baby boomer downsizing until the latter part of the 2020s, which is sure to frustrate buyers looking to enter the market before then.
Not in my backyard
That's not the only thing that's frustrating. Once the baby boomers are in their houses and happy, they do everything they can to prevent anyone else moving in. A recent study looked at 97 cities and towns in Massachusetts and found that new housing was almost impossible to get approved due to resident opposition. Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick and Maxwell B. Palmer explain:
Many types of housing proposals require public hearings which solicit input from neighborhood residents. This is by design. After the excesses of urban renewal, many localities turned to neighborhood-oriented processes as a check against developer dominance. But, like many participatory institutions, these land use forums may be vulnerable to capture by advantaged neighborhood residents eager to preserve home values, exclusive access to public goods, and community character.
And the people who show up at those meetings? "They are 25 percentage points more likely to be homeowners. They are also significantly older, more likely to be longtime residents, and male. They are nine percentage points more likely to be white."
The meeting minutes show that these participants are highly effective neighborhood defenders. They are largely united in their opposition to new housing development, and frequently present themselves as prepared experts. They often persuade local planning and zoning officials to deny projects, or, at a minimum, delay developments by a few months with demands for more traffic or engineering studies. Other times, they threaten or actually file lawsuits, which can delay housing developments by years.
Many of these neighborhoods are near transit, the kinds of places where there should be intensification and development of housing of all kinds. Because in 10 or 15 years, where are all these baby boomers going to live?
Many of them are probably thinking that they'll be able to cash out with enough money to find a nice apartment or retirement residence in the neighborhood where they've always lived. Except the baby boomer cohort is so large that it has always moved markets. When they all start selling at once, they may well cause housing prices to drop significantly. This is happening now in wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, where according to the Wall Street Journal, rich New Yorkers are moving back to the city and other residents are downsizing to Florida. One rich ex-resident famously said "You can’t give away a house in Greenwich."
So young people can't get houses because the boomers won't sell, they can't get apartments because the boomers won't let anything get built, and then in10 years, the boomers are probably going to be stuck in houses they can't sell and have nowhere to move anyway because they fought every new development.
This is the mess we have created.
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