“I Got Mine”

Like college debt and climate change, the housing affordability crisis is generational warfare.

The Golden Gate Bridge with a "Sorry, We're FULL" sign under it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Wiese_Harald/iStock/Getty Images Plus and SchulteProductions/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The numbers in California tell a dire story these days: In 2018, despite low unemployment and high wages, the state’s population grew at its slowest rate in history. Fewer people are coming and more people are leaving because it’s very hard to find a place to live. In the past two years, homelessness is up 17 percent in San Francisco and 43 percent in Oakland’s Alameda County. Counties in Silicon Valley and the Inland Empire also recorded double-digit homelessness increases. Compared with the national figures, the state’s home prices are 2.5 times above average, while rents are 50 percent above average. “While many factors have a role in driving California’s high housing costs,” the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office concludes, “the most important is the significant shortage of housing, particularly within coastal communities.”

How many people must live in the street before we can build new homes?

More was the answer earlier this month from the California State Senate, which puntedagain—on a popular, radical solution to end the state’s debilitating housing shortage. Right now, apartment buildings are banned in most of California. By allowing them near mass transit, SB 50 would have increased California’s feasible annual housing output by a factor of six. But that would have changed the character of many neighborhoods with bus routes, according to state Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from the L.A. suburbs who last week halted the legislation’s progress to maintain the status quo of single-family zoning. “It was the time to take a breath, and we took a breath,” he said. Portantino is the former mayor of a town that has not built an apartment in a decade, one where the median home sells for $1.6 million. A breath or three.

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Mar Vista resident Glenn Zweifel summed up a view that has pervaded meetings and online discussions on the subject: “I have always maintained that there is not necessarily a shortage of housing but an excess of people. Just because you want to live somewhere doesn’t mean you can.” In short, California is full.

In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo writes that “this sort of nakedly exclusionary urban restrictionism is a particular shame of the left.” Manjoo and many others blame wealthy liberals for throwing up the gates—not just in California, but in other high-cost cities and suburbs as well.

Apartment bans are a case of rich vs. poor, longtime resident vs. newcomer, and, all too often, white vs. black, but they are something else too: generational warfare, a showdown in which older homeowners are telling younger renters that there’s no more room. Seen that way, the housing affordability crisis serves as a useful framework for understanding a handful of urgent American issues that have stalled out, particularly intraparty conflicts on the left like those over student debt and climate change. Whether by intention or simply in effect, it has begun to feel like the politics of an older generation saying, “Fuck you, I got mine.”

American gerontocracy has levels. There is the president, who has not processed new information since 1990. There is Congress, which has an average age of 58 in the House and 63 in the Senate—among the oldest group of legislators in U.S. history. There has until recently been an enormous age gap in voter participation, and a familiar divide between older and younger Americans on issues like race, immigration, religion, and America’s place in the world. It all adds up to two different ideas of the country.

But there is a parallel struggle at work, driven not by competing ideologies but by older Americans’ apparent indifference to the challenges facing their younger counterparts. In principle, at least, everyone basically agrees that housing and college should be affordable and that the air and water should be clean. But older Americans have already enjoyed an affordable college education, a choice of affordable neighborhoods, skies full of monarch butterflies, and oceans with fish living in them. So when it comes to addressing the fact that reality has changed—that housing near good jobs is no longer affordable, that going to college now entails decades of debt, that Miami will be underwater in 30 years—their resistance to address the changing reality reads as a collective shrug of self-interest. I got mine.

For most of the 20th century, America been run by elder statesmen, with the average representative now 20 years older than the median resident. What’s changed is that for once, things are not getting better with each passing generation. Even on the left, our elected officials don’t seem to quite get it. One sign of their disinterest is the continued inaction in Washington, in statehouses, and at the polls on issues like housing affordability, college costs, and climate change. But sometimes they are more explicit, as Joe Biden was when he said he has “no empathy” for millennials talking about how tough things are. Biden’s presidential campaign has the support of almost half of Democrats over 45, four times the support of his closest opponent.

Let’s review how things have changed for young Americans since the wunderkind from Delaware became the sixth-youngest senator in U.S. history in 1973. The median income for young men is lower now than it was then. Average net worth for young households in 2016 is 20 percent lower than it was for boomers in 1989 and 40 percent lower than for Gen X families in 2001.

Relatedly, the cost of getting a college education more than doubled between 1985 and 2015. Student loan debt is approaching $1.5 trillion—up from $90 billion in 1999, a 1,500 percent increase. While some Democratic candidates are proposing versions of a debt jubilee, for the moment, the best young Americans can hope for is the largesse of random billionaires or debt forgiveness from a hamburger chain sweepstakes.

On housing, the ratio of median home price to median income—the years of salary it takes to buy a home—is 4.2, a full point higher than it was in 1988. In the nation’s best job markets, the barriers are higher still: Miami’s price-to-income ratios are up from 2.9 to 6.3 since 1980; Denver’s are up from 2.7 to 5.5; Seattle’s are up from 2.5 to 5.7. In wealthy cities and suburbs, (mostly older, mostly white) homeowners have successfully made housing the investment of a lifetime—their lifetime. Not coincidentally, the share of home equity owned by Americans over 60 has risen 17 percentage points between 2006 and 2018. That’s in part because we are building fewer homes per capita than at any time since World War II, a situation that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Nowhere is this tendency of older Americans to shrug off a crisis more pronounced than in their reluctance to address the climate change crisis they helped create. Unlike Republicans, however (where there is a big generation gap over the issue), older and younger Democrats basically agree that climate change is man-made and affecting the United States.

When it comes to dealing with it, though, it’s a different story. Biden, the avatar of that older cohort in the Democratic primary, is reportedly seeking a “middle ground” approach to addressing climate change. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have also urged a moderate approach. That lack of urgency has angered younger climate activists, who will bear the worst effects of the crisis.

In April, a Harvard Institute of Politics survey asked voters in their 20s to evaluate whether various groups “care about people like me.” Boomers as a group scored lower than the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and Donald Trump.

Of course, it’s unfair to judge all Americans over 55 by the incompetence of our wizened legislatures: Many older Americans do get it. Many have been sounding the alarm about climate change for decades. The leading voices of progressive federal policy on the campaign trail are Bernie Sanders (77) and Elizabeth Warren (69), and the best climate policy belongs to Jay Inslee, who is 68.

It’s also true that inaction on housing and climate harms older people too. The affordability crisis is in some ways hardest on the elderly, and the lack of diverse housing options makes it impossible for even well-off seniors to downsize in their own neighborhoods. Older Americans are also more vulnerable to the extreme weather associated with climate change. And in the largest possible sense, the inability of younger Americans to secure long-term financial stability is bad news for everyone.

To solve this problem, younger people need to keep voting like they did in 2018—when, for the first time, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z cast more votes than boomers and older generations, with millennial turnout doubling from 2014. It doesn’t feel like an accident that the youngest woman ever elected to Congress has done more to advance climate change discourse in Washington in six months than Democrats have done in a decade. But they can also try to make the case—in community meetings, in statehouses, and in Washington—for empathy. Young people in college, at planning meetings in Palo Alto, or protesting in Dianne Feinstein’s office, aren’t asking for anything radical—just for what their parents and grandparents already had.