In mid August, as we were beginning to feel a pulse in the nation’s housing market, an academician and housing expert from the University of Pennsylvania named Thomas J. Sugrue wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal proposing that, for many people, the new American Dream should be renting.
Sugrue is writing a book on the history of real estate in America, a tome I cannot wait to read because it will apparently illustrate how epic events in our nation’s history have shaped and molded our real estate market, hence our lives. He quotes builder William Levitt, considered the father of affordable suburban mass housing, saying “no man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist.”
That was said during the Cold War and McCarthy era: Levitt was marketing his wares, playing off the public’s fears like any good salesman. And for many politicians – from Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – expanding ownership of homes remained critical to the nation’s identity.
But is all this changing? The Obama Administration seems at best ambivalent about homeownership. It seems determined to put more resources into rental housing while promulgating policies that may coerce Americans out of the suburban single family homes and back into dense, multifamily urban housing.
This would mark a major change in what we usually consider the American dream. Enabling home ownership is like crack cocaine for politicians: the impetus for the Great Recession of 2008 may well have been formed on the day President Bill Clinton launched National Homeownership Day in 1995. And I remember sitting terrified in front of the television post 9/11 when President George W. Bush reassured us that America was strong and would recover. Our housing market is strong, he said, a theme that would echo throughout his presidency. Seeing two by fours go up and mortar flying gave Americans a sense of calm, of rebuilding.
The attacks of 9/11 almost brought down our economy. The housing market helped prop it up.
Most of us still love our homes. Sugrue quotes a Pew survey that faintly echoes the national health care debate: nine out of ten homeowners view their homes as a comfort in their lives. He seems to argue we should change everything for ten percent. To be sure, as he suggests, for some home ownership has become a source of panic and despair: 53,000 people packing a Save the Dream fair at Atlanta’s World Congress Center. Georgia’s housing market has been hit hard – 338,411 homes went into foreclosure in May and June, 2009.
But it’s not just Georgia. Since the second quarter of 2006, housing values across the nation have plummeted to values roughly equivalent to post 9/11. We are not immune even here in Texas, with one of the nation’s strongest large state economies: our prices are soft, down anywhere from five to 20%, and buyers want deals. Go north to Little Elm; you might think you are in Atlanta. Homes may not be selling for thirty cents on the dollar as they are in Phoenix, but a house in the trophy community of University Park listed for $999,000 recently, sold in the mid $800s. The owner of a Preston Hollow mansion not too far from George W. Bush turned down a $38 million dollar offer two years ago, insulted. He recently sold his nine-plus acre property for $28 million.
And just one week ago I spoke with an Allen, Texas home builder who told me that current tough love lending standards were keeping a lot of people out of the jumbo market – that is, halting them from buying million dollar homes. When you have to put down 30%, he said, that’s $300,000 on a million dollar home. If homes are not appreciating, he said, smart people say, why do we want to tie up that much money in our homestead?
Yet we have been here before. Half of all U.S. mortgages were in default during The Great Depression, although it’s true far fewer people owned homes. This is when Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt created government programs to help save homeowners from foreclosure. I remember my grandmother telling me how Mr. Roosevelt saved her home in 1932 – she voted Democratic in every election because of it until the day she died in 1966. In 1938, Fannie Mae was created to buy mortgages on the secondary market, an effort to stimulate credit.
After World War II, when the government made home loans accessible for thousands of GIs returning from the wars, home ownership rates climbed like the staircases in a suburban colonial. Now more than two-thirds of Americans own their homes.
The government’s role in shaping this industry has been pretty explicit. Government programs gave us those first FHA loans that got many of us on the housing track, out to the suburbs, allowing people to leave more congested, and often dangerous, inner cities. Government is the hand that keeps the mortgage industry in motion, like a giant conveyor belt of money. But the hand might be pushing us where we shouldn’t go.
This is certainly true for many in the communities traditionally underserved in the housing market. The government tried to fix this through creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and by pushing Fannie Mae to underwrite loans to “riskier” buyers. The result: in 2006, Sugrue writes, almost 53% of blacks and more than 47% of Hispanics got sub-prime mortgages.
Those were the loans that were packaged to spread the risk, and sold off as securities. Very lucrative for banks, who always make out like bandits either way, our federal government stood in the background as a silent backer. An appraiser I interviewed recently told me that Fannie Mae will now be ordering appraisals on loans before they buy them.
You mean, I said, they weren’t doing this before?
Then there’s the former sub-prime mortgage lender, now turned real estate agent. You, I scolded, how could you approve a school teacher for a loan on a $400,000 house? Shame on you. Well, he told me, if I would have denied her the loan, she could have come back at me for discrimination, or she would have just gone to someone else. So I made the loan and took my commission.
Yet for all this, I am bullish on home ownership. I think it gives homeowners a sense of security, a blanket of protection that may or may not be a mirage. Economists, who see the world in a “cash nexus”, do not understand this; planners, believing they know a better way, don’t realize that a rental apartment in a dense development does not usually provide our peaceful havens from the cruel world like a single family home or a townhouse that we have a stake in.
Homeownership may be precarious, but it does provide a greater sense of permanency for families and communities. Home ownership also stimulates the economy. Consumers never buy as much as they do the first few days in a new home – countless trips to Lowes, Home Depot, Bed, Bath & Beyond, the Container Store. A tenant or landlord may buy for their place, but perhaps never with the care and fervor that comes with homeownership. Apartments are built with, at the most, 30 year life spans. I’ve seen enough Section 8 housing to tell you – you don’t want to live in them at the end of their life-cycle. Apartments are considered temporary, places for people who are in transition or not really sure they are going to stay, one reason why they drive higher crime rates.
Homes are more permanent. Children thrive with structure and feel more secure coming home to a familiar place day after day. Children who live in homes score higher on standardized tests. They may eventually move from one home to another, but will always come back to it and show a friend – that is the house where I grew up.
Home ownership also forges financial security. Mortgages are like forced savings accounts. Pay your mortgage and in 30 years you’ll have an asset that could cushion your retirement. Either you will own your home outright, or you will have equity to supplement your income when you sell and downsize. The problems came when we started using our homes as slot machines or banks. Home equity lines of credit were illegal in Texas until 1997 as a consumer protection, and the banking industry led the charge to loosen that law with a constitutional amendment. In Texas, the total of all mortgage debt on your home (including HELOCs) is limited to 80% of the home’s fair market value, among other stipulations.
What we need now is not to move against homeownership but return to more basic fundamentals that seemed to work just fine for 50-plus years. The cost of a house should reflect more of people’s ability to pay. But do we want to be a nation of renters? My bet is no.
Candace Evans is the Editor of DallasDirt, a Dallas-based real estate blog for D Magazine Media Partners.