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The New York Times


The High Cost of Starting Out

September 15, 2013

By Howard Husock

Nothing about Jeff and Terri Petersen prepares you to think they might be disillusioned with America. They themselves are so all-American: he, at 25, four years out of Iowa State University, a golfer with wholesome good looks; she, at 23, short and pert, with a cheerleader’s good humor. Married for two and a half years, they have started out together in a rented, 1950’s-era two-bedroom duplex - known in Des Moines as a "bi-attached" - in a two-family home on a well-kept, safe suburban street.

Jeff - son of a telephone company employee, raised in a small town and the first in his family to attend college - holds a management job with an industrial-equipment distributor. Terri, whose father prospered as a project engineer for a construction company, has just graduated from the local community college, trained as a dental hygienist. The Petersens’ earnings, soon to approach $30,000 a year, are respectable for Des Moines and above the $19,684 national median for family income.

But, sitting on the couch in the comfortable living room in which their wedding pictures are still displayed, Jeff and Terri Petersen speak, in tones of crisis, about past naivete and rude awakenings.

"I thought you went to college, got out and stepped right into the country club," Jeff confesses a bit sheepishly. His wife elaborates: "I guess I lived a sheltered life. I thought you got married, bought a house and had kids and that everything would just go ’click.’ "

While things are not going badly for the Petersens, they are not going "click." Long after they expected to leave their rented apartment on Crestwood Road, they are still there. Owning a singlefamily home, like the one in which each of them grew up, is "a big down payment away," says Jeff, and they have begun to wonder whether they will ever live as comfortably as their parents.

The Petersens’ anxieties are echoed in living rooms and kitchenettes across the country by other couples "starting out" in the 1980’s. They are hardly the people Ronald Reagan calls truly needy. Their apartments are filled with new stereo equipment and color television sets. They eat out regularly, if only for a week-night pizza. Yet these couples feel deprived, a feeling rooted in dashed expectations.

Raised in what seemed to be an era of boundless affluence, they are finding that as adults in the 1980’s, it is increasingly difficult to satisfy the tastes they acquired during childhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Led to believe that college would lead inevitably to a profession, a family and financial security, they find themselves struggling instead. Some work at jobs and live in neighborhoods in which they never pictured themselves. Brought up when mothers invariably were at home when children returned from school, they are finding that today both husbands and wives must work, lest they suffer a decline in living standards. They express fears of downward mobility. Because a working mother can’t be at a home they can’t afford, many couples are deferring having children. How they are now faring in their search for homes is as much a story about the current state of certain traditional American aspirations as it is about a tight housing market. And some of the new or proposed innovations in mortgage lending have profound implications, not only in how housing can be financed but whether new homeowners can buy homes at all.

"Your father’s earnings shape your aspirations," says Richard A. Easterlin, a University of Pennsylvania economist-demographer and the author of "Earth and Fortune," which traces how the postwar baby-boom generation has fared. He finds that the current need to make trade-offs -between house and children, job and education - has taken its toll: "Couples starting out today ... are under tremendous pressure. The data show it. They suffer more marital strain, more divorce, even more traffic accidents."

Many such couples cannot forget how their parents had followed Federal housing subsidies and highways away from the cities into better homes and gardens in the suburbs. Indeed, as a result of the Government-assisted postwar housing boom, more Americans than ever - some 65 percent - own their own homes today. The children of these homeowners grew up assuming they would do better still. Often such assumptions - or dreams - were encouraged by parents eager to spare their offspring the nightmares of the Depression that scarred their own childhoods. Today, young couples’ frustrations are nowhere more apparent, nor more painful, than in the unexpected difficulties now combining to deny them homeownership, the traditional foundation of the traditional American dream of upward mobility.

Many young June brides and grooms will find themselves "temporarily" in apartments, morosely contemplating five-digit down payments, mortgage interest rates of 15 percent or more and $1,000-plus monthly carrying charges in order to finance the current $69,000 national median price of an existing home. (New homes average more than $79,000, and run still higher in most major metropolitan areas.)

Data compiled last year by the United States League of Savings Associations - which finance most home mortgages - reveal that, in 1979, fewer than one in five mortgages went to a first-time buyer. The figure had been one in three as recently as 1970. "We expect the percentage of first-time buyers declined still further in 1980," says League economist, Thomas Parliment.

Since the mid-1970’s, popular wisdom has held that rising construction costs and interest rates were pricing many families out of the housing market. Until recently, however, the reality has been different. According to Anthony Downs, a senior fellow and housing specialist at Washington’s Brookings Institution. "All the time people were doom-saying about housing prices, they were buying houses in droves." In fact, the National Association of Realtors reported a record home sales year for existing single-family homes in 1978 - 3.86 million.

"We saw a whole series of accommodations on the part of young home buyers and bankers in the late 1970’s," observes Parliment, "that allowed people to keep buying homes." Among these accommodations were the widespread entry of women into the work force and the change in credit laws and banking attitudes that allowed second incomes to qualify couples for mortgages. Banks also permitted buyers to assume monthly carrying costs equal to 40 percent or more of their income, instead of the traditional 25 percent limit.

But since late 1979 - when the Federal Reserve Board further tightened controls on credit - housing prices and interest rates have hit record levels. Those too young to have joined the housing boom - or who chose to wait - have suddenly found they can no longer afford the price of admission.

"The system has finally overloaded," concludes Parliment. How much has the cost of home ownership gone up compared with other prices? From 1977 through 1979, the overall Consumer Price Index rose by a combined annual total of 31.9 percent. Costs of homeownership - home purchase price, mortgage interest costs, property insurance and taxes, maintenance and repair - in the same period rose 47.1 percent. The housing-price spiral did slow slightly in 1980, but by that time the history of price increases had made down payments a formidable obstacle. A standard 20-percent down payment on a $90,000 house, for example, came to $18,000 last year.

The baby-boom generation which hit the housing market just as the economy faltered which led to a decline in construction start-ups on new housing. This in turn drove up the cost of homes. In some areas - particularly the South and West - the housing scarcity led to the growth of acres of mobile homes that serve as the housing of last resort.

The cost of home ownership spiraled at a faster pace than most other necessities - not only have materials and labor became more expensive, but prices of homes have taken off because of the developing national awareness of using housing as the most convenient hedge against inflation.

New home buyers - supplied, in the 1970’s, with long-term, fixedrate mortgages at 9 percent or 10 percent - have been living with high monthly costs in the knowledge that even a $600 monthly payment would seem like a bargain as double-digit inflation make the dollar worth less. Federal tax deductions are allowed for interest payments on mortgages and for local property taxes (together they amount to a projected $28.7 billion home ownership subsidy for fiscal 1981.) The higher the home mortgage, the greater the deduction, which combine to make high prices seem less imposing.

Finally, rising home values allow established homeowners to build a nest egg in the form of increased property value -at a time when interest on savings accounts cannot keep pace with inflation.

Such incentives helped create what George Sternlieb, director of the Rutgers University Center for Urban Policy Research, calls the "postshelter society. People have begun buying housing -as much as they can buy - not as a roof over their heads but as investment."

It’s been a heady game for the winners, who can read the realestate advertisements and congratulate themselves on their foresight. They can "trade up" and purchase new homes, often pocketing huge profits in the process. But, with prices bid up so high, buying a home has become a game in which many potential new players - young couples starting out - don’t have the cards to begin betting.

All of this has occurred at a time when the demand for housing on the part of the baby-boom generation is still rising. The Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joint Center for Urban Studies predicts that this demand will not peak until 1985, when a million new households are expected to enter the home-buying market. The combination of high demand for housing and uncertainty over interestrate trends has convinced most housing-market observers that the era of cheap housing for young families is past.

"The problem of affordability for the first-time buyer is the key housing problem for the 1980’s," says Thomas Parliment. "Trying to buy a house," affirms Terri Petersen in Des Moines, "seems to control our lives." The Petersens had assumed that they would have their first child when Terri finished school, and that she would work part time while the child was young. But children, they now say, are out of the question.

"I can’t see a kid with his trike in a hall he has to share with somebody," says Jeff. He comes from tiny Carroll, Iowa, "where you never saw an apartment building." A house, for the Petersens, means a single-family detached home, with a yard.

In the hope of buying one, Terri is now resigned to working full time. "We fight sometimes about money," she says, "and Jeff says it isn’t a matter of me wanting to work. These days I have to work." The job must come soon, too, the Petersens believe, lest they fall further behind in the equity chase. Terri, who had toyed with the idea of continuing her education for a career in public-health dentistry, feels she must choose between tuition and mortgage payments.

What economists call "housing affordability" can affect a couple’s relations with their parents. The Petersens, for instance, don’t believe that even two incomes will allow them to save a $15,000-plus down payment in the foreseeable future. In part, they will have to borrow from their families.

"Most of the times I show a house to a couple, the parents come along," says Ron Gail, a real-estate agent for Des Moines’s Iowa Realty Company. Gail’s observation reflects industry estimates that three-quarters of young home buyers need parental assistance, either in the form of second mortgages or savings withdrawals. The trend is so widespread nationally, George Sternlieb of Rutgers believes, that he has dubbed it "the new G.I. bill - Generous In-laws."

Loans from parents, though, can have strings attached, and there are other problems. For example, Terri Petersen is already experiencing guilt: "I feel like I could be denying them security in their old age."

For parents who had looked forward to seeing their children installed in middle-class comfort, the search of young people for a home today can be traumatic in another way. Quite often, the homes that couples can afford are in neighborhoods or conditions that may appall co-signing parents.

"We see it all the time," says Gail. "A couple is ready to take the place until they talk it over with their parents. The parents discourage them. Maybe they’ve forgotten what they went through when they first got married. Or they don’t want to see their kids doing what they had to."

The Petersens, for example, know that they could find a singlefamily home for less than $50,000 on Des Moines’ slightly frayed East Side. Terri has balked, however, because of her own values and that of her parents.

"My parents started in a poor neighborhood," she says. "They worked hard to move away from the East Side, and they’ve instilled in me the idea that it would be a step down in status to go back. And I’d be afraid that once we bought a house, we’d be stuck there." For the moment, Jeff has acquiesced. With some important variations, much of what the Petersens say is echoed by John Davenport and his wife, Rhona Schwartz, who rent a two-bedroom apartment in Building 14 of the sprawling Woodgate West complex in southwest Houston. John, heavyset, is a night-shift copy editor for a Houston newspaper who would like to be a playwright. Rhona, like her husband a 25-year-old graduate of the University of Houston, is a research editor for Houston City magazine.

Theirs is a crowded apartment. The kitchen garbage can stands in the hallway for lack of space. John’s study doubles as the bedroom for their 10 1/2-month old daughter, Chelsea, whose birth has forced them to assess their plans and progress.

"I can’t really say we’re badly off," says Rhona. "But there is this element of uncertainty. It seems as if our parents knew they would have a home and have a family. Now everything seems up in the air."

A clause in the Davenports’ lease at their previous apartment in Houston prohibited children, so when Rhona be-came unexpectedly pregnant in 1979, they were forced into the housing market. With a joint income then of $25,000, they were dismayed by what realtors showed them.

In booming Houston, however, John and Rhona could consider another alternative. Along the city’s looping freeway system, condominium complexes are sprouting the way ranch homes did in Houston itself 25 years ago. Among them is the Berkeley Court complex, a series of Spanish-style low-rise units in the shadow of a Gulf Freeway cloverleaf. In the model unit, a young couple’s wedding pictures are on the bureau, indicating the market being courted by the developer, US Home, the nation’s largest residential home builder. Rutgers’s George Sternlieb says that, in most parts of the country, the condominium has become "the tract house of the 1980’s."

Pamela Arnold, a US Home sales agent reports: "Right now, this company is building 30 percent condos and 70 percent houses. In a few years, we expect it to be just the opposite. The cost of land and everything else is just too high."

US Home’s Arnold’s condominiums are Houston’s version of Manhattan’s co-ops, the Sun Belt equivalent of former rental properties in older cities that have been converted into individually owned units. The concept of buying into a larger structure rather than owning a free-standing home has, since the mid-1970’s, rapdily become a statistically significant portion of the first-home market. Data from the U.S. League of Savings Associations show that in 1979 11.7 percent of new-home buyers bought condominiums. (In 1977, by contrast, the league did not feel the need to keep such data.)

For those who seek housing in the most desirable sections of Manhattan - or Boston or Chicago - a co-op or a condo today is as much a grail as a Levitt home may have been for their parents 30 years ago. It’s the only thing close to affordable housing. Some of those buying the condos of Houston -or New Jersey, for that matter - may be as enthusiastic about their purchase as the young professionals finding that perfect co-op on Manhattan’s West Side.

But there are many, says US Home’s Pam Arnold, who will find the adjustment to a condominium purchase hard to take. She candidly admits that many believe a condominium is a compromise.

"They all would rather have a house and a yard," she says, "but they can’t afford one. The couples I see are living on Master Card. They’ve got big notes on their furniture. They don’t have time to smell the roses. This is the best they can do."

It is not, however, a realization many young home seekers come to easily. Too well-drilled in the American Dream, they tend to balk at spending $49,900 for a 1,200-square-foot condominium with a master bedroom, a smaller bedroom and a small kitchen and living room - all off a single hallway.

"We’ve had problems with last-minute cancellations," says Pam Arnold. "They call and say, ’There’s not even enough room to have our parents over for dinner.’ " Nor is there room for more than one child. The model unit has no baby pictures in the montage of family photos displayed on a dresser in the bedroom. The unspoken sales agreement is: Buy a condominium, save money while husband and wife work, sell at a profit and -with luck - buy a house. At that point, having a family becomes thinkable.

It is a path many of the Davenports’ friends have followed. Bill Hill - John’s grade-school friend from the Houston suburb of Bellaire -is an accountant with Exxon. He and his wife, Cathy, a teacher, bought a $55,000 condominium last spring. It’s already risen in paper value, Bill notes. His hope is that their rising equity - as well as what he hopes will be Cathy’s increased earning power after she returns to school to be retrained as a medical technician - will make it possible for them to buy a single-family home within five years.

But the process - the family as real-estate entrepreneur -does not please Bill Hill: "I feel like we’re all in a race, and if you make the wrong move, you can fall hopelessly behind."

For now, John and Rhona Davenport say they have decided to stay on the sidelines and continue to rent. They have hardly given up, however. To save money, both continue to work full time, despite the birth of Chelsea. To avoid child-care costs, John arranged a switch to the night shift. He takes care of the baby during the day; Rhona does so at night. They seldom eat together. They go days without finding much time for discussion. They are candid about the pressures of such an arrangement.

"Sometimes, when we haven’t seen each other," says John, "we try to jam everything into the weekend to make up for lost time. You can try so hard that it just doesn’t work out."

On the top floor of a brick three-family home in Queens, one in a sea of modest homes and brick high-rises near the Van Wyck Expressway outside New York City, Bob and Pam Garfield are quick to admit that the wolf is not ringing the downstairs door buzzer. Bob, 30, a University of Chicago graduate, earns some $27,000 overseeing operations at a small Westchester County publishing plant. It is enough to cover the $550 rent for their six-room apartment and garage; enough, too, for 26-year-old Pam, a Pratt Institute graduate, to pursue her art work, occasionally supplementing his income with graphic-design freelancing.

They are both children from postwar suburbs - he from Boston’s Sharon, she from New York’s Franklin Square, out on Long Island. Their fathers prospered in the printing and publishing businesses.

"I was on kind of a Cook’s tour of life," laughs Bob. "Everything would just work out somehow." He majored in history, with a vague idea of teaching. Pam recalls her youth as a time of "sitting on the lawn looking at a blue sky. I always thought about becoming an artist and not too much about supporting myself."

When they married four years ago, they used savings and gifts for a year-long study program in Israel. It was only on their return that their sense of being cushioned began to slip. Many of their friends, Bob recalls, were rushing to beat inflation by buying a house. The Garfields, their savings depleted, rented an apartment in Brooklyn’s renovated Park Slope section. It was difficult to save much of Bob’s $17,000 salary at the time, and when the building was converted into a cooperative in 1979, they couldn’t afford to buy.

In hopes of saving money -and to find an apartment large enough for Pam to have a studio - they moved to Queens. Bob - who had abandoned the notion of teaching for a publishing career -found a better-paying job. But the Garfields still find savings elusive. And, despite their late-model Datsun and comfortable apartment, the Garfields readily admit to a feeling of downward mobility. Pam, especially, has found the move to Queens depressing.

"I guess I think of Queens as a place of mediocrity, and that we must be mediocre if we’re living here," she says. "All of a sudden, it seemed like all the places where young, upwardly mobile people live were closed to us." Finding the selection of art supplies, books and even groceries inadequate on Queens Boulevard, she often takes the subway into Manhattan to shop.

Still, home ownership is something the Garfields ponder with a many-sided frustration. Their living-room window faces a large wooden house set on a shady lot across the street. "At least if we bought a house," says Pam, "we’d feel like we’re making a little progress."

Why can’t a couple earning $35,000 a year afford a home? The Garfields say it’s the large down payment required, but they also concede that they find it difficult to save because their tastes and style of living were formed during their relatively affluent adolescence.

"We could probably save $2,000 or $3,000 a year if we really tightened our belts," says Bob. But the savings would come at the expense of such middleclass amenities as an apartment big enough for Pam’s studio, movie going, dining out and the personal computer Bob has just bought.

Like the Petersens in Des Moines, the Garfields are reluctant to move into some neighborhoods where they could afford a house, for fear that if they had children, they would pick up class values at odds with their own and end up as blue-collar workers. Bob also worries about becoming "house poor," like the friends who bought a home in Westchester and could not afford to furnish it properly.

In a sense, it is easy to resist sympa-thizing with some of the complaints of today’s young house hunters. The Garfields, the Petersens and the Davenports, after all, do not suddenly have to get by without Medicaid benefits or food stamps. They simply are reluctant to forgo some of life’s small amenities, such as the Petersens’ treasured Iowa State season football tickets.

Indeed, in some quarters, their situation inspires very little sympathy. Many experts even believe that society may be better off for whatever sacrifices such families are forced to make. Louis Winnick, deputy vice president of national affairs at the Ford Foundation and a long-time observer of housing trends, is convinced that the exigencies of today’s market will lead to wholesale rehabilitation of marginal neighborhoods.

"People having to accept third or fourth housing choices is not without benefit for the country," asserts Winnick. "People may have to move in and hold their noses, but they’ll get used to it." Winnick’s belief that the new urban phenomenon called gentrification - an influx of middle-class buyers pushing out the poor - will be mitigated if the replacement is gradual and spread throughout enough neighborhoods strikes many as unrealistic in its assumption that such movements can be controlled, by natural attrition, or otherwise.

Indeed, not far from where Jeff and Terri Petersen live in Des Moines, the city appears to have taken advantage of new families’ demand for affordable homes and to have used it to upgrade - and integrate - one of its poorest neighborhoods. Using state and Federal funds, the city arranged to aid private developers building on vacant county-owned lots in the so-called "Centrametro" area. The project offered $40,000 homes and 8 percent mortgages for families earning less than $20,000 a year. In five months, all 113 units were sold.

Some housing experts even believe that there can be a general economic benefit if couples like the Petersens and Garfields remain frustrated in their house hunting. Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution, formulator of what he terms the "too much capital for housing" theory, claims that the favorable tax and inflation-hedging aspects of home buying have drained a disproportionate share -$35 billion in tax deductions alone for fiscal 1982 - of total credit into financing existing homes, at the possible expense of corporate and entrepreneurial investment to aid reindustrialization. "Right now," says Downs, "we need to make other kinds of investment more attractive."

The Reagan Administration’s tax plans include tax cuts to encourage investment in general, but no specific new aid for home buyers, despite the President’s acknowledgement of the plight of frustrated first-time home buyers in his February state-of-theeconomy speech.

"I was 30 years old," Downs adds, "and had three kids before I bought a house. We can’t help everyone who has a hangnail." George Sternlieb puts it this way: "My nightmare is a nation of new housing developments surrounding closed factories." Despite such misgivings, there is growing political sentiment to help young couples buy homes. A few states - including Connecticut and Massachusetts - have used their pension funds to create a pool of low-interest mortgages. Several bills filed in Congress this year, including one sponsored by the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Robert Dole of Kansas, would change the tax code to create an Individual Housing Account. Modeled on the Individual Retirement Account, and backed by real-estate and savings-bank interests, it would allow families to take tax deductions of up to $15,000 over five years if they set the money aside for use as a home down payment. The concept, however, was not included in the Reagan tax proposals. Real-estate lobbyists say they hope it will be written into the tax-cut compromise likely to emerge from Congress.

Other proposals under consideration seek to cut housing subsidies while at the same time aiding first-time home buyers. The Washingtonbased Urban Institute, a private think tank, for instance, investigated the impact of replacing the open-ended Federal tax deduction for mortgage interest - which now allows an unlimited deduction for an unlimited number of homes - with a flat 25-percent tax credit. The plan, for example, would impose an upper limit of a $2,000 credit on $8,000 in interest costs.

Rolf Goetze, the former director of housing revitalization for the Boston Redevelopment Authority and now a Boston-based housing consultant, is a prominent advocate of such a plan. He believes it would end what he terms "tax sanctuaries for the affluent."

"The current system worked very well in the 1950’s and helped a lot of people buy homes," says Goetze. "But now it’s helping the wealthy to buy more expensive homes and bid up the price of housing for everyone. We have to separate the speculators and investors from the young family that needs a place to live."

However, realistically, proposals such as these must be considered long shots in light of the fact that millions of homeowners have come to depend on the current system.

There is a belief among bankers that new forms of mortgages, still evolving, may provide young home buyers with help. The traditional, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage helped many couples beat inflation and buy homes in the 1970’s. But after experiencing serious losses in an inflationary era, bankers have learned their lesson. Fewer now offer long-term mortgages, preferring to renegotiate regularly, taking fluctuating interest rates into account. However, many banks have begun offering a so-called graduated payment plan for young buyers, which allows them to pay a lower interest rate when the home is first purchased. The presumption is that, as a family’s earning power rises, so will payments. A more radical innovation, which has become increasingly popular in California, is the equity-participation loan. Under this arrangement, a bank may offer a buyer a low interest rate in exchange for a share of the profit realized from the home’s eventual sale.

Even so, housing experts and bankers do not believe that a new tax or mortgage scheme will enable young couples to buy a home with the relative ease of their parents. Perhaps, as some observers say, we will be better off for their sacrifice. Perhaps the era of sprawling subdivisions consuming farmland is over. Perhaps we will regain a lost sense of community in condominium complexes. Perhaps couples will begin sharing housing costs and space, creating new forms of the extended family. There is already evidence of couples buying homes jointly, and of families taking over mortgages from elderly homeowners who continue to live in the house, paying rent - and enjoying the company.

But the dynamics of the situation suggest continuing limitations on our lives and prospects - limitations that Americans have not faced before. Thus, it may no longer be reasonable to assume that one’s children will inevitably climb a few more steps up the social ladder than oneself. Rather than reaching for new frontiers of affluence, we appear to be facing a new type of challenge, that of using our ingenuity to maintain ourselves in something close to the style to which we’ve become accustomed.

As society as a whole comes to grips with such change, Bob and Pam Garfield in Queens have stopped reading the Sunday real-estate advertisements in order to avoid becoming depressed. In Des Moines, Jeff Petersen occasionally goes house hunting, but Terri stays home.

"I’m afraid we’ll see something we like and won’t be able to afford it," she says. Bob Garfield, the one-time history major, tries to take the long view: "It’s kind of interesting to be personally affected by what seem like such big changes in the society. And I do feel a little guilty about complaining. Ours is a pretty bourgeois concern, I suppose. But, yes, I think we would like some kind of help."

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