Argument: the rise of the American rental economy

Even though ownership seems engrained in the American psyche, Daniel Gross argues that recent economic troubles are pushing the United States to a rental economy which may just thrive in the years to come:

In the American mind, renting has long symbolized striving—striving, that is, well short of achieving. But as we climb our way out of the Great Recession, it seems something has changed. Americans are getting over the idea of owning the American dream; increasingly, they’re OK with renting it. Homeownership is on the decline, and home rentership is on the rise. But the trend isn’t limited to the housing market. Across the board—for goods ranging from cars to books to clothes—Americans are increasingly acclimating to the idea of giving up the stability of being an owner for the flexibility of being a renter. This may sound like a decline in living standards. But the new realities of our increasingly mobile economy make it more likely that this transition from an Ownership Society to what might be called a Rentership Society, far from being a drag, will unleash a wave of economic efficiency that could fuel the next boom.

While downgrading the place of ownership in the American psyche may sound like a traumatic task, the cold, unsentimental fact about the American dream is that Americans never really owned it in the first place. For the past three decades, especially, consumers haven’t so much bought their quality of life as they’ve borrowed it from banks and credit card companies. And since the Great Recession, Americans have been busy rebuilding their balance sheets and avoiding new financial encumbrances. When American consumers can’t—or won’t—borrow to purchase the goods and services they’ve come to consider part of their standard of living, how does the economy get back on its feet?…

It’s tempting to view the rise of rentership as an economic step backward. Renters can’t build up equity, and they have less control over their living standards than owners. Renting is generally seen as something you do when you’ve failed as a homeowner or are not yet ready to be one. But I’d argue the rise of rentership is a sign of a system adapting—albeit too slowly—to new realities.

The U.S. economy needs the dynamism that renting enables as much as—if not more than—it needs the stability that ownership engenders. In the current economy, there are vast gulfs between the employment pictures in different regions and states, from 12% unemployment in Nevada to 3% unemployment in North Dakota. But a steelworker in Buffalo, or an underemployed construction worker in Las Vegas, can’t easily take his skills to where they are needed in North Dakota or Wyoming if he’s underwater on his mortgage. Economists, in fact, have found that there is frequently a correlation between persistently high local unemployment rates and high levels of homeownership.

An interesting argument.

I wish Gross would explore the implications of this further. Perhaps for the “average” American, renting will make sense  in the future. It has several clear advantages: it doesn’t require one to take on a lot of upfront debt. This is most clear with mortgages: how many people will want to take on that amount of money when conditions can change quickly? (Does this idea about renting have any application for the other popular debt topic these days: college loans?) Second, it allows consumers to pick and choose more. If you are renting with a yearly lease, you have some freedom to adapt to changing circumstances. (There also could be some negative pressures due to rising rents, actions of landlords, etc.) If there is something that Americans like even more than ownership, it is choices. You can also see this trend in media options: we are moving away from a system of ownership to buffet or a la carte models where you can access thousands upon thousands of songs and movies on demand. Third, this seems like a classic American argument: the times are changing and there is money to be made by more quickly seizing on the new realities!

But there could also be some downsides to this. First, someone must still own things like housing units and rights to digital media. Will ownership be consolidated in the hands of a few? What happens if the few want to restrict access to their products? Does a society based more on the renting of housing units inevitably require things like rent control? Second, there is a long cultural history in the United States that ties renting to transience and lack of concern for the local community. For example, many suburban communities have resisted the construction of apartments because the perception is that people who live in apartments don’t contribute long-term to a community in the same way that homeowners do. (Of course, there are other reasons suburbanites resist apartments, including issues of race, class, and property values.) At its most blatant, homeownership was seen as a bulwark against Communism. These cultural biases can be overturned but it won’t necessarily come quickly or easily. Third, are there other aspects of life that would have to change to accommodate a shift to renting? Can widespread renting of homes work in suburbia? Can Zipcar exist in less dense areas? In other words, is this just about renting or about large-scale adjustments to American society based on new realities?

This bears watching. Is this the end of the dream of some of an ownership society?

5 thoughts on “Argument: the rise of the American rental economy

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  5. Pingback: Ninety percent of Americans still say “homeownership is part of the American dream” | Legally Sociable

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