Buying a House Feels Impossible These Days. Here Are 6 Innovative Paths to Homeownership

A dozen Grade-A eggs will run you about $0.40 more than they did a year ago, and you’ll have to fork over $0.66 more for a pound of ground beef. At the gas pump, a gallon of unleaded is now $1.23 higher than it was in 2020. But few year-over-year price increases compare to what’s happened to the American housing market. The sale price of a median home in the U.S. has ballooned by more than $67,000 in the past year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis — surging from just under $338,000 to nearly $405,000.

There’s lots of reasons for this. In the past year, a combination of low interest rates and COVID-19, which forced tens of millions of people to work from home, fueled demand for houses. Longtime renters began looking to buy a place with more space, while those who were already homeowners began looking for secondary vacation residences. (Mortgage applications for second homes spiked 84% between January of 2020 and 2021.)
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That jump in demand was compounded by a nationwide slump in housing supply—the result of both nationwide labor shortages and disruptions in the supply chain of crucial building materials, like copper and lumber. These recent issues have been exacerbated by lags in new housing construction over the past twenty years, according to a June report from the National Association of Realtors.

The end result is that millions of American families across the income spectrum are now effectively locked out of homeownership. The problem is particularly acute for young people and people of color. The homeownership rate among millennials, ages 25-34, is 8 percentage points lower than it was for both baby boomers and Gen Xers in the same age cohort. Black homeownership, meanwhile, remains at just 45%—30% lower than that of white families and nearly unchanged since 1968, when overt housing discrimination was outlawed.

It’s more than just a housing dilemma. Since home ownership remains the best way for an average family to accrue wealth over a lifetime, it’s a prosperity issue, too. Homeowners in the U.S. have, on average, forty times more wealth than renters, according to a September 2020 report from the Federal Reserve.

In light of this crisis in home ownership, here are six ways that communities and companies around the country are legislating and innovating to help Americans buy a house.

1. A narrow case study in reparations for Black families

Like most cities in the U.S., Evanston, Illinois has a long history of racist housing laws. For decades, Black residents were segregated into poor neighborhoods where occupancy rates were estimated to be 150% and some units lacked crucial amenities, like heating. While hundreds of vacant homes were available in more desirable parts of town, landlords and real estate agents explicitly barred Black families from renting them, and banks blocked Black families from financing. “Owners and agents of vacant property plan to prevent the negroes from spreading from their own quarters,” a 1918 Evanston News-Index article read. Housing segregation fueled wealth inequality: Black families in Evanston earn $46,000 less than their white counterparts on average.

Former Evanston Alderman Robin Rue Simmons sought to address that sordid history. While in office in 2019, she created the first-ever taxpayer-backed reparations fund in a U.S. city. It sets aside $10 million in revenue, raised by the city’s tax on recreational marijuana, over a 10-year period. The first $400,000 out of that reserve will go to victims of racial housing discrimination and their descendants, divided up into $25,000 grants which can be used this year for down-payments on new homes, mortgage payments or renovations on existing homes.

That initial $400,000 will hardly solve the problem. There are more than 12,000 Black residents in Evanston and the initial outlay will provide just 16 households with funding. But, Simmons argues, “it’s better than zero”—and the program also sets a key precedent. In the years since Evanston stood up its reparations fund, several other locales, including Detroit, Michigan and Amherst, Massachusetts, have voted to explore or start similar programs. “If you think of any significant, transformative national or federal legislation, it started with localities and grassroots efforts organizing and pushing their local leaders,” Simmons says. “This is no exception.”

2. Community Land Trusts: Buying the home but not the land

The most unique part of the two-story home in Winooski, Vermont that Sarah and husband Colin Robinson bought for $172,000 in 2008 wasn’t its quaint terrace garden or the funky bunk-room upstairs. It was the fact that the Robinsons didn’t own the land that it was built on. That’s because the house is part of what’s known as a community land trust (CLT)—a non-profit, community-controlled collection of properties.

The first CLT in the U.S. was created in Albany Georgia in 1969. Now there are more than 220 nationwide, offering more than 12,000 homes total. While the particular rules of each CLT are a little different, the idea is the same: aspiring homeowners share the cost of purchasing a house with the CLT, which owns the land the home is built on. When the homeowner sells, he or she returns a share of the appreciation with the CLT.

Champlain Housing Trust—the CLT that helped the Robinsons become homeowners—is the largest in the country, with 636 properties in the Burlington area. Under its rules, the purchase price of an average home is offset by about 30%, and upon selling, the homeowner keeps a quarter of the home’s appreciation price, plus the cost of any major renovations invested into the property. The average Champlain Housing Trust member keeps their home for 7.5 years and walks away $25,000 richer—money that they can then put toward purchasing more expensive homes on the regular market. A 2010 Urban Institute analysis of Champlain Housing Trust, founded in 1984, found that 68% of those who left CLT went on to purchase market-rate homes.

The Robinsons are a model of how it’s supposed to work. When they sold their first, CLT home in 2014, they walked away with $40,000 in equity, which they rolled into the purchase of their second home on the regular market. “We were able to bring that money with us, and that was really what made it possible,” says Sarah. “It really changed the trajectory of our lives.”

3. Zoning overhaul: Ending de-facto redlining

Nowhere in the country is the racial housing gap wider than in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where more than 70% of white families own, compared to just 20% of Black families, according to a 2021 Urban Institute report. One big reason for this disparity is an insufficient supply of affordable homes: the state is 40,000 housing units short of demand, according to a Minnesota Housing Finance Agency estimate. Restrictive zoning rules built on decades of discriminatory policies worsen this shortage.

After the federal government outlawed explicit racial housing discrimination in the 1960s, local lawmakers scrambled to bolster different regulations—namely single-family zoning ordinances that would maintain the homogeneousness of their neighborhoods. Under those rules, construction companies were banned from building anything other than standalone homes—including more affordable row homes, condominiums, duplexes, triplexes—in most upscale neighborhoods, which had the effect of pricing Black and brown families out of the market.

Lisa Bender, president of Minneapolis’ City Council, argues that changing those rules is “the very bare minimum first thing” that policymakers can do “to fix centuries of racial exclusion.” In 2018, she spearheaded a City Council effort to rescind regulations reserving 70% of the city’s residential land for single-family zoning—a move that could effectively triple the housing supply in some Minneapolis neighborhoods by prompting construction of new, more cost-efficient multi-family units. The rule change went into effect in 2020. Portland, Oregon and the entire state of California have since enacted policies that effectively end single-family zoning too.

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4. 3D printing: Construction meets environmentalism and efficiency

Jason Ballard, who grew up in an oil-soaked East Texas town, was always interested in environmental sustainability. But it wasn’t until college that he realized the best way he could explore environmentalism was not by becoming a biologist, but by becoming a builder. “Buildings are the number one user of energy. Construction is the number one producer of waste,” he says, adding that construction is also one of the top users of water behind agriculture. In 2017, he cofounded ICON, a construction technologies company that builds affordable, structurally sound, environmentally resilient single-family homes using a 3D printing method that creates far less waste than traditional building processes.

While the startup is just getting off the ground—its first four homes sold this year—its cost of construction appears to be 10-30% less than traditional builders, thanks largely to reductions in labor and supply needs. In October, ICON announced a project to use its technology to break ground on 100 homes in the Austin area in 2022, creating the largest community of 3D-printed homes to date.

Ballard predicts costs will continue to decrease as ICON automates more components of the construction process. The method also has the potential to be unbelievably speedy. While constructing an average American home the normal way takes 7.7 months, according to a 2018 U.S. Census Bureau survey, a Boston-based 3D printing construction company, Apis Cor, says it can make a move-in ready three-bedroom, two-bath in less than a month.

Buying a House Feels Impossible These Days. Here Are 6 Innovative Paths to Homeownership 1
Illustration by Wenjia Tang for TIME

5. Modular housing: building houses like Henry Ford built cars

There’s no way that Sara and Jon Comiskey, both in their mid-20s, would have been able to afford a house in the Buena Vista area of Colorado, where median home prices hover around $515,000, if it wasn’t for a start-up called Fading West. In 2016, Fading West began building homes that were constructed off-site, in a factory, streamlining the production in the same way that manufacturers build cars. Workers complete most components of a house—house siding, flooring, and walls—at scale, then attach them to a foundation on site. Final features, like garages and porches, are added once the home is at its final resting place, says Fading West founder Charlie Chupp. “You wouldn’t build a Camry in someone’s driveway,” he says. Why do it for a house?

Chupp says his company’s lean production model reduces waste by eliminating weather-related damage to materials like is typical during outdoor construction, requires fewer skilled laborers, and significantly reduces the time required to make a home. “With 100 people on a traditional system, you might be able to build between 100 and 150 homes a year,” he says. “We think we can do between 600 and 700 homes a year.”

There are downsides. The need to transport the house components from factory to foundation curtails how large the end-product can be, and the standardization of the process means homeowners must accept limited design options. Customers get two cabinet choices, three tile options, three window sizes, and one color carpet. “We offer a standard quartz countertop in any color you want,” Chupp jokes, “as long as it’s white.”

But Chupp also offers something that many other real estate developers don’t: affordability. He estimates his off-site produced houses are at least 25% cheaper than comparable models in the area. In April 2021, the Comiskeys bought a 900-square-foot Fading West townhouse in Buena Vista for $240,000.

6. Divvy: A fresh take on rent-to-own

Adena Hefets grew up listening to her parents’ stories of how difficult it was for them to purchase a home in the early 1980s. As an immigrant from Israel, her dad didn’t have an established credit score and so couldn’t get a mortgage. Eventually, her family was able to buy a seller-financed home—a rare home-buying mechanism where a seller allows a buyer to pay for a home in increments, rather than making mortgage payments to a bank.

In 2017, Hefets started Divvy, a tech company, that offers prospective homebuyers a very similar model. Divvy purchases homes on the open-market and covers closing costs, taxes, insurance and repairs in exchange for the client paying monthly rent that is approximately 10-25% more than what they would pay for comparable rentals in the area. The differential goes toward equity in the home. The client can then buy back the home with the equity they accrued through paying the rent, or cash out the equity at the end of their lease.

It’s not a universal solution. Divvy requires that buyers have moderate credit scores and clients must be able to pay above market-rate rents. But in the last five years, the company has entered partnerships with thousands of families, roughly 47% of whom end up purchasing their home back from Divvy.

LaCresa Hooks, who works as an accountant, couldn’t find a traditional mortgage because she was working as a short-term contractor. In October 2020, she signed a lease with Divvy and less than a year later, she’d bought back her 3-bedroom, 2-bath Georgia home with bank financing thanks to the equity she accrued. Now, she looks forward to something most people loathe: Paying her mortgage. “I’m building something now,” she says. “With rent, you aren’t building anything. You’re just paying your landlord and that’s it for the next 30 days.”