Are Young Americans Shunning – Or Shut Out From – Homeownership?

The housing market is recovering, but the share of first-time homebuyers is at its lowest level in decades.

Eight years after the worst housing crash in modern history, there’s plenty of evidence the U.S. housing market is picking up steam. Median existing-home prices rose to $221,900 in September, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), while existing home sales were up 8.8 percent from a year ago.

But while the housing market might be recovering, homeownership has not. The benefits of the recent uptick are flowing largely to an older, wealthier group of homeowner “haves,” while a growing number of people – many of them young and non-white – are stuck on the sidelines and likely to stay there. According to the NAR, 67 percent of today’s homebuyers are married couples, many with incomes approaching six figures.

The prospects for homeownership as a gateway to the American Dream have, in fact, never been bleaker. The share of first-time homebuyers is at its second-lowest level ever, according to the NAR – down to 32 percent from an historic average of closer to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the overall homeownership rate was down to 63.7 percent in the third quarter of 2015 – the lowest it’s been since 1990, according to Census data.

Moreover, almost all of this drop is due to a sharp drop in homeownership by younger Americans. Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies finds that the homeownership rate for Americans ages 25 to 34 has fallen by more than 9 percentage points since 2004 and is 3 percentage points lower than it was in 1993. Meanwhile, homeownership among Americans age 65 and older has stayed steady.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Analyses by the Urban Institute predict the homeownership rate to drop even further, to 61.3 percent by 2030. According to the Urban Institute, just 38 percent of millennials will own homes in 2030, compared to 46 percent for Baby Boomers in the 1990s. In addition, homeownership rates for African-Americans will plummet from 46 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2030.

Some argue that many younger Americans are “opting out” of homeownership, eschewing the ball-and-chain rigidity of a 30-year mortgage that’s out-of-sync with their mobile lifestyles. But more evidence shows that millennials aren’t so much opting out of the housing market as they are being forced out – by high rents and student debts that make it impossible to save for a down payment, credit constraints that deny them a mortgage, and escalating home prices that favor people already in the market.

For example, Fannie Mae’s National Housing Survey finds that 91 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 intend to buy a home at some point in their lives, and only 19 percent of renters say they rent because it “gives them more flexibility in future choices.”

But the survey also found that 62 percent of young renters age 25 to 34 say they’d have difficulty getting a mortgage. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that just 36 percent of renters in 168 large metro areas could afford “a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage on a median-priced home in their areas, assuming a 5 percent down payment.”

Public policy should be working on way to make homeownership a viable option for those who aspire to it. But for those who don’t – or can’t – buy a home, there’s a fresh challenge that policymakers need to tackle: how to help non-homeowners build wealth.

Setting aside the social, psychological and societal benefits of homeownership, owning a home is a valuable exercise for many Americans because it forces savings. Even after the housing crash, home equity still accounts for the bulk of the wealth that middle-income Americans own. Moreover, the wealth gap between owners and renters is vast. In 2013, according to the Federal Reserve, the median net worth of homeowners was $195,400, versus $5,400 for renters.

What younger Americans need – either before homeownership or in lieu of it – are substitute mechanisms to build and store wealth. Even if a decline in homeownership rates is the inevitable new normal, a decline in wealth for succeeding generations should not be.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is senior writer at the Washington Monthly.