More upper middle class Americans are renting rather than owning

Homeownership is down in recent years in the United States (with a recent uptick) and this has affected even among relatively high-income earners:

Families such as the Bauerles who want to live in solid middle-class neighborhoods with good schools and reasonable commutes are increasingly renting single-family homes. Taking advantage of this trend, the private-equity firm Blackstone Group Inc., with other investors, launched a business that is now the nation’s largest renter of single-family houses.

The number of households that have inflation-adjusted annual incomes of $100,000 or greater but are renters nearly doubled from 2006 to 2016, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Domonic Purviance, a senior financial specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said people earning the median income can no longer afford the median-priced new home, costing $323,000 last year, and barely have the means to buy the median existing home, which now about $278,000.

The overall focus of the article in on the major sources of debt facing middle-class families today: housing, student loans, and cars. Out of this trio, the suggestion is that mortgage debt may come last out of these three. Many believe they need a college education (at least) for decent jobs and to maximize their earnings. A car loan is often a top priority as driving is necessary in many locations. Even if the majority of Americans desire to own a home, they can put that off until later.

Hence, renting is on the rise. This raises two big questions in my mind:

1. It could be interesting to see in the next few decades how upper middle class residents react to not having as easy access to homeownership. Will it turn them off to owning? Will they feel resentment and, if so, who do they think is to blame? Will this change spread to other groups since the upper middle class is one hat others would aspire to?

2. For the middle class and above, renting is often viewed negatively, particularly in wealthier communities. The perception is that renters are less invested in their community and property. If more people of means rent single-family homes instead of own them, could perceptions change?

Six Democrat candidates push new housing policies and it does not register at the latest debates

I have asked when the candidates for president will address housing and homeownership. Apparently, six Democrat contenders have – but it does not come out in public very often.

Last week, Amy Klobuchar became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to say out loud that cities and towns need to let people build more housing. She joined Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren in proposing a more active federal role in getting state and local governments to loosen zoning rules—a topic that, up to now, has not figured prominently in campaigns for the White House…

Most proposals advanced by Democratic candidates do not fit neatly along the traditional ideological spectrum from “laissez-faire” to “activist government.” Some of Warren’s proposals could be described as classic Democratic tax-and-spend policy making—she would use proceeds from raising the estate tax to increase funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development substantially. Yet Warren’s plan to address “state and local land-use rules that needlessly drive up housing costs” is decidedly pro-competition—in keeping with her stated philosophy of making markets work better through stronger rules. Booker, Castro, and Klobuchar likewise balance more government spending with calls to reduce anticompetitive regulations. Only two candidates, Harris and Buttigieg, call for more demand-side subsidies without addressing supply constraints.

One idea notable for its absence among the candidates’ plans is the furthest-left option: an expansion of traditional public housing. Sanders, as a self-identified socialist, would seem the most likely to call for building more public housing, as some left-leaning think tanks have suggested. So far he has leaned toward fairly modest housing interventions, emphasizing local government tools such as community land trusts and inclusionary zoning.

There is still an opportunity here for at least one candidate to really push on this issue. As the article notes, the cost of housing is one that many voters consistently think about, particularly in higher-cost cities and regions. Even in markets with lower housing costs, the price of a mortgage or rent is one of the biggest expenses a household will face.

Perhaps the issue is that no candidate has found a simple tagline or slogan regarding housing that could apply everywhere? Since so much about housing and regulations is local, even large-scale government programs might require some complicated explanations. In the current debate format, this might be hard to relay. At the same time, these candidates are making plenty of speeches where they could hone a pitch about housing.

One way to do this would be to introduce housing as an inequality issue on multiple fronts. Where people can afford to live affects all sorts of life outcomes as well as long-term wealth. There is not a free market in housing: housing outcomes are the result of federal policy, local decisions made by municipal officials and business people, and the actions of consumers.

Black homeownership down to nearly 41% – and housing values down

The two largest minority groups in the United States are headed in different directions regarding homeownership:

While Hispanic homeownership rate is on the rise, the black homeownership rate has fallen 8.6 percentage points since its peak in 2004, hitting its lowest level on record in the first quarter of this year, according to census data.

This divergence marks the first time in more than two decades that Hispanics and blacks, the two largest racial or ethnic minorities in the U.S., are no longer following the same path when it comes to owning homes.

Analysts say black communities have struggled to recover financially since the housing crisis, which has kept homeownership out of reach. A decades long legacy of housing segregation has also made many would-be black buyers wary of returning to the market after losing their homes…

Homes in neighborhoods with a high concentration of white borrowers on average have seen their homes appreciate 3% from 2006 through 2017, according to the study. However, homes in neighborhoods with a concentration of black borrowers on average are worth 6% less than they were in 2006. High-income black borrowers have concentrated in neighborhoods where homes have lost 2% of their value, compared with white borrowers, who have concentrated in neighborhoods where homes have appreciated 5%.

According to the first quarter homeownership rates reported by the Census Bureau: whites have a rate of 73.2%, Hispanics are at 47.4%, and blacks are at 41.1%. These are off from peaks of 76.0% for whites in 2006, 50.1% for Hispanics, and 48.6% for blacks in 2006.

This is a contributor to inequality that gets relatively little attention. If homeownership rates are low for a particular group, not only does that mean a different present experience (renting versus owning), it has significant long-term consequences for building wealth. When whole neighborhoods have relatively low homeownership rates plus the properties there do not appreciate much, the effects can last decades.

Where are the 2020 presidential candidates in discussing homeownership as an issue Americans care about?

Which 2020 candidate will set themselves apart by promoting homeownership?

Homeownership is at relatively low levels in the United States. There is a disparity in homeownership between different racial and ethnic groups. Affordable housing is hard to come by in many housing markets. So why is homeownership not an issue more 2020 candidates are talking about?

Several possible reasons come to mind:

  1. Policy options regarding housing on a national scale are not easy and/or may not be popular. Homeownership gets at a whole set of thorny issues including meritocracy, unequal distribution of resources, the power of local government, and exclusion from certain communities.
  2. Federal policy has done less subsidizing of homeownership in recent years (even as the general policy over the last century or so has been to do so). Other areas of policy are more attractive or pressing (see #4 for example).
  3. Many Americans desire to become homeowners at some point (including millennials) and they assume it will happen at some point, even if they face obstacles now. Perhaps they don’t see a big role for the federal government to play in this. Perhaps many Americans think housing is a free market operation (despite evidence to the contrary).
  4. Debates about college loan debt and free college may be proxy issues for homeownership. No shortage of ink has been spilled writing about how possible young homeowners cannot purchase a home because of college debt. Provide a cheaper or less-debt-inducing college experience and homeownership rates might climb again.
  5. Economic and social conditions have changed to the point where although many Americans still plan to own a home, it is no longer the same marker of success it was in the past. Success now may be no college debt or a fulfilling career or a funded retirement.

Even as American politicians for roughly a century have appealed to voters with arguments about expanding homeownership (for example, see Herbert Hoover in 1931 or George W. Bush in 2002), this election cycle may few such arguments.

Get creative and sell home and new car together as package deal

Thinking about an earlier post linking new upscale car purchases with suburban gentrification, I had an idea: why not sell more homes and new cars together as a package deal? Here are reasons this could be a good pairing:

  1. Americans like the lifestyle that comes with a single-family home and driving a car. It is particularly important in the suburbs where owning a home and the ability to drive rank high in importance. Put these two big purchases together and sell a whole lifestyle.
  2. Both a home and a car are a status symbol. Pairing the two really provides an opportunity to brand the owner. Would someone want to purchase a McMansion but still drive a two Toyota Tercel or a Pontiac Aztek? Or, retire and downsize to a nice urban condo and keep driving a minivan or an older model SUV? Matching the home and the car at the same time provides a unique opportunity to establish oneself.
  3. I wonder if there are some “efficiencies” in purchasing both at the same time. On the producer side, developers and dealers want to move properties and cars; if selling them together helps, this is a deal. On the buyer side, perhaps they can roll all of the costs together and just pay one lump sum a month for two important items. (Mortgage documents might be hard enough to put together, let alone a joint document rolling together a mortgage and a car loan). Could it all be cheaper for the buyer (or get the sellers/lenders more money in the long run on interest)?

I would guess there are also good reasons this is not done widely. Still, given how much Americans like buying properties and like driving and cars, there may be potential here.

Suggestion that tiny houses face snobbish responses because of links to lower classes

An overview of tiny houses in the United States (though no mention of how many there actually are) includes an interesting bit about social class:

But the main obstacle is a legal one: most municipalities and towns ban residents from living year-round in anything on wheels, and often have statutes requiring homes to be at least 900 square feet…

Historically in American culture, bungalows, caravans and mobile homes have a bad reputation — they are seen as badly made and decidedly lower-class.

But the Berriers’ home is impeccably decorated with a bathtub, a sunroom and a movie screen — no “trailer trash” here.

“There are preconceived notions. They haven’t seen it enough. It’s just something new. I think that’s the problem,” Berrier said.

This leads to a conundrum: if Americans love driving and homeownership, why do they dislike mobile or smaller housing so much?

The less positive reactions to tiny houses suggests it is not solely about owning a vehicle or home; the kind of vehicle or home matters. Driving is good but driving a nicer car is better. Owning a home is good but owning a bigger, more permanent home is clearly superior. Cars and homes are functional items and status symbols, important social markers of who a person is and desires to be.

A more functional approach to housing might be more open to tiny houses. People need a place to live at a reasonable cost? Affordable housing is scarce? Homeless people need residences? Let’s make it happen. Change zoning guidelines. Make it cool to downsize.

On the other hand, there are plenty of tiny house buyers who prefer getaways or luxury touches, not long-term housing in such a small size. It would be easy for the tiny house movement to be co-opted by those with resources and social status. Those people might be able to get tiny houses into certain places where they might otherwise not be allowed, but their motives would run against others who want tiny houses because of their reduced footprint and simpler lifestyle.

Predatory contracts took $3-4 billion from blacks in Chicago

A recent study looked at the financial cost of contract buying for two decades for black homeowners in Chicago:

Black families in Chicago lost between $3 billion and $4 billion in wealth because of predatory housing contracts during the 1950s and 1960s, according to a new report released Thursday.

The Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University and the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago sought to calculate the amount of money extracted from black homeowners on the city’s South and West sides from home contract sales. The report is titled “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts.”

Contract buying worked like this: A buyer put down a large down payment for a home and made monthly installments at high interest rates. But the buyer never gained ownership until the contract was paid in full and all conditions were met. Meanwhile, the contract seller held the deed and could evict the buyer. Contract buyers also accumulated no equity in their homes. No laws or regulations protected them.

Home contract sales were a ruthlessly exploitive means of extracting capital from African Americans with no better alternatives in their pursuit of homeownership, the report said. Contract loans were rampant all over the West Side — in East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale — but also in Englewood on the South Side.

The key here is that wealth generated through homeownership is the sort of asset that gets passed down over time and helps build intergenerational wealth. Many Americans today rely on this same logic: owning a home is a significant investment to draw on later in life. That wealth then enables other possibilities, such as education or moving or acquiring other goods. This long-term wealth goes far beyond the benefits a homeownership has while living in that home; the wealth enables possibilities for future generations.

As one study puts it:

If public policy successfully eliminated racial disparities in homeownership rates, so that Blacks and Latinos were as likely as white households to own their homes, median Black wealth would grow $32,113 and the wealth gap between Black and white households would shrink 31 percent. Median Latino wealth would grow $29,213 and the wealth gap with white households would shrink 28 percent.

Earlier public policy decisions and social practices can have long-term consequences, even decades later.