Stuck: Why rent and mortgage-burdened Americans don’t always move to cheaper pastures

When my friend Jose tells the story of the moment he realized he couldn’t afford his hometown of Denver, Colorado anymore, a lot of numbers come up. Two roommates. Three bedrooms. One landlord who happened to be a friend and cut them all a good deal. $400 a month in rent for his “super tiny” bedroom — but with Denver in the midst of a major housing boom and the neighborhood rapidly gentrifying around him, that number seemed likely to rise.

I had friends whose rents had doubled, and [I was watching them] scramble to figure out a solution. People were renting out their basements, taking on roommates, things like that, just to get by.
— Jose

“I had friends whose rents had doubled, and [I was watching them] scramble to figure out a solution,” Jose said. “People were renting out their basements, taking on roommates, things like that, just to get by.”

And there were another set of numbers on his mind, too: one girl in St. Louis, MO, who he just so happened to be dating long distance. $450 a month for his share of the rent on a huge, newly renovated one-bedroom apartment she wanted to share with him if he’d make the move to be with her. Hundreds of bonus square footage in the basement, plus a garage and a double lot where they could throw lawn parties every weekend. It all sounded pretty perfect.

But it wouldn’t be easy. Jose didn’t have a job lined up in Missouri. They certainly didn’t have the money for the moving costs; those would have to go on credit. Not to mention the fact that he’d also be leaving his home, his friends, and almost everything he knew behind in Colorado.

Like millions of rent burdened Americans, Jose was facing what might seem like a simple choice: to stay or to go. But embedded within that decision were a mountain factors, limitations and uncertainties — and once they’d all been put through their calculus, the choice might, effectively, be made for him.

The Myth of the Housing Market Vacuum

When we talk about our cities’ affordable housing crisis, even the smartest among us can start sounding like an introductory economics class. The hottest major cities have a low supply of cheap homes and a level of demand far higher than developers can keep up with, keeping prices steep. Meanwhile, emptying cities have an oversupply of vacant units, leaving local leaders scrambling to find ways to attract new residents while prices plunge.

On the macro scale, it makes sense — and make no mistake, many of our towns could stand to listen to the basic market feedback their citizens are providing them. There’s no universally good reason why our communities can’t at least make it legal to build a granny flat over the garage when demand is high or slightly relax requirements for developers in markets where the costs of meeting strenuous occupancy standards don’t match up with the rock-bottom rents that come with a low population level.

But talk to just one individual who’s gotten stuck (or even chosen to stay) in an expensive home they couldn’t afford, and all that Econ 101 vocabulary starts to fall short. Or at least, you’ll find fairly quickly that no one’s housing decisions are governed neatly by the laws of supply and demand in the housing market alone. And that's because all of us — as consumers and as human beings — are part of infinite markets with infinite feedback loops, not all of which are easily predictable.

After all, no renter or homeowner is only a renter and a homeowner; we’re also workers, commuters, partners, caregivers or care recipients, and members of communities that rely on us and shape our decisions. When we seek a feasible solution to our housing problems, we have to recognize that we aren’t talking about a single, monolithic market; we’re talking about doing some complicated math.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And that definitely means we owe it to our cities to sit down and figure it out. 

When Cheap Housing Costs too Much up Front

We can’t move, because our home value has tanked since we bought. If we sell the house, we would take a huge loss.
— Cindy, Orange County, NY

The most immediate hurdle to moving to a cheaper area is also the most obvious: the cost of moving itself. Between an estimated average in-town moving cost of $200-500 for a one bedroom apartment and the often staggering expense of a down payment or (even just a security deposit plus the first month’s rent,) the up-front costs of choosing an affordable home can be prohibitive — and when you’re considering an out of town move or even one that would simply take you away from a stable job, that seemingly small amount can be a virtual non-starter. According to a recent Pew research study, 64% of rent-burdened Americans have less than $400 in cash in the bank.

And homeowners don’t always have it much better. Cindy from Orange County, NY knows that she could “make [her family’s] money go much farther” in a neighboring state with lower housing costs. But the realities of her local real estate market wouldn’t leave her with enough equity to afford to buy again even if she did manage to find that perfect little house in Vermont that she dreams of. 

“The taxes [in my town] are so high here that only about 40% of every mortgage payment is actually mortgage,” Cindy says. “But we can’t move, because our home value has tanked since we bought. If we sell the house we would take a huge loss. So we hang on and hope that prices here improve enough that we could sell.”

But even those rent-burdened residents who do manage to save enough liquid cash to move still don’t always find affordable neighborhoods within reach. Kristen, who lives in New York City, says she “would love to live somewhere less expensive, but I do civil rights litigation and my wife is a criminal justice researcher, and those jobs just don’t really exist outside of major cities.”

Like many of the rent-burdened professionals I talked to, Kristen and her spouse didn’t only consider their housing costs when they embarked on their job searches; they also weighed the risks of lower job security if they moved outside of their professions’ dominant regions. “There are a few exceptions, but a move [to a cheaper city] for a job would be risky; if it didn’t work out, there would be no other options. Because of our job restrictions, we are constantly weighing the lesser of two evils. No matter where we move, we are always paying too much.”

A move [to a cheaper city] for a job would be risky; if it didn’t work out, there would be no other options.
— Kristen, New York City

Considering Commuting

Of course, cheap housing seekers with at least a little money in the bank (and, if they’re really lucky, a car they can afford in the driveway) might turn to the same solution that millions of workers have chosen before them: a lengthy commute. But sometimes, those commuting costs alone can make that affordable housing not so affordable.  

“We were just barely able to buy in Austin, TX,” Margaret says. “My older sister and her family live way out in the small town near the family farm and they pay less than half we do on their mortgage. But they drive all the way into the city for work and my nephew's school.” Still, Margaret admits her situation isn’t very different than her sister’s; she says she puts about 100 miles on her car every time she goes to and from the office. “I drive to San Marcos (a smaller city in the county directly south of Austin) for work. My younger sister has a tiny apartment relatively close to the city center and works from home; she's the smart one.”

Of the housing-burdened Americans I talked to who did manage to make a move to cheaper pastures, job flexibility like the kind Margaret’s sister enjoys was a key factor. Remote workers frequently reported lower housing costs; workers in cities with robust public transportation and connected pedestrian networks were at least able to manage cross-town moves when they were priced out of their neighborhoods.

Still, the realities of moving in response to a constantly fluctuating housing market can be grinding. Mary from New York City says she’s moved seven times since 2012 in response to rising rents, and she’s not sure how much longer she can do it. “I just don’t know where I’m going to go without pushing my commute much longer than an hour, or being over an hour and a half away from my boyfriend and friends,” she told me. It’s not hard to wonder how long it will be before Mary simply gets exhausted, decides to stay put and do her best to pay the high rent, too.

The Culture Factor

Many of the housing-burdened people I spoke with reported that their relationships were a major factor in keeping them in their too-expensive houses — and not just when it comes to staying within an easy train ride of your significant other. From maintaining access to family (who can provide not just a sense of your roots but also crucial, budget-saving help in raising children) to staying connected to cultures that give us a sense of roots and purpose, the rent doesn’t always just pay for the roof over your head—it pays to keep you in a community that you need in order to survive and live your fullest life.

“One of the main reasons I moved to Seattle, despite knowing it would be pricey, was because of Seattle's trans community and trans-friendly policies,” Arthur told me. “They aren't perfect, but they're a hell of a lot better than other places. I also really desperately wanted to stay in the queer district of the city, despite it getting more and more expensive each year.”

This graphic comes from a survey conducted by YouGov in Great Britain, but the answers for American residents about the benefits and drawbacks of living in more expensive cities would likely be similar. Click to view larger.

Another interviewee, who identified herself as a person of color and preferred not to be quoted on the record, told me that she’d taken on tenants in order to afford her Washington, DC mortgage rather than moving, in large part because she didn’t feel safe in the majority-white communities nearby that offer cheaper options. Access to DC’s Indian community and the sense of cultural belonging that comes with it were also something she considered. She told me how affected she’d been by stories of family friends making multi-hour road trips simply to buy authentic Indian cooking ingredients, and by the sensation of deep alienation another family friend experienced when he was assigned to a medical residency in rural Illinois and his family became the only non-white citizens in the neighborhood.

And then there are the million, squishy intangibles that can draw people to expensive city centers, even when far more affordable options exist out of town. Access to amenities like restaurants, museums, parks, and vivid, ever-changing street life can make the high sticker price on that one-bedroom feel a lot more worth it — and for many people, those “amenities” can add up to a huge difference in quality of life. While studies vary on whether urban or rural dwellers enjoy better mental health, take a personal inventory of the greatest pleasures in your life, and ask yourself a simple question: how many of them are made possible by your immediate environment? Now ask yourself: how much would I have to pay you in order to give each of those things up?

Getting Unstuck

Here at Strong Towns, we believe there is no silver bullet to fixing our cities’ problems. Our housing shortages won’t be fixed by simply building high rise apartment buildings on the edge of town; our housing vacancies won’t get filled by luring corporations to create jobs and shiny entertainment districts.

Of course, some building and some cultivation of our employment and leisure sectors are a great idea—especially if we cultivate and build incrementally, through a vast array of small projects that we test and iterate as we go. But when you get beyond the polarities of housing supply and housing demand, you’ll find a universe of other small, actionable decisions that we can and need to make, too.

To put more Americans in affordable housing, we also need to address the realities of the millions of Americans who can’t afford to move — and part of that includes asking ourselves a harder set of questions about how our development pattern helps keep our citizens in poverty. We need to address the supply of quality transportation options for all people — and no, plopping down a trolley line and hoping for the best won’t cut it. We need to cultivate communities where every generation of a family can afford to live, where people from all backgrounds and identities can feel safe and connected, and where the physical environment they inhabit is as endlessly dynamic as the people who live in it. (And that's just to mention the factors that my interviewees raised to me—this list is far from exhaustive, from the challenges we face in undoing our national history of housing discrimination to racial disparities in credit reporting and much more.) 

If that sounds daunting, that’s because housing is not something we can or should fix all at once. It’s something that will take the kind of hands on, sustained community engagement and listening that our cities simply haven’t done for generations. Fixing an affordable housing crisis is not one project; it’s an infinite, never-ending series of tiny projects, and the generations of tweaking and fiddling and humbling ourselves to find new ways to solve the ever-changing problems that our neighbors face.

It’s might not seem elegant. It might sound like the urgency of our crisis deserves a stronger, bigger response. But maybe it’s time we take a step back and rethink what a strong response really looks like.

As for my friend Jose: love (and to a lesser extent, cheaper rent), won out in the end. He took the plunge and left Denver — and years later, he’s still in St. Louis, and the girlfriend he moved to be with is now his wife. Every year, they make the decision to stay together. “We both are working on professional and financial goals that we could have done here or there, so why not do it in the place that is less expensive?” Jose says.

(Top image by TheMuuj)