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As millions struggle with home prices, housing becomes a top issue for voters

Sales of new homes like this one in Eagleville, Pa., are up modestly, while existing home sales have plummeted amid a housing shortage, record high prices and high mortgage rates.
Matt Rourke
Sales of new homes like this one in Eagleville, Pa., are up modestly, while existing home sales have plummeted amid a housing shortage, record high prices and high mortgage rates.

Melissa Williams says she did everything right. She has a college degree, a decent income working in accounting and no debt.

Williams, who’s 38, expected to be a homeownerby now. But when she started looking at houses in 2022, she found she just couldn’t compete with the sudden influx of people moving to her part of rural North Carolina to work remotely.

“I would call the day it went on the market, she says, “and the real estate agent would tell me, ‘Yeah, I can show you that property. But just so you know, it's already got two cash offers on it.’ ”

That same year is also when mortgage interest rates shot up — and they remain around 7%, adding hundreds of dollars to a typical monthly house payment. So Williams gave up buying and resorted to renting, only to find that those costs had also skyrocketed. “Now, you can't even get, like, a rundown trailer in a not very good area for less than $1,000 a month,” she says.

Williams says something has to change, and she’s frustrated that she doesn’t hear more solutions from either President Biden or former President Trump as the November election looms.

Housing policy and funding is largely a local issue. But across the U.S., including in swing states, persistent record high costs have bumped it to a front-burnerissue for many voters, in a presidential campaign where affordability in general is a major theme. Last month, housing was second only to inflation in a Gallup survey of Americans’ financial worries. In a Harvard poll of 18- to 29 year olds this spring, housing ranked as the third-most important issue overall, after inflation and health care.

“This crisis is big,” says Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. And while there’s no silver bullet, he says “it’s impossible to fix without the federal government taking a larger role.”

Roller says housing costs now eat up such a large share of incomes, many people have to cut back on things like food, medicine and saving for college or retirement. “And so people feel the way that housing costs are impacting all the other dreams that they have about their lives,” he says.

Biden and Trump offer vastly different plans on housing

Biden and Trump don’t talk much about housing, even though it’s the main driver of inflation. But Biden did zero in on housing when he visited Las Vegas in March. He touted the billions of dollars in rental assistance his administration provided during the pandemic, and he said expanded incentives and federal financing have helped spur record new construction.

“The bottom line to lower housing costs for good is to build, build, build,” Biden told the crowd.

Housing experts agree that a massive housing shortage decades in the making is driving up prices, and is a key reason behind record high rates of homelessness.

Nevada has one of the country’s worst shortages of affordable housing, and even a sizable chunk of middle-income families in the state are cost-burdened.

When the pandemic hit, “lots of families brought in their parents or their sisters, siblings and their children to save costs, to help with care, and probably all contribute to the household expenses,” says Rae Lathrop. She runs Desert Spring Community Resource Center, which started as a food pantry during COVID.

Even some people who want to move and can afford the monthly rent find themselves stuck, Lathrop says. That’s because landlords might require a high credit score, income that’s three times the rent, and an application fee for every adult tenant that can add up to hundreds of dollars.

Biden has met regularly with tenant rights groups who want more safeguards against eviction and exorbitant rent hikes. This year, he proposed tax credits to help first-time homebuyers, and middle-income homeowners who want to trade up — though some real estate experts worry such incentives could drive prices even higher.

Biden also has called on Congress to pass expanded tax credits and other measures to build and renovate 2 million affordable homes. That’s an idea Trump has pushed hard against.

“The woke left is waging full scale war on the suburbs, and their Marxist crusade is coming for your neighborhood, your tax dollars, your public safety, and your home,” Trump says in one of many short videos laying out his agenda.

Trump, who began his career in real estate, opposes loosening zoning laws to allow more multifamily apartments; he says they bring down property values. Instead, he wants to open up some federal land for housing. Nevada’s Republican governor has asked for that, and the Biden administration has also said it will supportsuch a move in Nevada.

Trump also wants to “stop the unstainable invasion of illegal aliens which is driving up housing costs, cut taxes for American families, [and] eliminate costly regulations,” campaign press secretary Karoline Leavitt said in a statement.

But when it comes to affordable housing programs, Trump’s administration proposed major funding cuts.

“They looked to cut back on housing vouchers or to eliminate the housing trust fund program, to cut back on public housing programs, all of which would exacerbate the housing and homelessness crisis in our country,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

When the dream of homeownership keeps fading

After her frustrating search to buy and then rent, Melissa Williams in North Carolina says she ended up “kind of homeless.” She couch-surfed for nine months. Finally, she found a home in foreclosure that her dad liked and bought. She feels lucky to be renting it from him at a below-market rate. But her future remains uncertain, because it’s the same place where he plans to retire in a few years.

“People my age, we all saw our families, our parents and what they had and we want to be able to give our kids that,” she says. “And we're not going to be able to.”

Williams is still saving up to buy a home. But with interest rates stubbornly high and prices still on the rise, “it feels like the goal post keeps moving,” she says. “So it’s like every year that I don’t buy, I’m further and further behind.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.