Today’s entry in “things we can blame on the young folks” is a real estate edition, in which an article suggests that the 18-34 year-old’s unwillingness to live in the suburbs like decent people of yore is why the rent is too damn high. This gem comes from the 18th annual Northern Colorado Real Estate Conference, clearly the most rip-roaring gathering in the West, discussing the gentrification of the Front Range of the state. According one Nick Hansen, a broker in Fort Collins quoted in the Pacific Standard, those sky-high rents are all because idiot twenty-somethings are profligate spenders. “Millennials are willing to pay 50 percent of their income on housing so they can live in urban settings. That drives up rents and pushes out others who can’t afford that,” Hansen said. Those youngsters! With their GIFs and their tweets and their inability to do math!
Jim Russell, the author of the Pacific Standard article, takes it a step further. “”Nick Hansen paints a picture of irrational millennial migration,” he writes. “No rent is too damn high. Give me city living or give me death. Death, as millennials have taught us, is life in the suburbs”
Except, of course, it is not that millennials are willing to spend fifty percent (or more!) of their income on housing costs. There is no such thing as “irrational migration.” His argument is an age-old anti-urbanist trope, the one where you look at migrants and yell “go back to where you came from!” instead of wondering what the driving forces are behind their move. Millennials move to cities because they must. It is because cities, not suburbs, are where jobs are, because younger workers earn less money, and because wages for jobs have remained stagnant despite improvements of the economy. So unless you are lucky enough to snag a rent-controlled apartment or willing to spend four hours of your day commuting, it is not a question of willing. It is a question of necessity.
The pass-the-blame-for-gentrification game is one that we’ve all been playing for quite some time, and the culprit is always the young, cool people showing up to ruin it for everyone else. But let’s be clear: Young people do not just move to gentrifying areas for the hell of it. We do not shell out half our paycheck because we have no sense of money. It is because the options for us are radically different than the ones our parents had. It is because the suburbs are full of houses we cannot afford to buy, and offer few opportunities for career growth. We move to cities because that is where possibility is, and we settle areas, not at random, but where we can (if even barely) sustain some kind of life and social community. As Jordan Fraade of The Baffler pointed out in his recent piece on gentrification in Washington, D.C., “The truth is that people live where they can afford to live…If anything has the potential to stop urban displacement, it’s not a polemic against ‘gentrifiers’ and ‘liberals’; it’s a radical rethinking of the relationship between landlords, tenants, and the state.”
It’s a convenient target, the “hipster” and the “millennial,” sure. But the problems behind high rent are not because a bunch of us are just dying to live next to the latest DIY art galleries, they are structural and political. And for a broker of all people to pass off the rent costs on folks out of college is straight-up insulting. You want to talk about who’s driving up rent? How about all those international investors with empty apartments? How about companies flipping properties from rent-stabilized to market rate? How about failing to adequately build affordable housing? Scapegoating millennials is a tired, unkind, dishonest way of talking about a fundamental problem. Don’t believe it.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby