The rising cost of housing is one of the greatest burdens on the American middle class. So why hasn’t it become a key issue in the presidential primaries?
There’s little argument that inequality, and the depressed prospects for the middle class, will be a dominant issue this year’s election. Yet the most powerful force shaping this reality—the rising cost of housing—has barely emerged as political issue.
As demonstrated in a recent report (PDF) from Chapman University’s Center for Demographics and Policy, housing now takes the largest share of family costs, while expenditures on food, apparel, and transportation have dropped or stayed about the same. In 2015, the rise in housing costs essentially swallowed savings gains made elsewhere, notably, savings on the cost of energy. The real estate consultancy Zillowpredicts housing inflation will only worsen this year.
Driven in part by potential buyers being forced into the apartment market, rents have risen to a point that they now compose the largest share of income in modern U.S. history. Since 1990, renters’ income has been stagnant, while inflation-adjusted rents have soared 14.7 percent. Given the large shortfall in housing production—down not only since the 2007 recession but also by almost a quarter between 2011 and 2015—the trend toward ever higher prices and greater levels of unaffordability seems all but inevitable.
The connection between growing inequality and rising property prices is fairly direct. Thomas Piketty, the French economist, recently described the extent to which inequality in 20 nations has ramped up in recent decades, erasing the hard-earned progress of previous years in the earlier part of the 20th century. After examining Piketty’s groundbreaking research, Matthew Rognlie of MIT concluded (PDF) that much of the observed inequality is from redistribution of housing wealth away from the middle class.