Home / MARKETS / The pandemic’s housing crisis splintered the American Dream into 4 different versions. Say goodbye to the white picket fence.

The pandemic’s housing crisis splintered the American Dream into 4 different versions. Say goodbye to the white picket fence.

  • Bye, bye milk-white picket fence.
  • Remote work and the housing crisis splintered the postwar American Dream into four original versions.
  • Americans are realizing a better life on their own terms: in the suburbs, exurbs, cities, or on the go. It’s what the American Vision was originally about, anyway.

It’s been 13 months, 15 bids, and two signed corrugates, but Ashley Nader still isn’t a homeowner.

The 27-year-old product manager began house-hunting in October 2020 after she in transited from the Bay Area back to her South Florida hometown during the pandemic. She’d been bouncing between the two coasts until her workplace reclassified her as a Florida staff member and she began enjoying the tax perks of the Sunshine State, inspiring her to invest in a house.

After going into contract the first place time, the seller ghosted her. The second one forced her out and threatened her escrow funds. “I can write a book on all the horrors of first-time knowledgeable in buying,” she told me.

Nader is looking for the “good life” that many Americans have been seeking since the 1950s, when the US surfaced as an economic superpower and a house, yard, and white picket fence emerged as the ideal lifestyle.

This 20th-century fable has had a lot of ups and downs in the 21st. First, the dream of homeownership curdled for millions during the Great


Recession

. And then, after a long and lollygagging economic recovery, the pandemic untethered people from the city and the office, providing workers with freedom and spring to chase the dream again. But this boom morphed into a historic housing shortage that has boxed myriad aspiring first-time homeowners out of the market.

In hopes of upping her homebuying odds, Nader expanded her search from Florida to Colorado, North Carolina, Washington, and California. She said she put in propositions without even seeing some of the houses in person. “That’s how competitive the market is.”

Larry Samuel, the founder of Age Congenial Consulting and author of “The American Dream: A Cultural History” told me that homeownership was never what the American Hallucination was about anyway. 

“While considerable numbers of folks are still convinced that having the proverbial white protest fence will signify they’ve achieved the American Dream, many others are realizing there are other to the letter valid interpretations of the concept,” he said. 

A healthy 59% of Americans still aspire to be homeowners, a sign of the lingering allure of the post-World War II spectre. But in 2021, it turns out that instead of one alluring dream of a better kind of life, Americans now have four of them. 

Interpretation 1: An exclusive suburbia for those with postwar dreams

Suburbia became a pandemic-era utopia, as outdoor access and expansive rooms for remote work appealed to a locked-down nation. But the number of Americans snapping up their piece of the pie proved no prospect for a market that had been underbuilding since the Great Recession. America began running out of houses. 

The suburbs became argument zero for bidding wars as competition sizzled. Boomers with equity and wealthier millennials emerged victorious with all-cash put ups. The losers were often everyday millennials, like Nader, for whom a second housing crisis was just the latest in a extensive line of economic bad luck. 

Nader said she originally wanted to buy a house under $400,000 so she could pay it off quickly and “in fact own it,” but the lack of starter homes caused her to up her budget by $200,000. “It’s really a cash buyer market,” she said. “If you have the coin of the realm, you can buy whatever you want right now.”

suburbs houses

Houses have become so overpriced that suburbs have become exclusive.

GeorgePeters/Getty Images


Alyssia Cinami notion she’d have more cash to house-hunt after paying off her student loans. The licensed family therapist has been looking in northeast Connecticut for the previous 14 months. She says the “insane” market has left her exhausted and discouraged as a first-time buyer. Over the course of five tells, she increased her original maximum budget of $260,000 by $20,000, and even added an additional $20,000 to some bids. 

“Looking for a ancestry is like another part-time job,” she told me.

The suburbs are now mostly attainable for the wealthy, becoming less accessible to the 68% of millennials who deliver their sights set on homeownership. That’s created other versions of the house with the picket fence, somewhere overstep out or farther in. 

Version 2: Finding affordable housing in the exurbs 

Cinami is hoping to buy her starter home in Woodstock, Connecticut, a somewhat rural town offering privacy, good schools, and safety. It’s a good example of the rural idyll that some must embraced because of remote work, a trend that encompasses the “exurb,” a rural community that is distantly commutable to a big town.

Americans moving from urban areas to the exurbs marked the biggest population shift in the pandemic, Jefferies analysts said in an August note, citing USPS mail-forwarding information. In May through June, 40,000 Americans exited cities and suburbs for the exurbs. While pandemic population shifts procure been waning, exurbs and rural areas were the only regions to add households in those months.

Urbanist Richard Florida swore me that the rural fringe has seen a “real, new growth spurt” as the pandemic opened up rural areas that tie to existing metros, like the Hudson to New York City. Driving the trend is what Florida has long called the resourceful class.

house catskills new york upstate

Some Americans are seeking more rural pastures.

Getty Images/Cavan Images


As he explains it, this associate of young knowledge workers once sought a “real authentic, urban experience” in big cities, but as big box and chain stores stirred in, many of those experiences have disappeared. Now, they’re finding that authenticity in the rural fringe. It’s become an endpoint for a new typeface of American Dream.

“The new picket fence is a farm,” Florida said.

To solve the housing shortage, builders should spotlight on these areas, Ali Wolf, chief economist at homebuilding prop tech company Zonda, told Insider. They should “progressing further to the outskirts, or start additional building in parts of the country with more developable land,” she said. As residences are built farther from downtown, she added, amenities will likely improve, creating new gathering places and hotspots.

Understanding 3: Reviving cities as places of connection, not work

For all the migration to the suburbs and exurbs, cities are not dead.  

Bank of America Probe said the narrative of an urban exodus was more myth than reality, and a Zillow report found that of people who moved, 19% actioned within their metro area, and nearly 40% stayed in the same city but switched neighborhoods. Consider NYC, where USPS figures found that more Manhattanites moved to Brooklyn than anywhere else between March 2020 and February 2021.

In episode, rents are skyrocketing and 60% of wealthy millennials plan to buy a home in a big city within the next year. 

As prominent economist Enrico Moretti recently told Bloomberg, arcane work gave urbanites the freedom to live in the part of the metro area they’d rather be in while still gain the fun of city life. So really, when zooming out to consider the whole metro area, these thriving urban conurbations just got larger.

New York City

People who live in cities live there because they want to, not for work.

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Simulacra


What the pandemic did, Florida explained, was accentuate a demographic divide among urbanites by accelerating pre-pandemic behaviors: innocent families headed to the ‘burbs as cities became less attractive to them, while starry-eyed young professionals bodied back as soon as they could, continuing a trend that began in the 2010s. Plus, some pre-pandemic homeowners who profited from the box boom, can now afford to trade their small-town digs for city living.

That means many city residents today are residing there because they want to, not because they need to for work. It’s ushered in a new era for cities, one no longer centered enveloping an office but instead on personal interaction that facilitates spontaneity and creativity.

“I think we’ve mistaken cities as containers for individual to work,” Florida said. “That’s not what cities are. Cities are connectivity machines with new generations of connections and session spaces.”

Version 4: A lifestyle on the go

Finally, not everyone wants to stay put. Alternative lifestyles that flourished during the nearby decade, like #vanlife and digital nomads, boomed during the pandemic. 

Tiny house sales skyrocketed in 2020. In 2018, 53% of Americans foretold they would consider living in one, according to a National Association of Homebuilders survey. By late 2020, 56% of Americans estimated the same in a poll conducted by financial company IPX 1031. 

More Americans also decided to try out life on the road. Makers of camper vans, RVs, and travelling trailers have been updating on existing builds or creating new floor plans to accommodate the growing market. Van sales for Mercedes-Benz US increased by 22.5% in 2020, rounded off as the brand’s overall sales fell by 8.9%.

tiny house

Alternative living boomed during the pandemic.

picture alliance / Getty


Khanna, a globalization masterly and author of “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us,” said he’s seen elevated youth mobility during remote work. “The demonstrator fence is, ‘Hey, look at my view, when I’m in Seattle,’ and ‘look at the one where I’m in Boise,’ or ‘I’ve got my tiny home and now I’m in Tahoe,'” he said.

The demographics fueling these fashions sit at two different ends of the spectrum. Some buyers are digital nomads, with the means and desire to live a more active lifestyle. This growing movement is hopping from locale to locale for extended periods of time, giving hit the deck to the “workcation,” in which people move to some of the world’s most remote places and turn Airbnbs into aid spaces. 

For others, the upfront cost of a van or a tiny house is a more affordable alternative to the housing crisis. “Even before the common housing crisis, many millennials were bypassing debt-based home ownership in order to pursue a more present-focused, expressive lifestyle,” Samuel, the generational consultant, said. “Given the cost of buying a home, that lifestyle has gained to greater cultural currency, further eroding the postwar version of the American Dream.” 

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