People Are Moving to Smaller Cities in Search of Affordable Houses That Don't Exist

Millennials are stuck renting in places they would never have chosen if not for the dream of owning a home.
May 23, 2019, 4:03pm

At the end of 2016, David Jax made a tough decision. He left his job in New York City and moved to Dallas in hopes of saving money for a down payment to buy a house. "I just hit 30, I had roommates every year since college; I was hoping this was an opportunity to get something of my own," said Jax, who works for an advertising company.

But even when he had saved enough to buy a $250,000 home, Jax found himself out-priced in the neighborhoods he selected, all about 30 minutes from his office in uptown Dallas. "There wasn't a single home in my price range that didn’t have holes in the roof or neighbors with trash in the yard," he said.


His friends had the same problem. Despite their decently paying jobs, he said, they were either opting for long commutes, or renting and living with roommates while they waited for an opportunity to buy. Meanwhile, access to the kinds of food, art, and music scenes Jax had grown accustomed to in New York felt like a distant memory. "Those opportunities decreased in terms of frequency," he said, as he continued to rent in his new city. "There truly is no place comparable to New York."

Young people, the conventional wisdom goes, enjoy living in shared housing (i.e. apartments and townhouses) and communal green spaces, with surveys suggesting they value access to restaurants, shops, and walking above privacy. But a significant number of them still want to follow the trajectory of generations past: Rent until you can save enough money, and then settle down in a house of your own. Owning a single-family home remains one of the primary tools families use to build wealth, and while millennials may be uniquely content with city life compared to older generations, research points to the fact that the majority of them would probably buy a home if they could afford one.

With the median cost of a house recently surpassing $300,000, strict zoning laws still in place, and incomes relatively stagnant, more middle-class Americans than ever are stuck renting apartments that consume roughly a third or more of what they earn. The percentage of American households that rent rather than own is at a five-decade high. Sometimes moving to a cheaper city works: Young people can afford to purchase at least a quarter of the houses in places like Oklahoma City, for instance. But often they find themselves priced out even after they migrate, feeling stuck renting in communities they would never have moved to if not for the dream of owning a home.


Some millennials have been going through this saga for longer than others. Justin Lipsky moved from Los Angeles back to his home town of Cleveland in 2003, along with his wife, Sarah. They expected to find a more affordable life there, which wasn't a bad idea: Even though the couple gave up the cultural scene that comes with life in a so-called "superstar" city, the cost of living in Cleveland is currently 33 percent lower than that of L.A., according to NerdWallet.

But when the now-30-something couple, who initially rented upon moving to Ohio, started looking to buy a house—one of the main draws of moving to the Midwest for them—the outlook wasn’t great. Finding a place within their approximately $250,000 budget meant sifting through listings of fixer-uppers, or looking at neighborhoods disappointingly far from the city center.

Eventually, Lipsky, a photographer, and his wife, who works in human resources for a finance company, decided to renew their lease in Cleveland instead. "I'm pretty money savvy and I knew what realtors were showing me was out of the question," Lipsky said. "You’re not going to trick me into home ownership."


The Lipskys. Image: Courtesy of Justin Lipsky

Joel Kotkin, a fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in California who has advocated for affordable single-family housing, said this dynamic amounts to more than just an economic bind. It reflects our larger society—one in which cities are willing to go to great lengths to prop up big tech companies and young professionals put career before family. "Do we want to have another generation, or do we want single, childless people?" Kotkin, who is author of The Human City, asked. Tech companies like Facebook and Amazon prefer the proliferation of luxury rentals, he continued, because they appeal to young workers who don't have families that would get priority above their jobs.

Working against these trends is a nationwide movement organizing around sweeping reform to bring down housing costs. For his part, Kotkin advocated making better use of vacant lots and redundant retail areas in cities, and erecting single-family homes "wherever they can be built." Laurie Goodman, vice president and co-director of housing finance policy at the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan think tank, has produced reports arguing more single family homes on the rental market would help, too. That, in tandem with a trend toward stronger rent-control laws, could help young people trying to save money for a down payment on their own place in the future.


But the cost of living is exceeding the growth of wages in the biggest, most sought-after cities, and coupled with millennials' massive debt, the hurdles are immense. Lauren Fairman, 28, moved to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to be with her now husband, Shawn, who was working as a sous chef in the city after attending culinary school. But the rents in Austin were on the rise (at the highest clip in Texas, according to a 2018 report), and they were not happy with their neighborhood.

With student loans looming—Fairman owes $75,000 and is still completing her bachelor's degree; her husband owes $50,000—they decided to move to Lake Conroe, a small town close to both of their parents, where they rented a two-bedroom condo on the lake for $845 per month. It's a quiet place, and their quality of life in some ways is better. But there's a catch: Shawn can’t use his culinary skills at the nearby Chili's and Applebees, putting his career on hold. Meanwhile, the Fairmans are still a long way from buying a home.

"I feel like continuing to rent would be like taking steps back," Fairman said. "But we don't have time to save the 10 percent down payment." With a budget of $150,000 to $195,000 for a home, she said, they were still about five years away from settling down. And to make matters worse, the owners of their condo were looking to sell it.

Given so many young people are caught in this limbo, it was inevitable that businesses targeted squarely at struggling millennials would start to pop up. Startups have formed to lend money to young people not to buy a house but just to rent. Meanwhile, Unison, an older "co-investing" firm, offers financial assistance for people who can't afford the down payment on their homes, in exchange for a percentage of the profit when they sell many years later. Ayesha Dillon, a director at the company, said a significant part of their clientele was millennial professionals, usually looking for properties within 30 minutes of a city center. "Over the last years, we've homed in on segments of the population, but we found that millennial buyers are coming out with student debt and have a harder time with the down payment, so they are a natural fit," Dillon said.

As investors loom, and reformers try to implement new policies, all signs point to a boom in even more rental demand and an increasingly strained market. Sixteen years after their move to Cleveland, the Lipskys, for their part, were considering yet another move driven by the elusiveness of affordable houses, even in cities they might once have considered less-than-cool. "It’s a real bummer," Justin said. "Our game plan now is if we find the right house, we stay. Otherwise we're looking at Las Vegas and St. Petersburg, Florida."

Meanwhile, Jax was waiting for the perfect home to open up as he paid $1,650 a month for his apartment. He said he couldn't help but wonder: "How long do I have to continue the rat race?"

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