Lately we've been hearing from various economists on the value of homeownership in a society, arguing that due to the latest economic meltdown created from the housing bust that many people should remain renters forever. And that's a valid argument. But should that argument be extended to predict the end of the single-family home forever?
From my own experience, renters aren't as involved in community affairs as owners (in fact without the advantage of automatic sprinklers, grass and other greenery would die because many don't seem to even want to water the lawn), and for all of these arguments that 'if you put the same amount that you'd pay for a mortgage into an interest-bearing account' the chances of that happening across the board are so small it's almost laughable. For many people, buying and paying off a home over time is a time-tested strategy to build some wealth -- regardless of swings in the market over a 30-year period.
But don't take it from me. Listen to what Joel Kotkin has to say at Forbes.com:
Increasingly, conventional wisdom places the fundamental blame for the worldwide downturn on people's desire--particularly in places like the U.K., the U.S. and Spain--to own their own home. Acceptance of the long-term serfdom of renting, the logic increasingly goes, could help restore order and the rightful balance of nature.
Once considered sacrosanct by conservatives and social democrats alike, homeownership is increasingly seen as a form of economic derangement. The critics of the small owner include economists like Paul Krugman and Ed Glaeser, who identify the over-hot pursuit of homes as one critical cause for the recession. Others suggest it would be perhaps nobler to put money into something more consequential, like stocks.
Homeowners also get spanked by leading new urbanists, like Brookings scholar and urban real estate developer Chris Leinberger. He lays blame for the downturn not on unscrupulous financiers but squarely on aspiring suburban home buyers. "Sprawl," he intones, "is the root cause of the financial crisis."
(Note: For years, Leinberger led a well-known consulting company with multiple offices which specialized in master-planned communities, and for which I also consulted in the mid 1990s. One has to wonder how many such communities were built because of the supporting documentation his company created. Perhaps he simply had a change of heart and now realizes that sprawl wasn't the way to go, but I've never seen or heard anyone tie this rather obvious disconnect together).
If only we built more high-density, transit-oriented housing--which, incidentally, is not exactly thriving--the crisis could be happily resolved, he believes. This approach is echoed by big-city theoreticians like Richard Florida, who believes that both homeownership and the single-family house "has outlived its usefulness." In his "creative age," we won't have much room for either single-family homes or owners. Instead, we will be leasing our ever-more-tiny cribs--just like yuppies with their BMWs--as we wander from job to job.
(Note: Of course Florida lives in Canada, where there's no tax advantages to buying a home, so Candians have to bank on building equity by paying down a mortgage or hoping the value goes up. But it's still possible that the 'creative class' of whom he speaks won't want to be homeowners even with tax advantages).
Yet the recent real estate debacles should not obscure the tremendous positives associated with homeownership. Widespread and diffuse ownership of property has been a critical element in successful republics, from early Rome and the Dutch Republic to the foundation of the United States...
In virtually every country, this was largely a suburban phenomenon. People bought houses where land was cheaper, stores and schools newer. Here, too, people could transcend the often confining social limits of the old neighborhood. It was also, as the novelist Ralph G. Martin, noted "a paradise for children."Through all this, the chattering class never lost its contempt for homeowners and their suburban refuges. Old gentry long disliked the idea of dispersed ownership of property--even if many got rich selling their own estates to developers. Aesthetes disliked the seemingly banal housing tracts "rising hideously," as Robert Caro put it, from the urban periphery...
Yet, despite the disdain, the dream of homeownership survived. Many boomers, who in their 1960s radical phase denounced suburban tracts as sterile and racist, meekly ended up buying homes there. So, increasingly, did middle-class minorities, whose rates of homeownership rose faster after 1994 than that of whites.
To be sure, the financial crisis has led to a sharp drop in levels of homeownership, as occurred in the last big recession of the early 1990s. In the future, some suggest that aging boomers will force the home market to collapse even more due both to the current mortgage meltdown and changing demographics.
Yet there are limits to how far homeownership will drop. Urban boosters, apartment-builders and greens--all advocates of expanding the renter class--tend to ignore several key facts. For one thing, the vast majority of boomers are holding onto their mostly suburban homes far longer than ever suspected. Many will remain there until forced into assisted living, nursing homes or the cemetery.
Then we have the X generation, who, if anything, has favored large homes and exurbs in large numbers. In addition, behind them lie the large cohorts of millenials, who according to surveys conducted by generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, prioritize the ownership idea even more than their boomer parents do.
No doubt, the weak economy will slow this generation's push into the home market. However, by the next decade, as this generation enters the late 20s and early 30s, they will find their economic footing and be ready to enter the market for houses in a big way...