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In the U.S., there's a historic shortage of homes — around 3 million short


There's an historic shortage of homes in the U.S. We need around 3 million more. And it's a big part of why home prices are high. NPR's Chris Arnold spoke to a builder to find out what's going on.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: A crew of workers is nail-gunning 2x4s together. They're building an in-law apartment next to a house in a suburb outside Boston.

EMERSON CLAUSS: This area is going to be living space on the ground floor with two rooms and a little kitchenette and a bathroom.

ARNOLD: Emerson Clauss has been building homes for 45 years. He's walking around the newly poured concrete foundation.

CLAUSS: It's going to be a great-looking property at the end of the day.

ARNOLD: Clauss is the president of the state homebuilders association. So I wanted to find out from him what is going on. Why aren't more homes getting built? And one reason is the windows and skylights and fixtures going in here - it's taking a lot longer to get building materials like that.

CLAUSS: I had a client ask me to add a door. We just waited six months to get it. That's a door in a frame. That's kind of crazy. If you get into appliances right now, the lead time for appliances is nuts.

ARNOLD: Just to get like, a dishwasher or something.

CLAUSS: Dishwasher - if you can find the model you want right now. You might wait a year for it.

ARNOLD: But the real cause of the housing shortage goes way back before the COVID supply chain problems, back to 2008, when we had the worst housing crash since the Great Depression. And a lot of builders went out of business, and others struggled.

CLAUSS: A lot of my tradespeople found other work and went and got retrained for new jobs in law enforcement, in all sorts of jobs. And so the workforce was somewhat decimated. And it takes a long time to get back to that.

ARNOLD: So even as Americans started buying more homes again, buildings stayed below normal. And that went on for, like, a decade. Meanwhile, the biggest generation - the millennials - started to settle down, and we ended up millions of homes short of the demand. While that was happening, Clauss managed to recover and hire more people again.

RENE LANDEVERDE: Yeah, we always need guys, right?

CLAUSS: Always.

ARNOLD: Rene Landeverde is Clauss' foreman. He's originally from El Salvador. And for the past ten years, he's helped Clauss and other local builders find a lot of other workers to hire and train.

LANDEVERDE: Actually, I've been bringing guys to companies, like, maybe 200 guys in - with the other company.

CLAUSS: Yeah. He's actually brought everybody to the table here. You know, some are related to him. Some are just, you know, old friends.

ARNOLD: Then COVID hit. Things shut down. Some of those workers left. And now with unemployment so low, Landeverde can't find people to hire like he used to.

LANDEVERDE: It's a lot harder. Yeah, they've been finding other work.

CLAUSS: You know, if I had twice as many guys, I would still not have enough. And my subcontractors - they're all hurting for people.

ARNOLD: And there's another very big roadblock to home construction.

CLAUSS: Land. I mean, land - I was just trying to buy a piece of land to build five homes on it. Unfortunately, that land went to somebody else that may put one or two on it.

ARNOLD: Clauss says he wants to build more attached townhouses or smaller homes on less land. That's what many first-time homebuyers can afford to buy. But in many places, zoning rules won't let you buy land and divide it up like that. You can only build one house with a big yard.

CLAUSS: Where, you know, you could have put six houses in a - you know, a modern-type community setting.

ARNOLD: So builders like Clauss, to make a profit, are left often just buying one older home, knocking it down and building a bigger, expensive, new home.

CLAUSS: We are seeing a lot of knockdowns, but it doesn't add to the housing stock. You're replacing something. You're not adding to it. So the net effect isn't the best.

ARNOLD: As a result, right now, Clauss doesn't have any new home projects lined up that will put a house in a place where there wasn't one already. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.

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