Ownership Subsidies: Dream Homes or Disasters?

Las Vegas mid-century home with Edsel.jpg

Home ownership has been considered an integral part of the American Dream for as long as anyone can remember. Now it has come under scrutiny, notably in a June Wall Street Journal piece by Richard Florida, which claims that that home ownership reduces employment opportunities for young adults, since it limits their mobility. To support ownership, others — particularly Wendell Cox — have argued that home ownership levels do not correlate with the economic productivity of cities, and cite the rapid suburban development in the Sunbelt as evidence that home ownership is as valuable as ever.

My inclination is that the truth lies somewhere in between the two sides of the debate. For the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to them as New Urbanist supporters versus Smart Growth opponents (I realize these are broad generalizations). While they disagree on the merits of home ownership, there's an interesting point of agreement: both sides oppose subsidies to homeowners. I'd argue that both sides should focus on getting the issue of discontinuing subsidies onto the national agenda.

Like many 20-something young professionals, I have no aspirations towards home ownership. I ditched my car when I moved out of the suburbs, and I refuse to sign a lease that lasts more than three months. This affords me the flexibility that my life as a freelancer requires. If I were in a profession that didn’t call for a great deal of mobility, perhaps home ownership would be appealing. When North America was a manufacturing powerhouse, most people were in that situation. But an increasingly dynamic labor market requires an increasingly mobile workforce... to an extent.

For those of us in the 18-30 demographic who work in fairly mobile industries, home ownership isn’t necessarily as big a hindrance as Florida suggests. There are people like me who work in volatile industries and simply can’t be tied down to one city, but we're in the minority. For the majority, it really depends on the location. If your home is within commuting range of a major city, it should be possible to find work in your field without uprooting.

But jobs come before home ownership in order of priority. In a scenario where state and local governments create a fiscal climate inhospitable to economic growth, rather than chase cheap housing, people migrate to the strongest economic region (for example, the Sunbelt).

While home ownership isn’t going to be obsolete any time soon, in decaying cities like Detroit and Buffalo, and in towns far from urban centers, it can be a major hindrance to finding a job. Home owners invest a large amount of their net worth in their homes, and it becomes difficult to simply abandon unsellable homes and pay rent in a new city, though this does happen. There are roughly 90,000 abandoned homes in Detroit alone. Old manufacturing and resource town centers are especially vulnerable, since their economies typically lack the diversity to attract new employment opportunities. This isn’t a fault of government policy, but an unavoidable economic reality.

Incentives such as the omnibus of initiatives created by the Bush administration’s Ownership Society led to an increase in home ownership levels. But no good can come of home owner subsidies; they lead to inflated prices and distorted patterns of urban development. A survey of first time homeowners in 2009 by Keller Williams Research found that 10% of first time home buyers were primarily motivated to purchase a home because of the $8000 tax credit. A further 4% were primarily motivated by low interest rates. This may seem trivial, but it should be pointed out that the average age of first time US home buyers has decreased to 26. That is a full 8 years younger than in the UK, where the average age is on the upswing. While higher home costs in the UK (partially due to more stringent land use regulations) are probably a major factor, one cannot help but think that the First Time HomeBuyers Tax Credit and subsidized mortgages contributed.

Subsidies for home ownership are incongruent with the ideological underpinnings of both New Urbanists and Smart Growth opponents (who are mainly conservatives and libertarians). Some Smart Growth opponents are likely to be in favor of these subsidies, since they buy the rationale behind the Ownership Society model. Namely, they believe that 'pride of ownership' leads to flourishing communities. On this point, they are probably correct. But the 'pride of ownership' argument is based on the ‘broken window theory' that blight leads to an increase in crime. Ownership Society partisans argue that since owners have more of an incentive to maintain their homes, high home ownership rates should lead to less crime. There is quite a bit of evidence to support this theory. Then again, apartment renters do not control yards or frontage, so the 'pride of ownership' argument seems far less relevant with respect to high density development.

Both sides should take a time out to get the issue of ending housing subsidies on the national agenda. In the wake of a major recession caused partly by misguided housing and mortgage policies, this is an issue that could gain traction with the electorate. The two sides will have plenty of time — and issues — to fight over later.

"Mid-Century Suburban Home," Paradise Palms Home, Las Vegas, Nevada by Roadsidepictures

Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst and political consultant based out of Calgary, Alberta. For more detail, see his blog.