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Homeownership: ‘We feel like our dreams are slipping away’

The Other Side

Roberta Villalobos and her husband, whose real names I’m concealing for questions of privacy, began looking for a house to buy in Durango over two years ago. But so far, they’ve struck out.

“We’ve found homes,” Villalobos explained. “But we keep getting out bid by out-of-state buyers. And prices have doubled since we started looking. We feel like our dreams are slipping away.”

The last home Villalobos found was a 1,400 square foot townhouse. The unit was in Durango, which would have allowed her children to stay at the same school. According to Zillow, the home sold for $369,000 in 2018, but four years later, it went for $547,500 – a 48% increase. The Villalobos made a competitive offer, but a second home buyer offered thousands more than the asking price. Losing yet another home, after so many years of sacrifice, was tough to swallow.

“During the pandemic, my husband kept food stocked on the shelves and contributed to a vital part of our economy,” Villalobos said. “He’s a hero. But unfortunately, the real estate market doesn’t see it that way.”

Villalobos and her husband are part of Durango’s quickly diminishing middle class, but their story is reflective of a broader trend. Like them, millions of Americans are watching their dream of joining the middle class slip away as their purchasing power is outstripped by inequality and inflation. According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of U.S. households were in the middle class in 1971. Today, only 50% are.

“We left Mexico to improve our future, to build a family and to be economically stable,” she explained. “We came to give our children a safe home.”

The Villalobos have worked hard to position themselves for homeownership. When they migrated to the U.S., they moved to a local trailer park, which allowed them to keep costs low, while growing professionally and saving for a home. But now that they finally qualify for a loan, bidding wars have created a new barrier.

“We’ve made offers that we think are fair,” Villalobos said. “But sellers go with the largest bid and we simply haven’t been able to compete. It’s disheartening because we want to be part of this community. We live here, we work here, we’re essential workers, but we’re finding it increasingly difficult to stay here.”

As Latinos, the Villalobos represent the youngest demographic group in the country, which makes up nearly 20% of the nation’s population. In this sense, they represent the future. Still, despite demographic growth, the Latinx population – like other minority groups – has struggled to gain wealth. In fact, the median wealth of Latino households in 2019 was just $14,000, which pales in comparison to the $160,200 reported for non-Hispanic White households.

The gap between Latinx and white households is largely tied to homeownership. Whereas 73% of non-Hispanic whites own their home, just 47% of Latinos own the house they live in. In a country where 66% of the average family’s wealth is tied to the value of their home, Latinos like the Villalobos are poorly positioned to keep pace with the American Dream.

“It feels unfair,” Villalobos concluded. “It feels like we will have to leave Durango, the town we love so much because it’s no longer affordable. We just want an opportunity.”

And they deserve one. But giving the Villalobos – and other families like them – a fair shot at homeownership will require local leaders to expand housing stock, while subsidizing affordable housing units. It will require innovative tax structures that levy second-home buyers and tourists at rates that are capable of offsetting the rapid inflation of local markets. More of the same simply won’t do.

Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.