The recent cover of Time featured a story about homeownership. While the story emphasized the idea that homeownership is not an unquestionable good (particularly economically), it also argued something else: homeownership is an important part of American culture that should be examined.
For generations, Americans believed that owning a home was an axiomatic good. Our political leaders hammered home the point. Franklin Roosevelt held that a country of homeowners was “unconquerable.” Homeownership could even, in the words of George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Jack Kemp, “save babies, save children, save families and save America.” A house with a front lawn and a picket fence wasn’t just a nice place to live or a risk-free investment; it was a way to transform a nation. No wonder leaders of all political stripes wanted to spend more than $100 billion a year on subsidies and tax breaks to encourage people to buy.
With the economic crisis surrounding homes (and the foreclosure issue is going to be around for a while), some are beginning to question the role of housing within the American dream. From the early days of American life, the single-family home was a special place that dovetailed with American emphases on individualism, the nuclear family, and an anti-urban bias.
Of course, this cultural ideal was pushed along and aided by government and economic policies that emphasized homeownership. So, now faced with economic troubles, the country could either support or move away from this value:
1. Support this value by making houses a safer investment and tightening up the mortgage markets so that lenders and borrowers are working together rather than simply trying to profit.
2. Change or work against this value by supporting other kinds of housing tenure, primarily renting. But this could include moves toward more co-operative housing or other options.
Thus far, I would say Option #1 has been chosen: try to shore up the housing market without questioning whether homeownership should be the ideal or if other options are possible.
I’m not suggesting homeownership is necessarily good or bad. What this housing crisis does offer is an opportunity to ask how homeownership fits into our future vision of America.