It’s often said by economists that housing costs have risen faster than wages in recent decades, but just how wide is the gulf between income growth and gains in property values? We now have a better sense of that, thanks to a recent study by Eylul Tekin, a researcher for home listing site Clever.
Across the country, after adjusting for inflation, the study found that, since 1960, median home prices have climbed by 121 percent, and household incomes rose less than one fourth as fast, registering just a 29 percent increase. That’s along with a 72 percent spike in median gross rent, which has made it much harder for many renters to save for a down payment to be able to buy their first homes. Nationally, the price-to-income ratio is 3.6 in 2019, meaning it takes about 3.6 years’ income for a typical household to be able to pay for a typical home. A ratio of 2.6 or lower is considered affordable or healthy. It hasn’t been since the 1990s, according to the study, that a ratio of income to the price of a home nationally was within that range.
Numbers provided by Clever show that Atlanta has fared better than many Western and coastal cities when it comes to the spread between incomes and home values. During the 1980s, exactly as home values in many other cities began to gain distance from incomes, the price-to-income ratio in Atlanta actually went down, from 2.8 to 2.6 — still well within territory considered affordable. The region grew faster than any in the country from 1980 to 2013, with a 136 percent spike in population over those years. But throughout that period and since, the ratio of home prices to incomes has remained relatively stable, never growing larger than 3.8. In 2019, it’s holding steady at 3.6.
Of course, there are places where this process has been even more dramatic than in Atlanta, as this process hasn’t unfolded at exactly the same pace everywhere in the country. The Western U.S. has been hit especially hard, with home prices rising 7.5 times faster than incomes over the period studied. In San Francisco, home price growth was so aggressive that significant gains in inflation-adjusted income, to the tune of 91 percent, only seemed to fan the flames of rising unaffordability. Home prices have grown in the city by 531 percent since 1960.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Midwest held the line on affordability better than any other region. In three metro areas noted in the study — Des Moines, Cincinnati and St. Louis, which each still have a price-to-income ratio that’s considered healthy — household incomes grew faster than home prices for a period of time in the 1980s. This trend has since been reversed, but home values throughout the region have not seen the explosive growth found in other regions.