Thursday, the New York Times, with a page one national story inexplicably datelined “Portland, Me.,” told us that “families in a vast majority of the country can still buy a house for a smaller share of their income than they could have a generation ago.”
Really? Hmmm. Let’s read on. It seems that, measured nationally, a family earning the median income would have to spend only 22 percent of its pre-tax income to make the mortgage payments on a median-priced house — “well below” the 30 percent that it took 25 years ago.
Wow! Is that good news, or not? Well, actually … NOT.
Let us count the ways that this story is flawed.
First, once we delve deeper into the story, we learn that this trend peaked in the glory days of 1998, when families only had to shell out 17 percent of their pre-tax income to buy that median home. In other words, in the past seven years, housing costs nationally as a percentage of income have risen 30 percent.
Secondly, a study of the accompanying map and graph, conveniently tucked away on the page C9 jump of the story, reveals this nugget: In New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami, the cost of housing as a percent of income has actually risen over the past 20 years. In fact, that’s pretty much true for vast areas of the country — all of Washington State, Oregon, California, Nevada, most of the northeastern United States, and nearly all of Florida. In short, any area where population is growing and not stagnant.
The Times is dismissive about this inconvenient fact, asserting that “places that have become less affordable over the last generation account for only a quarter of the country’s population.” (Emphasis added.) One could just as easily write that sentence this way: “In places that have become less affordable over the last generation — places that house a full 25 percent of the nation’s populace — housing costs as a percentage of income have risen radically over the past 20 years.”
There’s more. Deep in the story, the paper somewhat abashedly notes that “[i]n a nationwide New York Times/CBS News poll conducted this month, 75 percent of respondents said they thought most families in their communities spent a larger share of their income than in the 1980’s. Only 5 percent said the share was smaller.”
People are funny, aren’t they? They just don’t know when they’re better off!
Finally, in the 29th paragraph of a 31-paragraph article, we learn that “[i]n New York, the median-earning family would have to spend about half its income on the mortgage payments for a median-priced house, up from a third of its income in 1985.”
Now, we know that the Times aspires mightily to become a national newspaper, beloved from Portland, Me., to Portland, Oregon.
But really, even in a story with national span — especially in a story with national span — why should New Yorkers (not to mention Californians, Floridians, and citizens from Boston to Washington, D.C.) trying to buy a house have to read to the 29th paragraph of a 31-paragraph article to learn that they’re getting absolutely killed in the same housing market that favors folks in places like Pittsburgh, Colorado Springs and Dallas?
Come home, New York Times, come home. We know that the Portlands (Maine and Oregon) are important. In fact, we like both places. (Ever tried those lobster rolls? Yum!) But next time you report on a national trend — however dated — could you try, just in passing, to hit on the New York aspect of the story sometime sooner than 47 pages after the jump?
Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.
Otherwise, you’re going to condemn us to an eternity of doing what we did yesterday — flipping back to page one just to double-check the name of the rag we’re reading.