Happily Never After: False Homeownership Notions Are Increasing the Gender Wealth Gap

The “American Dream” notion that homeownership will provide an express route to happily-ever-after is fueling record home prices and exacerbating gender inequities. We need to wake up from this nightmare.

A couple in the 1960s. Today, women spend on average 49 percent of their monthly income on mortgage payments, while men pay 32 percent. (H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty Images)

It’s that time of the month again… that time when the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Composite index reports yet another 19 percent YoY increase in home prices in 20 major U.S. cities.

For the past two years, news outlets have recycled some version of the headline, gawking as nationwide home prices smash record after record. A range of reasons is trotted out as explanation—under-building from the last recession, supply chain disruptions, lowest-on-record mortgage rates, a stock market gone gaga. In an environment where newly-minted millionaires tender all-cash offers six (and seven!) figures above asking price, desperate buyers are grasping for whatever they can, making 20 or 30 no-look, waive-the-appraisal offers just to go home to something.

The frenzy is discouraging to all would-be buyers, but is especially challenging for single women seeking starter homes. Thanks to the pay gap, ballooning prices force women to expend 49 percent of their monthly income on mortgage payments, versus the 32 percent outlaid by their single male counterparts. This disparity not only exacerbates the existing gender wealth gap, but also harms women of color, who experience domestic violence and homelessness at disproportionately higher rates.

What can be done to stabilize the market and address the disparities?  

The wonkishly inclined might point to policy solutions like upzoning, subsidizing affordable housing construction or taxing non-primary residences to rebalance the supply/demand equation. Enthusiasts of Jung and cultural theory, by contrast, might recommend an ideological intervention. For this camp, the solution is spiritual rather than technical: Fear and fantasy gripping the collective psyche is the real problem to address.

A Realtor.com survey of 800 first-time homebuyers lends credence to this hypothesis. In the poll, two-thirds of millennial and nearly half of Generation Z respondents cited neither investment gains nor interest rates as their primary reason for signing on the dotted line, but rather “achieving the American Dream of homeownership.”

The American Dream ideology is a pervasive and persuasive one. Since the U.S. emerged as a global superpower in the 1950s, the myth has promised the good life—permanent stability, upward mobility—to those who purchase homes. And as overpopulation, resource scarcity, institutional collapse and financial volatility are poised to engender an increasingly bleak future, a fearful populace clings harder to the outdated, ‘Hail Mary’ notion that homebuying can provide a shortcut to happily-ever-after. That it is possible to seal oneself off from the apocalypse with some shiplap and exposed brick. That utopia is within reach if one can just find the right shade of ecru.  

Unfortunately, this narrative of homeownership-as-panacea only exacerbates the conditions stoking the collective fear. The Sunday Styles profile glorifying a gentrifying block overlooks the correlations between homelessness, mental health, and urban violence. Nor do the glowing Architectural Digest spreads mention how sprawling McMansion developments disrupt ecosystems and deplete natural resources, fueling carbon emissions and climate chaos. Instead, these stories perpetuate the notion that buying and appointing a tasteful home—no matter the cost—will solve all one’s troubles. No further (or collective) action required.  

Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Detroit are the three most affordable urban centers for single women buyers, though new abortion restrictions render two of those places inhospitable to women.  

Fortunately, a counter-narrative is beginning to emerge, deflating the magical thinking. A February 2022 Zillow survey found that 75 percent of pandemic buyers have regrets about their new homes, a conclusion mirrored by articles from The New York Times, Fortune, NPR and other outlets. The Federal Reserve is even starting to use the “B” word, deeming home prices “unhinged from fundamentals.”

The tide of public opinion must turn faster, though, as single women cannot afford to buy in 34 of the 51 largest cities—a figure that was 24 just five years ago. At present, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Detroit are the three most affordable urban centers for single women buyers, though new abortion restrictions render two of those places inhospitable to women.  

How can the average home-seeking citizen avoid the madness and contribute to a solution? After all, people need to live somewhere, and rent prices are rising 7.8 percent YoY.    

Honest interrogation of one’s purchasing rationale represents the first best step. Is the decision based in compulsive fantasy—that a new home is the one thing that will finally make life perfect and complete? Or is it rooted in Buddhist-like acceptance of the fundamental uncertainty of existence, in detachment from the illusion that homeownership (or anything) will forestall all suffering?  

To be sure, having a safe, affordable place to live is a privilege denied to far too many, and the desire to find security in an uncertain world is human and very legitimate. However, the wider sociopolitical issues fueling the frenetic market must be addressed collectively, and cannot be sidestepped with individual purchasing practices. For if the current trends continue, a woman’s place will no longer be in the home, and not because of feminist gains. Rather, she’ll be completely priced out.

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Alexis Obernauer is a writer, business strategist and life coach. She oversees special projects for both The Salon, a Pittsburgh-based women’s networking group, and Third Factor, the leading magazine on the theory of positive disintegration. A resident of Pittsburgh, Alexis holds a master’s degree concentrated in cities and social justice from The New School University.