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Housing

 

Last weekend we went to a friend’s 50th birthday party.  They had a banner hanging on a door with various fun facts about 1971, the year he was born.  I noticed two in particular: the average household income in the US that year was $10,000, and the average house price was just over $25,000.  That means the average house cost 2.5 years of the average household income.

 

Now, according to a quick Google search, the average household income is $79,000, and the average price of a house is $409,000.  That means the average house costs 5.1 years of the average household income.  

 

In other words, if it seems like it’s harder to afford a house now, that’s because it is.  And that’s without factoring in the wild ride of the last few months.

 

Renting doesn’t solve the problem.  In 1970 (the closest I could get), average apartment rent was $108 per month.  In 2020, it was $1463.  Had it merely tracked average household income, it would be about $900.  So if it seems harder to afford an apartment now, that’s because it is.

 

Of course, averages only mean so much.  Most people in their twenties don’t make the average household income, both because they’re more likely to be single and because they’re typically at early stages of careers, where the pay is lower.  They may be in a “dues paying” phase, getting much less than they’re worth, or they may still be trying to get the first “career” job.  

 

Starting out was never easy, but it’s objectively harder than it used to be.  Our students know that well, even if they don’t know the data.

 

I bring this up in response to a small but growing movement of community colleges offering subsidized housing for low-income students.  

 

From a student perspective, the need is real.  Sara Goldrick-Rab’s essential work on student basic needs has highlighted the degree of housing insecurity among today’s students.  (I like the term “housing insecurity” much better than “homelessness,” because it’s more accurate.  Many students couch-surf, relying on weak and precarious ties to get by.  They may be housed at a given moment, but it’s nothing they can count on.)  Combine stubbornly flat entry-level wages — at least until the last few months — with stubbornly increasing costs of housing and tuition, and you get an economic pincer movement on students.

 

Community college students, as a group, tend to be lower-income than students who attend other places.  (The Girl had a shock last week when the flyer she received from one college mentioned proudly that almost ⅔ of its students get financial aid.  She did the math, and realized it was saying that over ⅓ of the students come from families that can put $70,000 a year on the barrel.  That’s a pretty skewed sample of America.)  The “free community college” movement is one way of addressing student need; widespread adoption of OER is another.  Now, we’re seeing some places move into addressing housing.

 

That may strike some people as mission creep, but I see it as something closer to parity.  Private colleges often provide “room and board” as a matter of course.  The basic idea is simple enough, and has a long lineage.  Aristotle didn’t believe that manual laborers could participate in politics or public discussion, because they lacked the time to contemplate higher concerns.  Machiavelli mentioned the “oak-lined study” in which he could commune with the ancients; presumably, somebody else was making dinner.  Virginia Woolf noted that to write, a woman needs a room of her own with a lock on the door.  Studying requires focus, and focus is easier when you aren’t pulling multiple afternoon shifts.

 

The difficult part is the business model.  At most colleges with dorms, as I understand it, the dorms function as profit centers.  So does food service.  They show up in budgets as “auxiliary” enterprises.  The profits they make — sorry, the revenues above expenses — help offset losses incurred in other areas.  If those enterprises are recast as social services, then they go from profit centers to loss centers.  That’s fine, if there’s enough slack in the budget to absorb those losses.  But most community college budgets have been running lean — too lean, really — for a decade now.  As an experienced president once told me, a college has to choose where to lose money.  

 

To the extent that student housing is underwritten by philanthropy, that answers the concern about cost but raises a question of scale.  Every little bit helps, and I would not turn down the ability to help some on the grounds that we couldn’t help all.  But we need to recognize that ultimately, the issue of student basic needs — very much including housing — requires a large-scale political solution.  

 

That’s risky territory for public institutions.  But it’s also the truth.  An economy in which entry-level jobs pay enough to get by is ultimately a choice.  It’s not the default setting of the economy, left to its own devices.  Middle classes do not occur in nature; they have to be created.  

 

So kudos to the schools that have found funding to provide affordable housing.  That’s great, and it will do a world of good for the students who have access to it.  The much larger task is rebuilding an economy in which housing insecurity is again unknown.  I’d love for the next banner looking back at 2021 to marvel at just how unaffordable we had let things get, and just how much better things got after that.  That wasn’t how the 1971 banner read.

 

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Sunday, June 6, 2021
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