Being a 26-year-old Minneapolis native who has lived in San Francisco and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., I often look at home prices in the city I grew up in and imagine making the move back to own my slice of the American dream. I rationalize this fantasy by telling myself the Twin Cities are one of the last urban areas where real estate is still available to the middle class.
Only, it’s becoming less possible by the day. One two-bedroom, two-bathroom Minneapolis house I saw on Zillow had skyrocketed in price in just over three short years — from $250,000 in 2016 to $345,000 in 2020. A leap that would bring even the most optimistic young person to a pit in their stomach.
I think I speak for a lot of millennials when I say that we’re not dreaming of the four-bedroom house in the second-ring suburbs like the generations before us were taught to aspire to. No, we fancy something much smaller and more practical. We’ve grown used to keeping our lives small.
I thought about writing this while walking the span of Central Park South known as Billionaire’s Row, an imposing stand of glass super-talls that are owned by the hundred millionaires and billionaires among us. Most of these units stand unattended by their owners, empty palaces in the sky. The grand show of wealth is at odds with all of the times an Uber driver has asked me where I’m from and I’ve bragged about my hometown with one-liners I’m sure many Minnesotans have mastered: It’s clean. It’s quiet. It’s affordable. The people are nice there. There are trees and lakes there.
Of course we’re in on the secret. The Twin Cities are all that and more. As the ever-poignant Atmosphere song goes, “If you know this is where you want to raise your kids, say ‘shhh.’ ”
It pains me to say I’m not sure that’s true anymore.
While the basic human need of housing becomes a hoarded commodity before our very eyes that real estate agents, developers and landlords are champing at the bit to extract every dollar out of, I’m reminded of one of the most powerful scenes in American pop culture likely ever written, from the 2015 film “The Big Short.”
Steve Carell’s character Mark Baum lectures a room full of bankers while the housing bubble crashes the world economy in tandem with his speech. “We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food — even baseball. What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice. That fraud is mean. It’s that for 15,000 years, fraud and shortsighted thinking have never ever worked. Not once. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this. I really did. And the fact that we’re not doesn’t make me feel all right and superior. It makes me feel sad.”
Carell’s final argument stands as the lone voice that spoke up for us average folk during the 2008 crisis: “I just know … that at the end of the day … average people are going to be the ones that are going to have to pay for all this. Because they always, always do.”
I draw the parallel to our home, where the Twin Cities are fast becoming the next cautionary tale. Where shortsighted thinking is taking precedent to reason and sanity in the name of fast dollars for the few. A place natives might soon be forced to move on from, and where firms with the most capital to develop vapid “luxury” units become our slumlords.
What’s going on in the Twin Cities may not be the product of fraud. But it seems to be the product of greed and a lack of attention to Minnesota’s once-great middle-class standard of life.
I thought we were better than this Twin Cities. I really did. And the fact that we aren’t doesn’t make me feel all right and superior.
It just makes me sad.
Louis Johnson, a Minneapolis native, writes from New York, where he works in public relations.