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Opinion Stop blaming millennials for the housing crisis

A sign near new homes under construction at a housing development in Novato, Calif., on March 23. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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The country has turned against my generation once again, this time for having the nerve to try to find somewhere to live.

Early in the pandemic, some wondered whether the rise of remote work might revitalize smaller, cheaper, “second-tier” cities. Footloose, white-collar millennials could invigorate the Rust Belt! Hollowed-out towns! Rural areas! And everywhere else that had been shrinking, aging and or otherwise needing an influx of working-age residents (and their tax revenue).

It was nice for my generation to finally feel wanted after having been maligned since at least the Great Recession.

Alas, two years later, everyone has changed their minds.

Home prices and rents have skyrocketed, and available homes for sale recently reached record lows. Bidding wars are fierce. And if a spate of recent news coverage is to be believed, millennial “Zoom towns” are to blame for the resulting housing crisis, particularly in lower-cost areas.

Apparently, the problem is not the chronic underinvestment in new construction over the past decade. Nor is it exclusionary zoning and other NIMBYist obstruction of more, and denser, housing. Never mind that boomers are increasingly hanging on to their many-bedroom domiciles rather than downsizing upon retirement, in part because of state tax laws that reward incumbent homeowners for staying put.

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Ignore the persistent supply-chain problems and tariffs that have increased the cost and build time for new construction.

No, the problem is us young(ish?) whippersnappers. We entered our prime childbearing years and then callously decided to put a roof over our children’s heads. If once millennials were accused of failure to launch, now we’re faulted for launching too aggressively.

Such news coverage has made me wonder: Where, exactly, are millennials supposed to live these days?

Definitely not with our parents. For years, we were mocked and scolded for crashing in mom’s basement, despite the fact that millennials graduated into a terrible job market that likely stunted our earnings for the next decade. We were urged to stop wasting our money on avocado toast so we could finally leave the nest and buy homes of our own.

The median price for an existing home is $375,300; avocado toast is, at the pricier end, perhaps $15 a pop. So, we each need to buy about 25,000 fewer avocado toasts than whatever we might otherwise consume. Then, boom! Dream home, here we come.

Once we do scrimp and save, that dream home mustn’t be in a big, expensive city, close to the highest-paying jobs. If we live there, we might contribute to gentrification, attracting bars, restaurants, boutiques and other desirable amenities that drive up property values and push out incumbent residents.

We’re also not supposed to decamp to smaller “idyllic towns”; there, too, we’ll displace the legacy locals and force them into tent cities, according to some recent coverage.

So let’s see: We can’t buy existing housing stock either close to work or far away from it, or pretty much anywhere in between, because then our bids would drive prices too high.

Might it be acceptable for someone to build us new housing instead? Also, no. Not in cities, not in suburbs, not even in the countryside.

You can’t build where there’s some aging retail — as in northwest Washington, D.C., where a developer wants to construct 99 new residential units (most of which would be reserved for residents who make less than 60 percent of the median income) and a nonprofit arts space. A local group, Friends of 14th Street, is working to quash it.

The group is “not objecting to affordable housing,” it argues, echoing NIMBYists everywhere. “What we are objecting to is the size, density and scope of the project.”

What if that proposed housing is sited, say, where there’s presently a parking lot? No, sir, at least not in a big metropolis such as San Francisco, according to that city’s board of supervisors.

Okay, so cities are out. What about suburbs in Montgomery County? Or Valley Stream, N.Y., on the site of a closed funeral home? Or someplace more rural, such as Churchill County, Nev.?

Your would-be neighbors say no, lest it harm their area’s “character.”

Today’s younger workers are not the only ones struggling with a lack of available, affordable housing, of course. Those with lower incomes and people of color, whatever their age, have been disproportionately housing-insecure and cost-burdened for generations. This, too, is a result of choices society has made to chronically under-build and over-zone.

But millennials are not only victims of the more recent and widespread affordable housing crisis. We are also somehow blamed for it, even though it is older, incumbent homeowners who refuse to either move or permit the creation of new housing for others to move into.

So I ask again: Where exactly are we allowed to live, per the judgment and voting behavior of our elders?