I was in Cleveland last week. My first time.
I’m a sucker for underrated cities, being from Oakland. But let me tell you: Cleveland is great. It felt to me like Chicago without the bombast, or Detroit without the pervasive sadness – just a real American city without a lot of bullshit or Apple stores.
I did ruin a pair of dress shoes walking back and forth to meetings through a mix of salt and slush. And the wind off Lake Erie slashed through my California “winter coat” almost immediately.
But still… I’m going back.
Because here’s the kicker: the friendliness was jarring.
It started with the older security guy – not a TSA officer, but a 60-something man sitting against a wall in baggage claim – who stopped me in my tracks by saying, “Have a great stay” as I rushed past him. Over the next three days I got more of this from the hotel maintenance man, the woman at the CVS where I bought some Chapstick, the snow plow guy… the good humor was widespread.
I couldn’t account for it until I cabbed back to the airport and, when there, got a pointless shoe shine.
That’s when I developed my theory.
The cabbie asked me what I do for a living. I told him. He proceeded to tell me about when he bought his home a few years ago and struggled to find a website he really liked. They were all too busy for his taste, but he managed.
The thirtysomething woman at the shoe shine stand asked me what I had done for Christmas (more friendliness!) so I told her about my cross-country trek to visit in-laws. When I asked about her Christmas she told me that since she bought a home down the street from her parents three years ago holidays were easy.
I write about a lot of real estate things that feel important to me in the moment. But, really, that stuff comes and goes. The bedrock of this whole real estate industry thing we’re involved in is about keeping homeownership at the core of our economy and society.
My theory, as you can probably guess by now, is that I felt friendliness in Cleveland because most people – including a cabbie and an airport shoe-shiner – could afford to own homes.
I believe it and you believe it: Homeownership makes lives better. Pride, comfort, community, security – all the stuff of saccharine real estate advertising – it’s all real.
The median home price in Cleveland is $175,000. That’s after a year-over-year gain of almost 25%. And there are plenty of perfectly lovely homes well under $100,000. This one here, priced at $66,000, can shelter a family of four for less than it takes to get a Bay Area big shot into a Tesla.
When I landed in San Francisco late that night I thought about where the shoe shine person in this airport must live. About the door they walk through at the end of a day. About their place in a city where the median home price is now over $1 million, and where what were once quaintly known as “starter homes” are now beyond the reach of people making $100,000 per year.
I could forgive them if they weren’t as friendly as the people I encountered in Cleveland.
You might think I’m some sort of bleeding heart. I’m not. I like capitalism. I own a business. I think I pay too much in taxes. I shoot things and eat them. I do like kale, but I don’t flaunt it.
But we have a problem here. GCI rises with prices, and that’s great, but in too many places it feels like the run-up is leaving a structural affordability problem in its wake. And that could hurt all of us in the long-term.
I wish I could do more than ruminate here. That I could say I knew how to fix it. I can’t. I’d embarrass myself if I pretended to understand the mortgage market, or demographics.
I do know that a lot of our real estate clients are feeling the same thing I’m feeling, even as we all enjoy the current prosperity. And some of them are exploring ways to actively engage first-time home buyers, connecting them with programs and products that make getting over the homeownership hurdle just a little less challenging.
And there’s NAR, which carries the homeownership banner on so many issues, from protecting the mortgage interest deduction on down, that keep doors open. Sometimes I wish they’d focus just on this.
So I guess that’s what I can do. Work with those I know in the industry to address this. It’s become a goal of mine for 2015.
But right now it’s late Sunday afternoon and the sun coming through my office window is washing out my screen.
I’m going home.