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News brief: mortgage rates, midterm election issues, union drive at Starbucks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Buying a house has been hard for years, and for the moment, it's even harder.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Mortgage rates have been rising. They're now about 5%, and the price of homes was already soaring.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold covers the housing market and joins us now. Chris, good morning.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: I just want to note mortgage rates were as low as 3% or even below that last summer, and now they're a bit above 5%, which doesn't sound like a big deal, I guess, until you start doing some numbers.

ARNOLD: Right. I mean, when you're borrowing enough money to buy a house, a couple of percentage points on the mortgage rate makes a huge difference. Here's a not-so-fun fact if you're ready for this.

INSKEEP: OK.

ARNOLD: To buy the median-priced home in the U.S., if you look at the monthly mortgage payment, that's gone up 55% since just the start of last year.

INSKEEP: Whoa.

ARNOLD: That's - yeah. I mean, it's just, like, eye-poppingly (ph) big. That's the combined effect of higher rates and higher prices. And that's upwards of $600 a month more to buy a house that's around $350,000. It would be a lot more to buy a pricier house.

INSKEEP: And this is on top of a market that was already way overpriced for a lot of people. It's really common for me to get in a conversation with somebody who's truly enraged. They think they can never afford a house.

ARNOLD: Right. I mean, people were having trouble affording homes before this. Some homebuyers are looking at smaller places and condos. But for many, it's just getting too expensive. I talked to Gabriela Raimander. She's a realtor in St. Petersburg, Fla. And she says most of her first-time homebuyer clients have just pretty much given up. She spoke to one of them just the other day.

GABRIELA RAIMANDER: She told me, it's like, you know - with watery eyes - it's like, you know, I just - I can't compete in this market. My dream of owning a house will have to be postponed or shelved altogether.

ARNOLD: And on a more positive note, this is not all bad for the housing market, though, because it's just been so overheated, and this should cool things off and kind of calm down the frenzied buying and the bidding wars that have been pushing prices up so much. Builders need time to catch up. We do not have enough supply. So cooling off is not entirely a bad thing, and prices are not expected to rise much this next year.

INSKEEP: I feel obliged to say two things, Chris Arnold - first, to reassure someone like the woman with the watery eyes. I mean, there was a time when I was looking for my first house and also thought, I've been priced out of this market. It's hopeless. Eventually, something works out, so hopefully something does for them. But the other question is this - the high home prices you were talking about are a factor in the higher and higher inflation that we're facing. So what is the Federal Reserve doing about that? Since their job - or one of them anyway - is to keep a handle on inflation.

ARNOLD: Right. And the Fed's moves that we follow are not directly tied to mortgage rates, but to simplify, rates anticipate a bunch of different things that the Federal Reserve's going to be doing over the next year, and they move dramatically and quickly in anticipation of that. So that's why we've seen a very big move up already, and we'll see where it goes from here.

INSKEEP: This has also got to affect people who are already in a house but want to get to another house.

ARNOLD: It does. You know, most people, though, who own a home, they're sitting on a pile of home equity. So when they sell, that will help them, though. I talked to one couple in the Seattle area. Alex Bacon and her husband. And they bought a tiny little house five years ago. It was all they could afford. And it's directly under the flight path of Seattle's airports.

ALEX BACON: I'm just off the end of one of the runways, so the air just smells of jet fuel. I can't have people over for a barbecue because every time I try to have a conversation, you have to pause for 30 seconds in the middle of your thought.

ARNOLD: Because there's, like, a 747, like, literally over your head just, like, roaring over.

BACON: Yeah.

ARNOLD: So even their house, though, Steve, has risen in value, they want to move to a smaller town that does not have an airport next to their house. And now they're scrambling to do that before interest rates go even higher.

INSKEEP: Wow. Good luck to them. NPR's Chris Arnold, thanks so much.

ARNOLD: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Democrats have a lot of reasons to worry about this fall's elections.

FADEL: The president's party often doesn't do well. Many Americans do not feel positive about the direction of the country. Unemployment is very low, but inflation has been creeping up. The U.S. has pushed back against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but gas prices have risen higher. And the pandemic is by no means over - a fact underlined when the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, tested positive.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been asking what some voters make of all that. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Where did you go?

KHALID: I went to Michigan's 7th Congressional District. It's about an hour west of Detroit. And because, you know, inflation has been the top concern in just about every poll, I went to some places where people would be feeling it - a Walmart, a gas station and this local grocery chain called Meijer. And, you know, Steve, just about every person I talked to had an earful to share. Krista Wilcox was putting groceries into the trunk of her car with her husband, Trevor. She told me that they are buying significantly less groceries lately.

KRISTA WILCOX: And we're a dual-income family.

KHALID: Do you feel like you understand why the prices are going up? Is there any sense...

K WILCOX: No.

KHALID: No. Do you blame anyone or do you blame anything for it?

K WILCOX: Oh...

TREVOR WILCOX: The Biden administration (laughter).

K WILCOX: COVID.

KHALID: You blame COVID.

K WILCOX: Yeah. I'm a nurse.

KHALID: And you blame Biden.

T WILCOX: The administration. Yeah. There's a lot of things they could do.

KHALID: You know, in reality, there's really not much that any president can do to curb inflation. But Trevor Wilcox thinks that Joe Biden could do more to lower gas prices, specifically by relying more on American energy. And, you know, even the local Democratic congresswoman here, Elissa Slotkin, says she has been pushing the White House to do more to fight inflation, to suspend the federal gas tax or open up the strategic oil reserves even further, which to me shows that she knows how potent this issue could be in her reelection.

INSKEEP: Are Democrats vulnerable on other issues?

KHALID: You know, they are. And, Steve, I will say, when I speak to young people in particular, they told me they felt let down over student loan forgiveness, over immigration. Brady McAdams, I met her. She was a 19-year-old nursing student at Michigan State University. She felt like the president had not fulfilled his promises.

BRADY MCADAMS: I feel like we were promised so many things, I mean, the changes and we were going to, like, get back on track. I don't feel like we're getting on track. I feel like we're just not doing anything.

INSKEEP: Are any of the accomplishments the president touts getting through? I think about the infrastructure bill that was passed on a bipartisan basis. I think about a Supreme Court justice just confirmed yesterday. I think about unemployment being super low.

KHALID: You know, Steve, you are right, I will say, and there are certainly Democrats I met who feel that the president is getting unfairly blamed for things out of his control, like an uncooperative Congress, a pandemic and a war. But many of them also agree that if the president cannot get more support from the broader American public by November, the rest of his party could be in trouble. Lanae Erickson is with the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. And she told me she worries that 2022 could be a rough hill to climb for Democrats.

LANAE ERICKSON: You know, if the president's approval rating is 42%, it's going to be difficult for anyone to outperform him by nine or 10 points. That's just very difficult in modern politics.

KHALID: And, Steve, frankly, the big test will be if Democrats in competitive races drop the president altogether and try to create their own distinct brand, which I will say, you know, so far, we have not really seen publicly yet.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid, always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks.

KHALID: Happy to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Store by store, the union drive at Starbucks is growing.

FADEL: More than 200 Starbucks locations have filed for union elections. So far, 13 have unionized. And today, we'll find out if four more stores will join them.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Hsu is following this story. Good morning.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What happens today?

HSU: Well, the National Labor Relations Board is going to count the votes in four different Starbucks elections. Three of the stores are in Ithaca, N.Y., and one is in Overland Park, Kan. That's a suburb of Kansas City. And the union has won 13 out of 14 elections so far, including three just yesterday. But some of those votes have been pretty close. And Starbucks is mounting a pretty serious anti-union campaign.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, let's talk through that. What is Starbucks doing?

HSU: Yeah. Well, I talked with workers from a Starbucks in Springfield, Va. They're going to be voting on a union next week. And in the last month or so, they say all kinds of weird things have been happening at their store. Five new people were suddenly hired, and the barista trainer at the store, who's also one of the union organizers, was not allowed to train them. They say their hours have been cut. And they said they've had all these one-on-one meetings with their store manager. And to their surprise, the district manager has also shown up for some of them. Tim Swicord, a barista at the store, described what that was like.

TIM SWICORD: We went to the back of house in a very kind of intimidating feeling where it was me talking to two people. And to me, it did not really feel like a conversation.

HSU: He says the managers told him that unionizing is a gamble, that they could lose their benefits and that he in particular could lose an opportunity to be promoted. And by the way, Steve, these are called captive audience meetings. And the general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board moved this week to ban such meetings as an unfair labor practice.

INSKEEP: It does sound intimidating, even if the exact words that come out of the supervisor's mouth are maybe not technically so, just being in that back room with a couple of people.

HSU: Yeah.

INSKEEP: So how does Starbucks answer these accusations of borderline or totally unfair practices?

HSU: Well, Starbucks denies that it's engaging in unfair labor practices, but the National Labor Relations Board is looking into some of the claims, including a few involving workers who are organizing who were fired. And, you know, it is an interesting time at Starbucks. Howard Schultz, who led the company for years, just came back as interim CEO. He spoke at a town hall-type thing on Monday and said companies throughout the country are being assaulted by the threat of unionization. That's how he sees what's going on. He doubled down on what he said about unions in the past. Basically, his stance is we don't need them at Starbucks. We've made this a great place to work without them. And he promised to re-imagine Starbucks as a company with employees at its center.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD SCHULTZ: A company that does not need someone in between us and our people.

HSU: Now, the organizers at his store are saying, hey, we're not some outside group. We're your workers who are organizing this union campaign.

INSKEEP: It's interesting to listen to Howard Schultz there. It seems he's effectively saying, I want to be your union boss. I'm the guy who's going to take care of you, which is a thing that...

HSU: Yes, exactly.

INSKEEP: Which is a thing that a lot of bosses have said. I want to provide good enough conditions that people don't want to be in a union. But what are workers asking for?

HSU: Well, yeah. And, you know, what you say is true. And Starbucks actually provides generous benefits, great health care and education benefits, even stock options for full-time and part-time employees. Three of the workers I spoke to have gone to college for free, but they want more consistent schedules. They want Starbucks to change how it handles tipping. And they want raises, but they also want more of a voice in the company. They said their voices have not been heard in the pandemic. Their suggestions for how to stay safe were dismissed. So they want a seat at the table, and they think a union will give them that.

INSKEEP: Well, Andrea, I'd love to talk about this further, but I have a sudden need to go get a cup of coffee, so I'll say goodbye for now. Thank you.

HSU: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Hsu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: One other note before we leave you. Something happened in the U.S. Senate yesterday that has never happened before. Senators confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She'll soon be Justice Jackson. Vice President Kamala Harris can preside over the Senate on big occasions like this and came to oversee the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: On this vote, the ayes are 53, the nays are 47, and this nomination is confirmed.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: The first Black vice president was smiling. You're hearing supporters in the gallery applauding along with senators who voted yes, who included all Democrats and three Republicans, including Mitt Romney, who remained at his desk applauding even as other lawmakers cleared the floor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.