We rely on them to protect our homes and families, educate our children, care for the ill, and provide dozens of other vital services. But when the day's tasks are done, these "workforce heroes"--firefighters, police officers, teachers, nurses, and others--can't afford to live in the communities where they work. Housing prices are too high and incomes are too low for them to have an easy time buying affordably priced housing in the nation's 25 largest cities and their suburbs, according to a recent NAHB study, "Homeownership for Heroes."

Less opportunity

The study, conducted by the NAHB for the Homeownership Alliance, found that, on average, workforce heroes' homeownership opportunities are seven to 10 percentage points lower than for the typical household in central cities and 20 to 23 percentage points lower in the suburbs.

Roughly one-third of homes for sale in the cities that were surveyed are affordable to entry-level teachers and police officers, the study showed, and in some areas the percentage is much lower.

According to the study, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and San Diego are particularly difficult areas for these heroes to aspire to homeownership, as are Los Angeles and, to the north, Seattle. In central San Francisco, only 1 percent of homes for sale are affordable to police officers just starting their careers; none are affordable to teachers with starting-pay level salaries.

Elsewhere, Boston and Chicago also have poor opportunities for workforce homeownership. And the suburbs of those cities, along with the suburbs of Memphis, Tenn., New York, Dallas, and Milwaukee, Wis., are also tough for public employees who want to live in the communities they serve.

All over the map

It's difficult to draw generalities about areas where housing affordability woes are most acute for workforce heroes because these areas are literally all over the map, and the size of the metro area, its growth rate, and the age of the housing stock do not show much correlation with affordability, the study found.

Summing up its various comparisons, the report concludes that homeownership is least affordable for workforce heroes in the metropolitan areas of Dallas, Seattle, and Washington, followed closely by Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, and San Jose. Relatively better homeownership opportunities can be found in the metro areas of San Antonio, Cleveland, Detroit, and New Orleans.

Responsibility calls

In the context of today's housing market, with its record low interest rates, a record homeownership rate, and record new-home sales, "Homeownership for Heroes" provides disheartening evidence that millions of families are still grappling with housing affordability and are not able to share in the American Dream of homeownership.

It is a powerful reminder that, as the nation's home builders, we have a responsibility to do all we can to ensure that homeownership is available to as many households as possible. Working together, we have already made great strides toward this ideal. Together, we will ultimately succeed in building the American Dream.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Memphis, TN.