Record-low U.S. housing affordability is squeezing homebuyers and renters while threatening to spill into presidential politics.
Milwaukee, the largest city in key swing state Wisconsin, saw affordability deteriorate in its rental market more than almost any U.S. metro area in the year ended July, according to a measure by the National Association of Realtors. The region also recorded one of the greatest increases in mortgage burden among the biggest 50 metros in the past year, data from Zillow show.
The housing situation in Milwaukee, the site of next year’s Republican National Convention, is a version of a scenario playing out in cities across the country: U.S. mortgage rates in August hit the highest level since 2000, which has translated into the fewest home-buying applications in decades. Adding to the pressure is the scarcity of inventory, which has helped push selling prices, as well as rents, to near record-high levels.
Milwaukee’s crunch stands out, though, because housing in the region has traditionally been relatively stable and cheap, and because it has potential for political fallout: Among large metro areas in swing states, it had the greatest decrease in housing affordability in the past year.
That could shape voters’ views of their own prosperity and the wider U.S. economy, creating a political vulnerability for President Joe Biden — especially with young voters, who are hard-hit by declining housing affordability. Biden can ill afford any setback in a state he won by just 20,682 votes in 2020. Philadelphia, another major population center in a closely fought battleground state, is also among the U.S. metros with the largest increases in mortgage burdens last year, according to Zillow data.
“It contributes to a general sense that the American dream is out of reach, and that if the Democratic Party promises a middle-class American dream and it’s failing, then I think those voters are more likely to listen to the Republican Party,” said Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor.
School teachers Maggie Golab, 35, and Jenny Rechlicz, 31, began looking for a starter home in Milwaukee after getting married in July. After looking at 21 houses and getting outbid on three of them, they were finally able to purchase a small bungalow in the Washington Heights neighborhood this month.
While they are pleased with the location, they had to bid above the asking price, and were only able to afford the home because the upstairs and basement are unfinished. They’ll have to spend the next few years remodeling to get the livable space they wanted, Golab said.
“It was definitely very frustrating and kind of heartbreaking,” Golab said of the home-buying process, noting that prices for homes in certain neighborhoods were way higher than she anticipated.
Milwaukee historically has had a relatively stable and affordable housing market, meaning higher costs have a larger proportional affect there than in volatile markets such as in the Sun Belt, said Mark Eppli, director of the Graaskamp Center for Real Estate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, said most of the new housing in the Milwaukee market has been luxury apartments, with construction of single-family homes plummeting after the Great Recession.
“It’s very tough to be a buyer,” said Beth Jaworski, who’s been a real estate agent for 31 years in the Milwaukee area and represents Golab and Rechlicz. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quite like this.”
Few buyers are insulated from the challenges. In the suburban county of Waukesha, just west of Milwaukee, home prices have risen almost three times more than incomes while available inventory hasn’t met demand, according to a July report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
Teig Whaley-Smith, who leads the Community Development Alliance in Milwaukee, estimates there are 17,000 Black and Latino families aspiring to buy a home in the county for $125,000 or less — but only 1,500 such properties are available. He blames out-of-state investors buying single-family homes to rent.
Millennial and Generation Z voters under the age of 45, who comprise an increasingly large share of the U.S. electorate, are disproportionately affected by housing affordability. Exit polls show they voted overwhelmingly for Biden over former President Donald Trump in 2020.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted March 27 to April 2 found that 66% of U.S. adults ages 18-29 were not too confident or not at all confident that Biden can make good decisions about economic policy, and 62% of adults ages 30-49 feel the same way. Polling of Generation Z by SocialSphere Inc. found that the inability to buy a home was their second-largest source of unhappiness.
Biden will need strong turnout from these younger cohorts to repeat his victory in Wisconsin.
The president has touted his efforts to lower housing costs, boost available supply and protect renters, while Republicans have blocked his efforts and haven’t offered their own plans. He’s proposed a “Housing Supply Action Plan” with legislative and administrative actions to help close the U.S. housing supply shortfall in five years.
“President Biden is investing in affordable housing after decades of inaction,” spokesperson Michael Kikukawa said in a statement. “He believes young people deserve to live in a quality home that they can afford to rent or own—that they deserve a fair shot at the American dream.”
And it may help that some voters care more about issues such as climate change and abortion and don’t tie conditions in their local housing market to the policies of national lawmakers.
Ka Seng Lim, a 25-year-old engineer and Democrat from Milwaukee, said he doesn’t blame Biden for the low inventory and the fierce competition for affordable houses that he and his fiancée encountered before finally buying a starter home last month.
Still, Republicans see it as a weakness for the president, pointing the finger at him for “killing the American dream of homeownership.” While inflation has moderated since last year, GOP candidates have sought to tie Democrats to the soaring prices consumers have recently seen in many corners of the U.S. economy.
Republican strategist Doug Heye said that high prices, especially for housing, are the main reason Democrats can’t be confident Biden would beat Trump next year, if he’s the GOP nominee.
Chris Sinicki, chair of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County, said she’s concerned about how Republican messaging on housing affordability might weigh on turnout. In particular, she worries it might discourage Black and young people from voting in the numbers Democrats need to win her state.
“It’s something that as Democrats, we need to figure out how we’re going to counter,” Sinicki said in an interview. “We need to get out every single voter in Milwaukee County.”