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WASHINGTON – City living has been a blessing for Tim Nelson.

The Phoenix lawyer moved downtown a few months ago into a new $389,000 townhouse with a warehouse-style floor plan, a Jacuzzi tub and kitchen counters made of Caesarstone quartz. His favorite coffee spot is three blocks away. When the Arizona Diamondbacks play Friday nights, he can watch postgame fireworks from his deck.

“I like the views,” said Nelson, 50. “My commute is almost nonexistent.”

Nelson has plenty of company.

Americans increasingly say they prefer to live near the centers of cities and towns, where commutes are typically shorter and culture, restaurants and entertainment close by. It marks a shift away from the yearning for open suburban space that drove U.S. home construction for decades.

But it carries a costly trade-off: Land in many cities has surged in price. And fewer Americans can now afford newly built homes in the walkable neighborhoods they desire.

The average price of a newly built home nationwide has reached $320,100 – a 20.5 percent jump since 2012 began. That puts a typical new home out of reach for two-thirds of Americans, according to government data. Yet many builders have made a calculated bet: Better to sell fewer new homes at higher prices than build more and charge less.

Their calculation is partly a consequence of the growing wealth gap in the United States. Average inflation-adjusted income has declined by 9 percent for the bottom 40 percent of households since 2007, while incomes for the top 5 percent exceed where they were when the recession began that year, according to the Census Bureau.

The high prices and sparse construction are no help for a still-subpar U.S. economy. The economy remains 1.49 million construction jobs shy of its total in December 2007, when the Great Recession began.

Polls show that more Americans want out of long commutes. Stuck with pay that’s barely budging, many face a tough choice: Keep renting. Pile up huge mortgage debt to buy a home near their job. Or buy a cheaper home that requires a lengthy commute. “Middle-class Americans are squeezed out,” said John McIlwain, of the Urban Land Institute.

About 40 percent of Americans still live in a suburb “where most people drive to most places,” according to a new poll by the American Planning Association, a trade group for community planners. But just 7 percent say they hope to stay in car-dominated neighborhoods.