The prospects of millennial home ownership

By Kristopher Yanez/El Inde

From the living room of Mariah Haga’s one-bedroom apartment, alongside her mother, her younger brother, and Cooper, her stout black-and-brown basset hound-mix — the choir of voices crescendoed together as they eagerly counted down the remaining seconds of December 31, 2019. 

Hasty for a new beginning, Haga was “coming in hot.”

Left behind her was the last half of 2019: She was moving on from her first serious long-term relationship, moving out of her ex-boyfriend’s house from the southeast suburbs of Rita Ranch, and moving into a temporary six-month lease near central Tucson.

Before her were the promising early months of 2020. She’d be celebrating her 26th birthday in March, vacationing beside swimming swine on the “Pig Beach” in the Bahamas by February, and within the first few weeks of January, she’d be moving once again, subletting the spare bedroom out of a house rented to a couple of her girlfriends.

Ringing in the New Year, the flamboyant 25 year-old professional hairstylist had made her resolutions: to focus on her career, cutting and coloring her clients’ hair at Studio B Designs, and having been justifiably overwhelmed with multiple moves in just a matter of months, she committed to saving enough money to plant roots of her own in the coming year.  

Haga is among the 81% of millennials who have agreed that “homeownership is a part of the American Dream,” according to a recent survey conducted by the legacy financial firm Merrill Lynch.

Haga is also amongst the millennial-aged who have felt that homeownership is an elusive idea — either because of affordability, availability of inventory, changes in demographics, employment, and economics (such as trends in multi-generational housing and the rise of the gig-economy), stagnant wages, inundating student loan debt, tighter lending standards, or the instability of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


On October 27, the United States Census Bureau released its third-quarter Residential Vacancies and Homeownership report for 2020. 

Nationally, the rate of homeownership measured at 67.4%, up 2.6% as reported in the previous year’s third quarter, continuing on an upward trend since the start of 2020.  

Year-to-date, the rate of homeownership among millennials and younger generations (the cohort age 35 years and under) held around the previous quarter’s rate at 40.2%, a nearly three percent increase from the third quarter of 2019.

Historically-low interest rates, home buying resources including aid for first-time homeowners, down payment assistance programs, and the demand of the housing market is uniquely driving millennial homeownership, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Benny Gutierrez, a 25 year-old local Tucson real estate agent for Realty One Group.

Mirroring Southern Arizona’s record-breaking temperatures, Tucson’s housing market continues to be unseasonably hot amid an unprecedented pandemic and at a time that traditionally signals the start of a slow season for local real estate sales.

Residential properties in Tucson are currently selling faster and selling for more. On average, a single-family home in Tucson spends under a month — 24 days — on the market (33.3% less time than in 2019) before being sold at the median price of $280,000 (12.4% higher than in 2019.)

Gutierrez explains that the market is a mix of local buyers, top-dollar flippers, and, now with the pandemic, financially capped-out homeowners and renters who are “fleeing” larger, more expensive metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles for a piece of low-cost-living in the Old Pueblo.

Such conditions have easily transformed Tucson real estate into a seller’s market. The demand for residential inventory has since dwindled the region’s housing supply down near 1,200 properties and is beginning to have real-life effects on the prospects of homeownership. 

“I remember when we were looking and the price point that we were looking at, we had so many options,” said Gutierrez, relating to his young family’s own home buying process back in 2018. 

“We had the potential to go to any side of town, as opposed to now. If somebody comes up to me and has a specific budget, sometimes I have to have the conversation of, you know, ‘We’re not going to close off the areas, but, realistically, this is probably is going to be the most affordable [option] for you.'”


Not long after graduating from Northern Arizona University in May 2017, Jonah Schmidt, along with his girlfriend, Kayla Velasquez, and Gus, their three-year-old pug — packed up their downtown Flagstaff apartment inside their rugged and well-traveled green Subaru station wagon for the 4-hour road trip back home to Southern Arizona.

Awaiting Schmidt’s arrival was a starting job teaching science — returning that Fall to a classroom at Sunnyside High School, where he had graduated from in 2011. 

Meanwhile, the graduates settled in temporarily with Velasquez’s parents, and within weeks, Velasquez landed a position as an illustrator and graphic designer for the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

By November 2017, the trio relocated to a blue adobe-inspired three-bedroom rental of their own within Barrio Santa Rosa, a highly sought-after neighborhood south of the heart of downtown Tucson. 

Below its vaulted ceilings, custom artwork, a Danny Martin print, maps of Fourth Avenue, and Congress Street outfitted the walls between whatever hand-me-down and thrift store furniture they had collected over their college years. The apartment had no-hassle concrete floors, a backyard, and a doggy-door for Gus, which allowed them to add Chata, a 10-month old pug puppy, after a year of renting.

The location fit their millennial, young professional lifestyles perfectly, as they went to local holiday parades, Roadrunners hockey games at the Tucson Convention Center, or ate and drank through any of the dozens of bars, craft breweries, or restaurants that have opened since the redevelopment of downtown Tucson. 

Both also appreciated a brief commute to work, being near the freeway, and equally enjoyed being able to instantly hop on Interstate 10 for vacations to Disneyland, weekend camping trips, or occasional one-off get-aways with friends.

A shift began about a year ago when Schmidt floated the idea of homeownership to a less-than-receptive Velasquez. 

“I was getting into reading about personal finance,” Schmidt said analytically. “The more that we rent, the more that we’re paying someone else’s mortgage, and they’re reaping all the benefits of getting equity and owning a property — and we’re not.”

The commitment to a 30-year mortgage was an anchor, and Velasquez didn’t want to feel tied down to Tucson.

So the couple renewed their downtown lease and spent another year and more money renting.

The 27 year-old science teacher spent the start of 2020 inquiring about programs for first-time homebuyers. 

One day, while researching properties online, Schmidt filled out a form to receive more information and immediately received an automated response, followed by an email that was initially disregarded as spam. Shortly thereafter, Schmidt was on a phone call and paired with a lending agent at the start of their home search.

Over January and February, Schmidt and Velasquez casually thumbed through listings from the Zillow app on their iPhones, rating properties as if they were potential dates, ‘swiping left’ or ‘swiping right,’ assessing them for deal breakers, based on age, style and location.

“Kayla and I, we do tend to have very different ideas on aesthetics,” said Schmidt. 

Velasquez admires the character and charm of mid-century style, whereas, Schmidt is drawn to contemporary design — though both ended up agreeing to find something ideally move-in ready with at least three bedrooms, including an office space/guest room for Velasquez, an open kitchen, for Chef Schmidt, and for their pugs, a yard, and most importantly, carpetless floors.

Lastly was location. 

Velasquez did not want to buy a house on the city’s south side, far north side, or east side. 

“Kayla was really, really like hell-bent on a central, downtown area house,” said Schmidt. “But downtown houses are like half-a-million-dollar homes.”

Equipped with a pre-approval of $180,000, the millennials set their sights centrally, and in the west side neighborhood of Barrio Hollywood. Homes in their budget were fixer-uppers, required work, or left much to be desired for the buyers who admittedly are not very handy.

Despite the craze of quarantining, the shuttering of schools and business, and looming lockdowns in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the masked-up and sanitized couple began looking at homes in-person with their real estate agent in the Spring.

They looked at around 8 to 10 houses all across Tucson, without reservations; however, none were a match for what they wanted.

“The really annoying part was we would find a house that we were like, ‘We really want to see this,’ we’d text our realtor, and she’s like, ‘Five people have already put an offer. Do you still want to look at it?'” Schmidt said. “That was really frustrating because it was like, these are the nicest houses that were kind of, sort of in our budget, but they would all get bought up before we could even look at them.”

Overwhelmed with the emotional process of homebuying, the couple relaxed their home search in May, while their financing was being finalized.  

By Summer, Schmidt was scrolling through the housing portal again when they came upon the “Evergreen House.”

The three-bed, two-bath, single-family starter home, built in the early 1970s, with an open kitchen, big yard, and swimming pool, caught his eye and immediately scheduled a showing that day.

Standing outside on a sweltering June afternoon, a line of potential homebuyers had snaked around the east side residence, like the queue to ride Splash Mountain on a summer’s day at Disneyland.

Schmidt and Velasquez spent a greater time waiting in line than the 10 minutes it took them to view the house, but in the end, they knew that they had liked what they had seen — despite its east side location.

Feeling added pressure because the elderly sellers had wanted to aggressively accept an offer within 24-hours, the millennial homebuyers retreated to their downtown apartment to discuss their decision overnight. 

“If there’s any time to move away from downtown, now is the year to do it,” Velasquez reasoned. “Nothing’s open. We’re not going to be going downtown anyway because everything’s closed.”

By the following morning, the millennial homebuyers submitted their first offer on a house, ever.

Originally listed at $159,000, Schmidt and Velasquez presented a deal for the seller’s asking price with the stipulation that for every additional offer received on the Evergreen house, the submitted offer would be increased by $500 — not to exceed their budget of $180,000.

Along with the offer, their real estate agent advised them to write a letter to the seller, explaining why they should select them as the buyers.

Velasquez, being the graphic artist, wrote out and designed what Schmidt characterized as a “cheesy letter,” complete with a picture of the two of them with their two pug children. 

A few days passed before they received a call from their realtor.

Out of a total of 77 offers, the seller went with another buyer. 

Having already felt attached to the house, Schmidt and Velasquez were legitimately sad about losing the bidding war. 

They resigned from their home search and decided to wait a year to afford a larger down payment on a better house.   

“Our realtor would text us every couple of days to be like, ‘Here are some houses,” and we were not feeling it,” Schmidt explained. 

Three weeks later, by the end of July, while preparing for the start of the virtual semester at Sunnyside, Schmidt received another text from their realtor. 

There had been an issue closing on the potential buyer’s loan, meaning the Evergreen house was back on the market, and the seller had picked the millennial’s all-in offer of 179,000 as next-in-line. 

“Are you still interested?” the realtor’s text read. 

Over the month of August, the seller moved steadfastly for a 30-day closing, resulting in expedient, yet costly inspections on behalf of the buyers.

On the morning of September 4, still-masked and sanitized, Schmidt and Velasquez signed the endless stack of closing documents for the Evergreen house. Finally receiving their keys, the millennials officially became homeowners. 

Local millennials and first-time home buyers like Schmidt and Velazquez
are investing in a home in 2020.Photo courtesy of Johan Schmidt.


Luckily, the fever and fatigue Haga felt leaving the Bahamas wasn’t symptomatic of COVID-19. However, by the time she arrived back home in Arizona, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t be far behind her.

The neon-green mulleted hairstylist was able to work for about a month before business began trickling down until mid-March when her salon decided to close down over precautions of public health — and, ahead of the state-wide order from Gov. Doug Ducey, which mandated the closure of bars, restaurants, barbershop, and beauty salons (among other public services) on April 4.

“Right now, I’m not looking for houses,” a masked Haga explained, thankfully to be once again cutting hair behind her salon chair. 

Haga is still reeling in the recovery.

Having to pay her tax bill and being out of work for over a month, she had to rely on her savings and scant government assistance to survive the pandemic, which has all but quickly depleted. 

Compared to a year before, business is markedly slow to come back as resurgence of the coronavirus remains as an anxiety for the her clients and herself.

Feeling slightly discouraged, she may try again in another year, given a return of pre-pandemic stability. 

For now, she has embraced where her life is at, at the moment: enjoying Cooper’s company, a new relationship, sharing a house, and having roommates — even if it means that Haga can’t control the thermostat like it is her own home.