Full House

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2005

As I was editing this issue's stories dealing with our desperate need for more affordable housing ("2005 Year in Review" and "Will Wages Rise?"), I came across a piece in The New York Times on developers' frantic searches for buildable land as they try to keep ahead of housing demand. Buried in the middle was a disturbing prediction from Bob Toll, the founder of national builder Toll Brothers. Our kids are going to live with us until they're 40, he declared. And when they have their second child, "we'll finally kick them out and make them pay for the house we paid for. And that house will cost them 45 to 50 percent of their income."

Toll wasn't using hyperbole. He and many real estate economists don't see the demand and prices for housing going down for a long time-if ever. Immigration trends, a longer-living senior population, the baby boomers' insatiable demand for second and third homes, and neighborhood activists who are willing to fight for years to prevent more development will keep housing prices unaffordable for moderate-income workers. It's a scenario we're all too familiar with here.

Toll's company is trying to prepare for the future by researching Europe's more mature market, where he claims high housing prices are forcing young-and this is the scary part-middle-aged adults to stay with Mom and Dad. "It's all just logic," Toll told the Times. "In Britain you pay seven times your annual income for a home; in the U.S. you pay three and a half." And Brits don't get as much for their money, either: 330 square feet per person, while we get 750 square feet. Toll predicts that our market is headed in that direction.

I confess I didn't focus on the high prices, the stingy square footage of future real estate or the sad plight of those up-and-coming generations. As the mother of two teens, I was instead panicked to think they might come back after they graduate from college and live with my husband and me until we're ready for assisted living. This might work if we lived in a 10,000-square-foot home of three stories, where each generation could have its own floor (come to think of it, this might be a great solution for all these mega-mansions when they become too expensive for even the wealthy), but our home is an Old Florida cottage of small rooms where any private conversation we have in the kitchen is often followed by "I heard that!" from one of our kids' bedrooms.

I asked a friend, Timo Khammash, a realtor for Engel & Volkers, who was raised in Germany and sells real estate in Europe and Naples, Fla., how Europeans make this arrangement work. While he didn't agree with Toll's sweeping generalization about the European market, Khammash laughed. "It doesn't work out," he said.

No, living with my 40-year-old kids is not something I can quite grasp at the moment. If we need an incentive to create more affordable housing, the idea that our adult children will be coming back home for 20 more years might do it.

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