Richmond Fed president Tom Barkin says ‘NIMBYism is real’ and housing ‘increasingly unattainable for too many workers’


The math isn’t mathing. Hopeful homebuyers earnings just aren’t adding up to the cost of housing—leaving people desperate to break into the market. You don’t expect to hear that from a central banker, though. Cue Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, who gave a speech on Wednesday at the 2023 Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference. The obvious problem with the housing market, he said, is that it’s “becoming increasingly unattainable for too many workers.”

“Take teachers, for example,” Barkin said. “The math all too often just doesn’t work for them.” Here are his sums: Middle school teachers in 2022 made a median salary of just over $60,000, Barkin said, which means that they could afford a $228,000 house, assuming a traditional 20% down payment. The problem, though, is that the median price for a starter home last year was $299,000—“And that’s on the off chance you could even find one.”

Barkin was speaking to the area his bank serves, but his observations apply to housing markets across the country, where hopeful homebuyers are taking on astronomical monthly payments thanks to decades-high interest rates and ever-increasing prices. Indeed, monthly payments are up 60% year-over-year, according to a recent report by real estate data and analytics firm Black Knight. That’s a whopping $871 more per month, on average.  

In fact, the average monthly principal and interest payment for borrowers on a 30-year fixed rate loan in July 2023 was more than $2,300—the highest average principal and interest payment on record, per the report. What’s even more of a shock, though, is that one-fourth of homebuyers pay at least $3,000 per month, Black Knight data shows. This is placing more and more folks into the house poor bucket, with many spending upwards of 60% of their paychecks on their mortgage.

To make matters worse, wages and home prices aren’t growing at the same pace. Average hourly earnings have increased 21% since 2019, Barkin said, but the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Home Price Indices shows a 48% jump during the same time period. 

“The math has been getting worse,” he said. “At the same time, of course, mortgage rates rose from 3.9% to almost 8% today. Why did prices spike so much? Demand and supply.” 

How to make ‘the math work’ and take on the NIMBYs

Barkin outlined a few ways to make “the math work” in his speech, mostly tied to improving housing inventory, which is down 8.1% year-over-year, according to the National Association of Realtors. Barkin suggests that communities need to “rally together” to make the case that housing is “integral to economic growth.” And that brought him to the scourge of inventory: the NIMBYs.

A famous phrase in housing circles, the “not in my backyard” homeowner has been famous for blocking development in their neighborhoods for decades, perhaps most famously in Northern California’s Bay Area. Barkin said the problem is widespread. “NIMBYism is real, and failing to secure buy-in from the community adds time, cost and uncertainty,” he said. “How do leaders rally their communities? They articulate the case for housing.”

Rental math also doesn’t add up

While all housing markets are different, it’s still generally cheaper to rent than buy because of high mortgage rates, home prices, and the amount needed for a down payment, Barkin noted. 

“Many younger millennials and Gen Zers are saving up by staying home with their parents or even renting with friends to put together a down payment on a home,” Maureen McDermut, a realtor with Sotheby’s International-Montecito, previously told Fortune. “As ‘starter’ homes have largely gone by the wayside, it is almost essential to do this for most.”

But rent prices also continue to rise on a national scale, Barkin said. There are fewer deals to be had. 

“The math for renting also isn’t great. Supply and demand hit the rental market, too,” Barkin said. “In 2021, rents spiked as national rental vacancy rates dropped to levels not seen in almost 40 years.”

The same teacher he used as an example would have faced a median asking rent of $1,643 per month in 2022 “already a stretch for their budget,” Barkin said. Now, that price is up 22% to $2,011, he said, citing data from Rent, a rental software development company.

The math isn’t likely to change for prospective buyers in the near future. Mortgage rates hit 8% in mid-October, and have been dropping some since then. But buyers hoping to see a drastic drop anytime soon are out of luck, economists and housing market experts say. In fact, Capital Economics, a London-based research firm known for its housing market forecasting, said in late October it doesn’t expect rates to fall significantly for at least the next two years.

“While we still expect mortgage rates to decline, they are unlikely to fall below 6% before end-2025, muting any recovery in house purchase demand and sales volumes,” Thomas Ryan, the U.S. property economist for Capital Economics, previously told Fortune. Other experts don’t expect to see the 2% and 3% mortgage rates of the pandemic era.

How to make the math work

But building more inventory—and fighting the NIMBYs—won’t come easy. Communities need to realize that they’re competing for developers, Barkin said, suggesting implementation of more tax incentive programs to renovate and rehabilitate older residential and commercial properties to help with housing inventory. Securing land is also a barrier to building more housing, so Barkin suggests focusing on changing zoning laws, investing in viable homesites, and leveraging unused land. 

Lastly, Barkin also suggests addressing construction costs, which are “way up.” Developing smaller homes or factory-built homes could help drive down construction costs, he said. Unconventional partners can make affordable housing projects happen, he suggests, including foundations, employers, colleges, and churches.

“We all know housing availability is limiting communities. The key is more supply,” Barkin said. “As I said upfront, this is a math problem — but one where potential solutions are beginning to multiply.”

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