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The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) contains annual and monthly data describing how members of each household relate to one another. For the purposes of our research, we use these data to define and track five specific household types.
In Reconfiguring the American Household, our team analyzed decades of CPS data to understand the gradual evolution of household types from 1970 to 2019. For example, the nuclear family – two married parents, their children, and no one else – was once the dominant household arrangement, accounting for 41 percent of all households across the country in 1970. But as Americans began marrying later and having fewer children, the nuclear family became significantly less common; by 2019 it accounted for just 20 percent of households. Today it is more likely for a household to be a single person living alone (28 percent) or a couple living together without children (26 percent). Meanwhile, multi-family households, including the traditional roommate household where no members are related by blood or marriage, remain relatively rare but have become more common over time.
Significant changes in household composition normally take decades to play out, but in 2020 these gradual movements were supplanted by abrupt shifts. The pandemic caused many Americans to rethink their current living arrangements. As unemployment spiked to nearly 15 percent, many struggled to afford their regular housing expenses. As jobs and schools went remote, many felt that they lacked adequate space for themselves and their families to operate comfortably from home. As proximity to others became a health risk, many left close-quarter living arrangements and high-density cities. What transpired is a series of rapid changes in household formation and composition. Below we highlight five of these changes and the impact they have on housing affordability.
Waning housing affordability and broad-based price increases throughout the economy have been among the most pressing issues of the past year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI) – the most commonly cited measure of inflation – was up by 8.6 percent year-over-year as of May, its fastest growth rate in 40 years. Over the same period, the Apartment List rent index spiked by 15.3 percent and for-sale home prices have been rising even faster. Housing costs are a major determinant of official inflation estimates, but the housing component of CPI is up by just 5.5 percent over the past year, far slower than the growth reported by our index for rentals or Case-Shiller on the for-sale side of the market. This has understandably caused some confusion among close followers of our data, but rest assured that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the discrepancy, and the figures are not ultimately at odds to the degree that it may first appear. To help shed light on this topic, we’ve put together this explainer on how housing costs factor into CPI calculations, and what our rent index might tell us about where housing inflation is heading.
In just the past week, extreme heat has broken records in cities across the U.S., and severe flooding has closed one the country’s most popular national parks. The effects of climate change are already upon us, and addressing this global crisis is undeniable among the most pressing issues of our time. Housing is inextricably linked to the climate, and the way that we organize our cities has a profound impact on our carbon footprints. In densely populated urban areas – in which individuals occupy less space and are less reliant on cars – per-capita emissions are significantly lower than they are in the surrounding suburbs, where cars are typically the dominant commute mode and residents often bear long drives in traffic to access jobs in the city. Given this dynamic, it is crucial that we grow our nation’s population centers in ways that prioritize dense, transit-oriented development.
Unfortunately, the pandemic appears to be pushing us in the opposite direction. Remote work has made proximity to the office a less pressing concern and enabled more people to move further from job centers. At the same time, skyrocketing prices on both the rental and for sale sides of the market have pushed many households to expand their searches further from the urban core, where housing tends to be more affordable. As a result, demand for rentals has been strongest in the suburbs of large metros, with the potential to drive precisely the type of sprawl that is at odds with progress on emissions.
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