Americans Will Soon Face a Bigger Threat to Their Survival Than COVID
Updated: May 30
A few weeks ago my partner and I made an offer on a house.
It was an 1,800 square foot home, built in 1954, on a quiet street in a middle class neighborhood. It sold for $318,000 in 2018 but was now listed for $665,000 — a staggering increase in three years. Our realtor said there were multiple offers, so we threw our hat in the ring with $700,000. Insane, right?
But not insane enough. We later learned there were ten other bidders, and offering $35,000-over-asking put us in “the middle of the pack.” We don’t know how much the home sold for, but we suspect it was close to $750,000. Here’s what’s more outrageous: this house wasn’t in Long Island, Southern California, or suburban Seattle. It was in Missoula, Montana, a humble city of 73,000 that most people have never heard of.
A friend of mine in rural West Virginia is noticing the same phenomenon. Lockdown refugees from Virginia and Maryland are flocking to her town, bidding up the prices of modest homes to unimaginable heights. Every property sells within 24 hours.
“If you don’t have a realtor working for you and staying on top of the listings, you won’t even get in to view the property,” she told me. “It’s a buying frenzy.”
There’s something eerie going on in America, although most people seem too focused on getting vaccinated to notice. But if you’ve reserved space in your mind for anything besides COVID, you’ve probably noticed, too. The cost of housing is going parabolic again. It’s happening all across the country, and in most cases the buyers are coming from out of state.
We’ve seen housing bubbles before, but this one is different. This bubble isn’t like 2006, when anyone with a heartbeat could get a loan to buy a home. This time, a pandemic has left many Americans unemployed, devoid of savings and good credit, and unable to hitch their wagon to the real estate train that’s left the station at lightning speed.
This housing boom belongs to the upper middle class; the people who managed to stay employed while COVID locked down cities; the professionals who worked from home while insisting others do their part by closing their businesses and forgoing livelihoods. For these lucky Americans, COVID hasn’t been a curse; in one important way, it’s been a blessing.
Armed with laptops and needing only minimal wifi, they’ve roamed the country for the past year. They’ve discovered they don’t have to be stuck in traffic and soul-less office buildings to make a living; they can work in small towns and run errands by foot, avoid civil unrest, and be closer to nature. They can live in Airbnbs on farms or VRBOS in the woods. In other words, they can have the best of both worlds: increasing their quality of life without giving up a big city paycheck.
Many have enjoyed remote working so much that they’ve decided to make it permanent by buying homes in small-to-midsize cities and rural communities, most of which are in red “flyover” states. These places were never hip or chic. There aren’t gourmet coffee shops on every corner, and they don’t boast high wages or great weather. But they’ve always had one thing going for them: they were affordable and livable — until COVID.
The cities where economically beleaguered people were once able to lay roots and escape insane housing prices are quickly disappearing. The people who live there may not realize it now, but their lives are about to change dramatically.
Many of the buyers scooping up property in these once-affordable cities won’t live in them full-time. These interlopers are buying second homes, reducing the inventory of housing for local residents. Imagine being a recent college grad, $80,000 in debt, working a job in Missoula that pays $30,000 a year, and trying to qualify for a $750,000 home. Imagine being a retiree on a fixed income in a city where property taxes will double in the next year. What will life look like for these people?
As big city money innundates these communities, they’ll soon face other big city problems. A large chunk of new buyers are investors who will charge outrageous rent to cover their outrageous mortgages. This means the loop of unaffordable housing that’s plagued metropolitan areas for decades will spread like wildfire across the rest of America. The entire country may soon look like Los Angeles and New York City: more people spending more of their income on housing — and a paycheck away from homelessness.
If housing were the only thing going parabolic, it would be disturbing but not scary. But housing is just the leading edge of a much bigger problem: it’s getting damn expensive to live in America. Really damn expensive.
“It’s crazy,” another friend (who also lives in Montana) lamented recently. “We went to Costco to get groceries for family visiting from out of town, and it was $800. $800!! It didn’t cost nearly that much even a couple of years ago.” This woman has a very good job, but even people with good jobs can’t help but notice how fast money is leaving their pockets now. That’s what makes it so scary. That’s when you know shit is getting real.
Whether it’s a trip to Costco, health insurance, gas, a car repair, or an Amazon Prime subscription, it’s all gotten soooo expensive.
This is the reality that’s bitch slapping us now, but we don’t talk about it. We just grumble under our breath and move on. Because if politicians, pundits and economic “experts” aren’t ringing alarms or raising red flags about the insanely high cost of living, it’s probably just our imagination, right? It can’t be that important. Because right now, nothing seems more important than the risk of being infected or dying of COVID.
But COVID isn’t our only reality. It's not the biggest threat to our survival now.
The people who control the narrative never talk about increasing numbers of Americans who struggle to feed themselves so they can stay healthy enough to resist COVID (or any other virus that comes along). Politicians ignore the fact that meager stimulus checks won’t make a dent in the cost of healthcare people will need if they do get sick. Pundits never discuss the physical toll of financial insecurity — that hunger, heart disease, strokes, and suicides may end up claiming more lives than COVID. They’ve kept us laser-focused on a single threat while ignoring the tsunami of others on our doorstep.
Was the insane cost of living a hot button issue in the 2020 election? Is our government coming up with solutions to deal with this looming catastrophe?
Wrap your mind around the insanity of a $1.5 trillion dollar COVID “relief” bill that allocates $10 million for “gender programs” in Afghanistan and $25 million to the Kennedy Center, yet doles out $600 to desperate Americans (half the amount of last spring’s stimulus check). Keep in mind this is the third “relief” bill passed during this pandemic, bringing the “stimulus” total to nearly $3 trillion — more debt than the U.S. amassed in 230 years.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Banks have received an “unlimited” amount of interest-free loans from the Federal Reserve to “stimulate” the economy — as much as they want, trillions or tens of trillions of dollars. When this much money is printed, it doesn’t sit idle in bank accounts; it moves through the economy. As the economy teeters on the edge of the abyss, a lot of that money is flowing into the “safest” of assets: real estate.
Last spring I wrote about the gaping class divide we would see as a result of our response to this pandemic. Now it’s playing out in real time as the housing market — and the price of everything else — goes parabolic.
It won’t be long before we find ourselves agonizing less about getting vaccinated and more about how we’ll stay alive after we’re vaccinated. How to feel “safe” in world where we constantly stress about feeding our families and holding onto homes to pass along to kids (who won’t be able to afford one otherwise).
In many ways, this pandemic has merely accelerated trends that were already unfolding. Like brick and mortar stores giving way to online retailers and movie theaters surrendering to online streaming, America’s labor force has been transitioning to remote working for at least a decade. I was part of that early transition. Ten years ago, I left a job in a major city and have been working from home ever since. Most of my L.A. colleagues thought I was crazy for leaving and would never have made the leap, themselves. But a lot has changed in the past decade.
Now more people are realizing that city living isn’t what it used to be or what it’s cracked up to be. Increasing congestion, $6 lattes, and spreading homeless encampments have started to outweigh the perks of urban life. So it was probably inevitable that more people would migrate from big cities in the future, over the course of many years. But when a 9-month lockdown prompts tens of millions of people to do this all at once, and when a head-spinning amount of money is unleashed into the economy that accelerates this transition, it’s unnatural. And it’s dangerous. It’s like a high voltage socio-economic shock to the system that can kill it.
We are witnessing the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. And it’s happening quietly and insidiously, as the nation devotes its energy and attention to eradicating a virus that hospitalizes 9% of healthy people it infects and is only fatal to 5% of those.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t take this pandemic seriously, because we absolutely should. But we should be just as serious about dealing with another threat that could easily dwarf the pain COVID has brought. Defeating this virus will be a Pyrrhic victory if millions of Americans slip into financial security that brings death from a myriad of other diseases and conditions.
If we don’t wake up and pay attention to this threat, if we don't make it a “trending” topic and demand that our government focus on it now, we may end up looking back on 2020 with nostalgia.