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A Lot Of People Blame Baby Boomers For The Housing Shortage, But It's Not So Simple

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The national housing supply shortage that we're seeing today has actually been decades in the making, and it's probably going to take another decade to fix. A lot of people blame baby boomers, but Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast says it's not so simple.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: OK, in a healthy housing market, you'd have about six months of housing supply. According to a report last month from Harvard, there's currently less than two months of housing supply in the U.S., which is very, very tight. We're talking record-low inventory. There are 3.8 million fewer homes than we need to meet demand. Baby boomers have the biggest share of real estate wealth - 44% of it - even though they're just 28% of the adult population. And unlike previous generations, baby boomers are not selling their homes as they get older. They're not moving in with their kids or into a nursing facility or downsizing to a little condo somewhere. They are choosing to grow old in their homes. So some people are like, sell your homes already. But not everyone.

KARAN KAUL: I think it's very, very unfair. Baby boomer generation is just not creating the housing shortage.

GONZALEZ: Karan Kaul is a housing supply specialist at the Urban Institute.

Can I ask if you're a baby boomer?

KAUL: I'm not.

GONZALEZ: You're not. OK. (Laughter) I just had to ask.

He says baby boomers are healthier than previous generations, so many don't need to move in with their kids or to a nursing home. Also, they don't want to move. They like their grocery store, their friends. And even if they did choose to sell their homes, they'd still need to find some other place to live. They'd probably just buy a different house.

KAUL: The point of all of this is if you just reallocate people from one type of housing to another, you're not solving the problem in the long run. The problem is, we have more people wanting to live in homes than we have homes.

GONZALEZ: So the obvious answer is build more houses, right? But we can't. And this is where things maybe do come back to boomers a little bit.

JENNY SCHUETZ: I would say the one area where we can kind of point the finger at boomers is that they have tended not to allow change in their neighborhoods.

GONZALEZ: Jenny Schuetz is an economist at the Brookings Institution, and she says baby boomers have tended to block new housing development. They haven't really wanted anything in their neighborhoods other than stand-alone, single-family homes.

SCHUETZ: We literally can't add more homes to a neighborhood because the older residents who live there won't let us build it.

GONZALEZ: And OK, blocking new housing goes way back - stems from racism and redlining. Boomers did not invent this. But their opposition to different kinds of housing has led to some really hard-to-undo zoning laws.

SCHUETZ: Oh, yeah, it's illegal to build anything other than a single-family, detached house on the majority of land, even in big cities across the country.

GONZALEZ: So no duplexes, no condos, no tiny houses, no mobile homes.

SCHUETZ: Right.

GONZALEZ: Some cities are starting to change their zoning laws, like Minneapolis, Raleigh. They now allow duplexes.

It sounds so weird. It's like, why has it not been legal to build a duplex?

SCHUETZ: That's exactly the question. Why did we ban most forms of housing on most land?

GONZALEZ: Housing experts pretty much agree, we cannot get out of this housing crisis without building more housing. And we can't build more housing without changing some of these zoning laws. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.