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Brendan's New Book!

Lab alum Brendan O'Brien graduated from NAU in Geography a couple years ago. His thesis focused on housing in the west but took a unique angle, looking at the crisis from a perspective that drew on race, class, and the frontier myth. I learned a lot from it. He has written a book based on his graduate work that comes out later this month (Chicago Review Press, I read an advanced copy and highly recommend the book. Well-written and engaging, the book provides a prescient perspective on housing that is timely and essential reading.

Here is an overview Brendan wrote for the blog. Enjoy!

Housing is under threat in the United States.

 Marc McDonald and his wife know this as they pay $2,100 per month to live in a converted motel room in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. His wife is going through cancer treatment.

 Mark Grden knows this as he sees new neighbors every night in his 25-year home outside Joshua Tree National Park. The quiet, affordable community he moved into is gone.

 Ana Ramon Bartolome knows this as she sweats through the summer in a two-car garage in Sun Valley, Idaho, along with three other adults and two kids. They have no sink, refrigerator, or air conditioning.

 There are similar stories in Sedona, Arizona, where a third of all housing units are short-term rentals. The same is true in Park City, Utah, where 43 percent are.

 But the problem is more than short-term rentals. In 2022, 11.2 percent of counties—more than one in every nine—in the United States had at least 20 percent of their housing units set aside as second homes. These places are peppered throughout the Western Slope of Colorado, along the Oregon Coast, and across the Northwoods stretching from Minnesota to Maine. They are in Flagstaff (Arizona), Hot Springs (Arkansas), and up and down the Gulf Coast. In short, they are found almost wherever there are mountains, beaches, or any publicly protected natural wonder. And almost every place providing an escape from the pressures of daily life for some leaves others with no escape. They either pay 30, 40, 50 percent, or more of their income toward housing, commit to a Nomadland existence in the margins of town, or leave entirely.

 But even if they’re willing and able to uproot their lives, they need somewhere else to go. In the three and a half years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, housing prices across the country have skyrocketed. The median sale price of a house has risen 33 percent, from $329,000 to nearly $437,000. That’s nationally. In places where wages and populations have grown, these prices routinely hit $600,000 and $700,000. Meanwhile, rent nationally has grown 20 percent. In places seeing some of the most major growth, these prices have risen 25 and 30 percent. Often, the sale and rental prices are higher.

In many cases, median wages have grown because of an influx of remote workers, a so-called “Zoom boom.” For construction workers and restaurant servers and teachers and most of the people who have lived in the community for years, their job will remain in person, but they must now compete for housing with newcomers and visitors on Silicon Valley and Wall Street wages.

This is only one reason for the price increase. Investors have also bought up an increasing share of homes, especially low-priced homes and homes in rapidly growing markets. In the first quarter of 2022, they bought up a record-high 28 percent of all single-family homes, including one in every three homes in Atlanta.

 Amidst this backdrop, many commentators point to a housing shortage—a lack of supply—as the underlying issue. They say that housing hasn’t been built because developers are opting to build larger homes, which is true. In 1981, around 39 percent of new homes built were less than fourteen hundred square feet. By 2001, less than 15 percent achieved that standard. In 2021, only around 5 percent did. They say this has happened partly because homeowners are resistant to new building in their neighborhoods, which is true. But many who make these claims argue that fixing zoning alone or incentivizing more building will solve our housing issues, which is utterly, dangerously false.

 Housing is unaffordable throughout the United States. It’s unaffordable because there is a litany of people—from investors to developers to existing homeowners to politicians at every level of government—that has deemed affordable housing a bad investment. It’s this fact that entrenches the racial, class, and generational inequality which grips our country. And it’s this fact that has made stable housing one of the defining social and political issues of our time.

 I wrote Homesick for this reason, to document the problem. But I also wrote it because I was seeing so many ways in which we can change it. Community land trusts and a renewed interest in public housing initiatives provide avenues for ways of sustaining communities. Cooperative housing, creative equity models, and inclusionary zoning ensure that these communities remain places for everyone. There are countless innovative approaches to addressing our housing issues, because the solutions are as diverse as the neighborhoods and towns enacting them. But the bottom line is that housing cannot be another product beholden to the bottom line.

Ultimately, we have to change how we view housing. In doing so, we will expand our narrow vision of what’s possible in our communities and throughout the country. And that’s a very worthy investment.

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