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The Daily Beast:

In some markets, high rents and weak millennial incomes make it all but impossible to raise a down payment (PDF). According to Zillow, for workers between 22 and 34, rent costs now claim upward of 45 percent of income in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Miami, compared to less than 30 percent of income in metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. The costs of purchasing a house are even more lopsided: In Los Angeles and the Bay Area, a monthly mortgage takes, on average, close to 40 percent of income, compared to 15 percent nationally.

Like medieval serfs in pre-industrial Europe, America’s new generation, particularly in its alpha cities, seems increasingly destined to spend their lives paying off their overlords, and having little to show for it.

No wonder that rather than strike out on their own, many millennials are simply failing to launch, with record numbers hunkering down in their parents’ homes. Since 2000, the numbers of people aged 18 to 34 living at home has shot up by over 5 million.

One common meme, particularly in the mainstream media, has been that millennials don’t want to buy homes. The new generation, as Fast Company breathlessly reported, is part of “an evolution of consciousness.” Other suggest the young have embraced “the sharing economy,” so that owning a home is simply not to their taste. The well-named site Elite Daily asserts that the vast majority of millennials are headed to “frenetic metropolis” rather than becalmed suburbs.

And it’s not just ideologues claiming millennials have evolved out of home ownership. Wall Street speculators like Blackstone are betting that the young are committed to some new “rentership society,” with that firm investing $10 billion to scoop up existing small homes to rent, and even building tracks of homes exclusively for rent.

But it’s not a lifestyle choice but economics—high prices and low incomes—that are keeping millennials from buying homes. In survey after survey the clear majority of millennials—roughly 80 percent, including the vast majority of renters—express interest in acquiring a home of their own. Nor are they allergic, as many suggest, to the idea of raising a family, albeit often at a later age, long a major motivation for home ownership. Roughly 80 percent of millennials say they plan to get married, and most of them are planning to have children.

As economist Jed Kolko notes, as people enter their thirties they tend to head out of core cities to suburban locations; roughly one in four people in their mid to late twenties lives in an urban location but by the time those people are in their early thirties, that number drops precipitously and continues dropping into their eighties. In fact, younger millennials, notes the website FiveThirtyEight, are moving to the ’burbs at at a faster clip than previous generations. What’s slowing that trend is economics. Many can’t afford to move, or to transition into a traditional adulthood.

Once identified with youth, California’s urban areas are now experiencing a significant decline in both their millennial and Xer populations. By the 2030s, large swaths of the state—particularly along the coast—could become geriatric belts, with an affluent older boomer population served by a largely minority servant class. How feudal!

Ownership of land has always been a critical component of middle-class wealth and power. Those celebrating the retreat from homeownership among millennials are embracing the long-term decline of that middle class, two thirds of whose wealth is in their homes.

The potential decline in ownership also represents a direct assault on future American prosperity.

With so many millenials unable to afford homes, or even to see a path to future ownership, household formation has been far slower than in the recent past. Rather than a surge of middle-class buyers, we are seeing the rise of a largely property-less generation whose members will remain economically marginal into their thirties or forties. Indeed by 2030, according to a recent Deloitte study, millennials will account for barely 16 percent of the nation’s wealth while home-owning boomers, then entering their eighties and nineties, will still control a remarkable 45 percent of the nation’s wealth.

It’s time for millennials to demand politicians abandon the policies that have enriched the wealthy and stolen their future. That means removing barriers to lots of new housing in cities and, crucially, embracing Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of Broadacre Cities, with expansive development along the periphery.

These new suburbs, like the Levittowns of the past, could improve people’s lives, while using new technology and home-based work to make them more environmentally sustainable. They could, as some suggest, develop the kind of urban amenities, notably town centers, that may be more important to millennials than earlier generations.

Paul Ciano

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