it’s homes, not housing, stupid

Why home demand is really surging — and it’s not economics

It’s all over the news these days: millennial homeownership is finally surging. No one knows what to think. Is it a bubble? Is it Gen X or Gen Z moving into the market? Is it pent-up demand or a lack of supply, or both?

No matter what generation they’re from, most lifelong renters will tell you: it’s not so much the real estate investment as it is the escape from greige we’re looking for.

We’ve lived in soulless apartments and houses for decades now. Our carpets and walls are always thin, our windows never soundproofed, our insulation shoddy. Our paint schemes are always some form of gray or beige and we can’t fit anything in the tiny kitchen cabinets or stackable washers and dryers. We have no land, no yard, no outdoor space that is ours alone.

We’ve lived for so long surrounded by the job lot aesthetics of contractor pricing that when we enter a home someone owns and see magical new things like painted walls! and hanging plants! and a garden! and a built in bookshelf! we have moments of complete aesthetic overwhelm.

Photo by Jose Alonso on Unsplash

I grew up in places that didn’t have much — single wide trailers, hand-built houses that might charitably be called cabins and looked more like lean-tos. I busted my ass for years to get to where the American Dream pointed me, to build a better life for my kid. Yet now that I’m sitting in an apartment in a small city, I realize that I was freer in the trailers of my childhood. I could plant blueberry bushes and stain my fingers with their fruits every year. I could paint my kitchen yellow because it lifted our spirits in the mornings. I could build my kid a footbridge across a creek just for fun.

I could even — no, really! — hang up a picture just using a damn nail, just because I felt like it — without getting permission, calculating how much I’d have to pay for each one on moveout, or ordering special hanging hardware fully approved by my landlord. I could even — gasp! — decide I didn’t like the placement, take the nail out, and move it where it suited me.

We, as a generation, haven’t been able to hang a picture on a wall in our own damn home without asking for permission in all our long adult years.

And when we run the numbers? Shit. Renting almost always looks like losing now, because it is; in most markets, it’s cheaper to buy than to rent, even in this massive maybe-not-a-bubble we’re in.

But there’s something deeper here, too, a desire for connection that’s deeper than what we create behind screens and avatars in this crazy world, a desire for something — just one thing — that we can control and change to suit us. A desire for a place to call home, to belong — the most simple and human of all desires.

In the chaos of the world and our particular place in it, the deep-rooted desire for a place that doesn’t feel temporary, that we aren’t always planning to leave behind, feels like more than an investment. It feels like a big, vulnerable, terrifying thing we’re afraid to look at too closely for fear it’ll be just another dream that never comes true.

I think the homeownership dream, and the terror it brings, is particularly true for those of us who are older, with kids and families and parents to care for, who can’t necessarily just nomad out to countries where the cost of living is cheaper or have ethical concerns about our impact on those communities if we did.

Even for those who don’t have care obligations, home ownership isn’t even really an economic decision. If it were, we probably wouldn’t choose it right now. It’s not like we’re magically out of student debt post-pandemic. Most of us are in worse shape than we were before, which we didn’t think possible. Getting a mortgage is harder than ever, post-pandemic. But like so many things, the economy seems determined to cheerfully prove to us that yes, it can always get worse, and your options can always get smaller.

It’s not really about a long-term investment or getting our first foot (literally) in the door to be able to own assets that grow. It’s more about the freedom to hold a space, just one, tiny, physical space, that’s our own. I think, for us, it’s less about making an economic investment and more about making one in peace of mind.

Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash

It’s about having a holiday tradition where the stockings hang in the same place on the same wall more than one year at a time, or marking how tall your kids are on the same wall every year. It’s about letting your kids paint their walls because it’s creative and fun and good for them. It’s regaining a connection to the earth we’re on, stewarding a space that nourishes and shelters us, planting a garden where we can enjoy things we grow with our own two hands.

It’s about a place where you can close the doors and know that, barring bad bankers or your own problems, your home is yours — that the place of security that you and your family come home to every day can’t be taken away because your landlord decided to sell up or got divorced and needed to liquidate or an investor bought your building for a tear-down. It’s a place where you can provide for those you love — you can take care of maintenance, you can provide actual pest control, you can make it as safe and clean and loving as you want.

And that dream isn’t about economics. It’s about security — not financial security, but peace of mind, safety, in a world where we’ve had very little of that. Especially this past year.

The devastation of losing that particular dream isn’t just economic. It’s deeply instinctual and it’s valid, and the world would be a better place if we could find our way to an economy that recognized that homeownership isn’t just an economic investment but an investment in security and stability for everyone, regardless of where you live or what you make.

Although I’ve worked in and with governments for a long time, I don’t know exactly how we fix it. We’ve tried and mostly failed to address housing in the US (and other developed countries) for decades, mostly because we never talk about the root issues of wealth inequality and wage stagnation and zoning and gentrification.

I only know that, like so many others in my generation and younger generations, we’re hitting the point where millions of people are realizing that no matter how hard we hustle we are never getting ahead.

That kind of hopelessness? It’s probably dangerous for your big macroeconomic conversations, just so you know. Maybe someone with some power and control and security could take a look at finding some ways to fix it. (Not us. We’re too tired from working multiple jobs to stay afloat and spending our free time filling out the paperwork required to hang up one of our kids’ pictures on that greige wall.)