Chief economist for Zillow says “homeownership is not for everyone”

The chief economist for Zillow suggests we need alternatives to homeownership for low-income American residents:

All this leaves us with a conundrum: Overall, homeownership is a tremendous boost to millions. But in some specific cases, it simply does not deliver as advertised. Depending on circumstances, homeownership is not for everyone. And our steadfast belief that homeownership is always the better option has led us to worry less about the one-third of Americans that rent,leading to a crisis in affordable rental housing.

Please don’t get me wrong. None of this is to say that lower-income Americans should not aspire to homeownership, nor be given opportunities to access its tremendous benefits. But we also need to be steely-eyed about the realities and foster a wider diversity of options on housing, crafting innovative solutions that address the reality we face, not the one we imagine.

If we truly believed this, we could do different things. We could focus on the creation and maintenance of more affordable rental housing. We could find innovative new ways to build wealth, aside from homeownership. Given the prevalence of single-family rentals in the aftermath of the recession, we could explore the feasibility of renting-to-own on a wider scale. We could narrow and sharpen our focus on addressing the fundamental sources of inequality that drive differences in homeownership in the first place.

Yet, even with the strong negative effects of the recent economic crisis/housing bubble, I wonder if it is easier to promote homeownership than it is to advance other policies. Here are several reasons why this might be the case:

1. Americans really do seem to prize homeownership. Homeownership is closely tied to the American Dream, making this issue both politically and culturally important. As far as I know, every president since the 1920s has promoted homeownership. Suggesting that everyone can’t access the American Dream can be problematic.

2. Renting may be a good short-term solution but because of the status conferred to homeowners, renters receive the opposite sentiments: transient, less committed to their community, more prone to social problems, etc. Plus, how many wealthier residents want to live near cheaper rental housing?

3. Speaking of cheaper housing, affordable housing is a very contentious issue. Where will these units be built? Wealthier neighborhoods and communities want little to do with affordable housing. Which developers will go this route rather than chasing bigger profits with larger and more expensive housing units?

4. Getting at the fundamental issues behind the the differences in homeownership is a huge task. Which shall we tackle first – Race? Social class? Residential segregation? Large disparities in wealth? Unequal access to resources?

Perhaps the price to be paid in housing bubbles is more palatable to those in charge than the other options…

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