Should Middle Class Abandon the American Dream?


Over the past few years, particularly since the bursting of the housing bubble, there have been increasing calls for middle-class Americans to “scale down” from their beloved private homes and seek a more constrained existence. Among these voices recently was Michael Milken, for whom I have worked and have enormous respect. He suggested Americans would be better off not buying homes and living smaller, for the sake of their own economic situations, families and the environment.

To some extent, the Great Recession has done much to make downsizing a reality, just as Milken and others propose. Homeownership in America, which peaked in 2002 at nearly 70 percent, dropped, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, to 65 percent in 2013, the lowest level in 15 years. Some of this may be seen as correcting the excesses of the housing bubble, but the trajectory suggests – and many analysts agree – that ownership may continue to fall in years ahead.

The question now is, do we want Americans to abandon homeownership, leave the less-crowded periphery for congested areas, adopting the chock-a-block lifestyle much as many of their grandparents did? This poses an easier proposition for the ultrarich, who already live far larger than the average American and whose biggest real estate worry more likely involves which pied a terre or country house they want to purchase next.

This is very different than the reality of the average middle-class family, whose concerns are more prosaic, such as finding room for home offices, deciding how few bathrooms a family can accommodate without armed conflict and if it is even feasible to afford the close-in communities their betters want them to inhabit.

Unable to play the stock game on the scale of gain like those who invest in private equity, hedge funds or venture capital, for the middle classes the home remains the one place where they can gain equity and, perhaps more importantly, some sense of autonomy. For many, it is the only large investment they can afford, since at least it provides a place to live and offsets the rent that they would have to pay otherwise.

The recovery has been sweet for the rich, in large part because they have the extra money to invest in stocks. They have 24 percent of their wealth in homes, compared with 40 percent for middle-income families.

And, since the rich can afford to send their kids to elite schools, where degrees increasingly are the last ones to produce much value at the high end of the job market, to such people, the investment in education urged by Milken may seem like a good bet. Investing more in conventional education, however, is no panacea for many middle-class and working-class families, whose kids are often saddled with debt and attend the second-tier schools whose returns on income are far less attractive, say, than those who can send their kids to Harvard.

This is not to say that many larger homes seem foolhardy investments. But there are many legitimate reasons why people may need larger spaces. Among the most prominent is the growing tendency for people to work at home – most metro areas have far more telecommuters than transit commuters – as well as the increasing numbers of multigenerational households, which, after falling for decades, have risen from 12 percent of total households to 16 percent since 1980.

The phenomena of some among the rich calling for the middle class to scale back represents one of the least-attractive aspects of the current gentry liberal ascendency. In one remarkable piece, Dave Zahniser, writing for the LA Weekly, went to the homes of L.A.’s “smart growth” advocates, most of whom want ever more density and multifamily apartments as opposed to houses. And where did they live? Almost all in large houses, often in gated communities, far from any bus line. Zahnhiser’s headline captured the hypocrisy: “Do what we say, not what we do.”

Cloaked in sensible rhetoric, the current drive to discourage middle-class homeownership really represents a kind of class warfare, albeit unacknowledged, waged by wealthy people upon the middle class, who, the wealthy suggest, should live smaller even as they indulge ever-expanding luxury. Talk about adding insult to injury: Middle-income groups have fared far worse during the recovery than the rich or, in relative terms, the poor.

Some advocacy for middle-class downsizing is brazenly self-interested. The Wall Streetadvocates of a “rentership” society see a great opportunity for profit as Americans are deprived of their aspirations by the weak economy. As the dream of some autonomy fades, more families are forced to become renters in apartments or houses that such hedge funds as Blackstone have collected from distressed former owners.

In the process, a huge portion of the population is being transformed from property owners to renting serfs; money that might have gone to building a family nest egg ends up paying the mortgages for the investor class. In this neofeudalist landscape, landlords replace owner-occupants, perhaps for as long as the next generation.

“There is the possibility that Wall Street and the banks and the affluent 1 percent stand to gain the most from this,” said Jack McCabe, a real estate consultant based in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “Meanwhile, lower-income Americans will lose their opportunity for the American Dream of building wealth through owning a home.”

Other wealthy folks – notably some in Hollywood and Silicon Valley – also support a California planning regime that makes difficult the purchasing and construction of family-size homes, largely as a means to reducing the dreaded human “carbon footprint.” Yet they, too, are often unconsciously hypocritical, as many of them live in palatial houses, and often fly on private jets, one of the quickest ways to boost one’s carbon emissions. Google’s top executives, among the most reliable allies of the middle-class-destroying green and urban-planner lobby, famously have a fleet of planes based at San Jose Airport.

Others, like the environment magazine Grist, embrace a more idealistic vision of a new generation that rarely owns and doesn’t embrace conventional ambitions. They see the current millennial generation, facing limited economic prospects and high housing prices, as “a hero generation,” rejecting the material trap of suburban living and work that engulfed their parents.

This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Zahniser run out of town for upsetting the wrong people?


In one remarkable piece, Dave Zahniser, writing for the LA Weekly, went to the homes of L.A.’s “smart growth” advocates, most of whom want ever more density and multifamily apartments as opposed to houses. And where did they live? Almost all in large houses, often in gated communities, far from any bus line. Zahnhiser’s headline captured the hypocrisy: “Do what we say, not what we do.”

I see Zahniser's article archive ends shortly after he wrote some anti-smart growth articles......all way back in 2007. And he doesn't seem to have ended up writing anywhere else.

He upset some vested interests and got moved on, perhaps?

Mis-match: too many big single family detached homes

We don't need to ditch the home ownership dream altogether. However, it is pretty clear that we badly overbuilt single family detached homes, especially large "McMansions", while smaller and more compact housing options like duplexes or quad-plexes, townhouses, and co-housing developments have been underbuilt. There is a mis-match between what people need and can afford and what is available, and this is likely to get worse for a long while before it gets better. The answer is not for everyone to rent, but many people are going to have to set their sights quite a bit lower on what they can afford to buy. Unfortunately, the housing that they could afford to buy is going to be difficult to find for quite some time, while the overbuilt McMansions in the exurbs sit empty.

Stefan Stackhouse
Black Mountain NC

On the middle class scaling back

Even though the wealthy would understandably end up benefitting from higher numbers of renters, I don't see a problem with people who have exceeded their capacity to finance their lives scaling back. Due to the prosperity we experienced for 20 years from the 1980s to 2000, many had gotten into some bad financial habits. They had forgotten the frugality of their parents, which was borne of their experience from the Great Depression. What we commonly call the middle class had over-leveraged their lives, trying to live beyond their means. That couldn't go on forever. I just wouldn't want regulations on credit to be so onerous that it would prevent people from owning a home who could otherwise afford it. Since the crash, I've been in favor of banks going back to owning the mortgages they issue, and going back to documented mortgages. The way things were before was crazy, with banks functioning more like sales operations, selling the idea of owning an expensive home to buyers who couldn't afford them, and then selling those mortgages to investors. Banks had no incentive to lend only to those who could afford the debt. Subprime lending wasn't just going on with the poor. That was also unsustainable.

I agree with you about the hypocrisy of the wealthy, who advocate for densification and public transportation, and discourage people from owning their own vehicles, and traveling by jet, when they refuse to live under those same conditions, because, "They're more aware and important." Another disturbing trend among them is how they romanticize peasant life for people in underdeveloped countries, but that's another discussion. There is a trend among them where they see themselves as "lords over serfs." We should see that for what it is, and resist it. Fred Siegel's "Progressives Against Progress" provides a lot of insight here. The way they try to hide what's going on (perhaps even from themselves) is by investing in "green" technology (so that their largesse can be absolved), and then scaring everyone else into believing that the restrictions they're imposing are for their own good, because they can't afford the same "green tech." In effect, "green" environmentalism justifies gentrification!

On your last point, re. what Grist advocates, I have been hearing that message from young people as well, and I don't like it any more than you do. It's one thing to encourage people to live within their means. It's another to discourage young people from aspiring to live a better life, which in my mind involves work. We should not give up on the notion of upward mobility, because our country has believed in that since its founding, and the motive to improve one's standard of living through work has benefitted our society.

If only subprime lending had been only to the poor

".....Subprime lending wasn't just going on with the poor. That was also unsustainable......"

If subprime lending had only been to the poor, there would have been no meltdown at all and the defaults would have caused a bit of a shake-up by a few banks that everyone would have forgotten within a few months.

It is systemically unaffordable housing, as in CA's cities, that led to absurd multi-hundred-thousand and even million-dollar subprime mortgages of such a quantity that the aggregate value was enough to threaten the entire financial system. Most of the subprime lending to poor people was in cities like Atlanta where housing is cheap anyway and the average loan size was small (also the CRA was used the most in Atlanta, to force unwise lending by banks).

elephant in the room

A point that Mr Kotkin does not explicitly address is that the dense multifamily units that so many advocate for might be affordable to the young, largely priced out of ever purchasing a single family home in many areas. The young are ever more minority. Single family homes are often owned by the older, who are disproportionately white. Smart growth and restrictive zoning does a lot to push up the value of homes owned by older whites while reducing the number of minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics, that can move into their neighborhoods. Of course, I'd have to cynical to assume that this is part of the plan.

Some noble advocates

One of the best academic quotes on the subject in my opinion:

"....there is something slightly unseemly about dramatically curtailing suburban growth at a time when racial minorities are responsible for most new suburban population gains. It is difficult to avoid concluding that changing the rules of the development game at this time is tantamount to pulling the suburban ladder out from under those who previously were excluded from suburban life by economic circumstance, exclusionary zoning, and intentional discrimination....."

From "Land Use Regulation, Innovation, and Growth"

Nicole Garnett, Law Professor, Notre Dame

An excellent paper that is also disgracefully little known of, is Matthew Kahn, 2001, "Does Sprawl Reduce the Black/White Housing Consumption Gap"?

He concludes that yes, it does.

Randal Pozdena in "The New Segregation" also condemns smart growth for its disparate impacts on minorities.