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Colorado Community Media journalists spent months digging into the factors that caused — and solutions to — the affordable housing crisis. Find all stories in the project at our overview here.

Amber Carlson is a Colorado native. She loves the Denver area for all its amenities — from outdoor recreation to the arts-and-culture scene. But with so many other people moving to the region because they also love those things, Carlson would consider moving away.

“I don’t blame people for wanting to live here,” she said. “It’s got a lot going on.”

Amber Carlson, a graduate student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, is pictured in front of her partner’s home in Wheat Ridge. Because her partner owns the home, Carlson is able to afford rent in the metro area as she completes her studies. Credit: Courtesy photo

Carlson doesn’t want to uproot from Colorado, but if she did, it would be because of the region’s skyrocketing cost of living.

“It’s difficult when you’ve lived here your whole life and it has become hard to stay,” she said.

Carlson is in her 30s. She went to Denver’s George Washington High School and is currently in graduate school at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She lives with her partner in a house in Wheat Ridge that he owns, a situation she feels fortunate to have. Otherwise, Carlson said, she is not sure if she would be able to afford a rental on her own.

Her experience leaves her with questions about the idea of the American dream — owning a home. It is, for many, a dream of a single-family home on a private plot of land in the suburbs, maybe with a picket fence and tire swing hanging from a lofty tree. 

But younger people are changing their perceptions about what the American dream should be. Driving that change is the increasingly unaffordable nature of housing, according to a few surveys, including one by Bankrate last year. It found that two-thirds of respondents cite affordability as a major hurdle to homeownership. Their pinch points included everything from salaries that didn’t keep up to a lack of ability to save for down payments to high mortgage rates.

‘The American dream has decreased in relevance’

James Truslow Adams, a writer and historian, is credited with coining the term “the American dream” in 1931 — early in the Great Depression — in his book, “The Epic of America.”

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” Adams wrote. “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Carlson reflects on all of that. She said that people began to conceptualize how to get their American dream — go to college, get a good job and buy a home — in the post-World War II era.

“There was this idea that you could have all of this,” Carlson said. 

More Americans these days, she said, are defining success on their own terms. More folks might see homeownership as a relic, even something that holds them back in life, rather than necessary for all of their needs and desires.

“Buying a home is probably something that some people want,” Carlson said. “But I don’t think everybody wants or needs to buy a home.”

Others are holding onto the old idea. Bankrate found that homeownership remains a persistent part of the American dream. Homeownership is the “most-mentioned milestone” for Americans 26 and older, but younger Americans see it as less important. Gen Z, aged 18-25, doesn’t rank it as the top accomplishment like older Americans tend to.

One of the reasons that University of Denver student Caitlyn Aldersea doesn’t envision herself ever becoming a homeowner is because she wants to be able to travel. Here, she is pictured during her Spring 2022 travels to Budapest, Hungary. She has also spent time studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, and the UK.

Gen Z member Caitlyn Aldersea, a student at the University of Denver, is representative of the changing attitude.

She remembers as a young child how the Great Recession that began in 2007 affected her family. 

“The American dream today is much different than how my parents thought of it,” Aldersea said. “Today, it’s more based on what can be accomplished. It’s not shooting for the stars anymore.” 

Aldersea’s personal definition of the American dream includes a fulfilling career, opportunities to be part of a community that one is able to give back to and the freedom to pursue personal interests. She believes housing should be attainable for everyone, but doesn’t think it defines success or happiness.

Aldersea doesn’t envision ever becoming a homeowner. One reason is that she wants to be able to relocate as she pursues her career goals. Another is that she wants to travel and pay off student loans.

“I don’t think my wage or salary will ever help me afford a house or mortgage,” Aldersea said. “A house would not be the only thing I’d have to focus on financially.”

Time will tell whether homeownership will eventually become more important to younger Americans. According to Bankrate, the pull to own a home remains strong. Fifty-nine percent of Gen Z members want to own a home as a life goal, second only to having a successful career (60%).

For other generations, homeownership remains the top life goal and the likelihood of that increases with age. Eighty-seven percent of older adults, aged 68 and up, cite homeownership as integral to the American dream.