WASHINGTON — It took a week for the technicians to fix the air conditioning unit, but I reminded myself that I had faced similar inconveniences in a house I actually owned. The spastic climate systems that go out during extreme weather — the temperatures were in the 90s when it went down — are no reason to doubt the wisdom of renting.
Still, I’ve had trouble getting used to my status as a tenant. I bought my first house when I turned 30 and reaped a tidy profit when I sold it. I bought another house after that, believing that home ownership was the foundation of stability, respectability and security.
You see, I grew up steeped in the property-owning ethic; I was told repeatedly that rent was money wasted. My parents were not only owners of their primary residence but also landlords. They believed in buying property to build financial security.
And they were right — back then.
But much has changed since my childhood. My mother and father lived in the same house for more than 40 years. Theirs was an era of little mobility — a world where workers were employed for life, where only upper echelon executives relocated frequently, where most American homeowners stayed put for 20 or 30 years. (That’s the premise of the 30-year mortgage.)
But that world is long gone, replaced by an era of global labor, unstable job markets and diminished workplace loyalty. Workers will need to move more frequently to keep up with changing marketplace demands.
So the home mortgage that once represented the foundation for a respectable life may now as easily represent a boulder weighing down the highly skilled laborer who needs to live in Knoxville instead of Cleveland. He’s stuck, unable to move because he can’t sell the house. Ditto the upwardly mobile professional who has a job offer in Houston but is underwater on a mortgage in San Diego.
That’s why it’s no longer good national policy for the federal government to encourage home ownership, as it does through generous tax deductions and other programs. It may take years to reverse that policy, given the popularity of the home mortgage deduction and the power of the lobbies who support it, but it’s time for our elected leaders to acknowledge that it needs to go.
The housing crisis has reminded most of us why it’s not a good idea to use a primary residence as an investment vehicle or cash machine. But the problem with national housing policy goes beyond encouraging would-be homeowners to purchase property they cannot afford.
For decades, housing policy has rested on the premise that the quintessence of the American dream — home ownership — was good for the country. Urban planners, economists and local officials were confident in their belief that owners were better citizens. Home owners not only paid local property taxes but they also maintained their environs better, voted more regularly and participated more frequently in civic causes — or so the thinking went.
But that old model represented a bygone era, when the chance to buy a house in Levittown represented the opportunity to move away from crowded urban tenements. The World War II veterans who benefited from the GI bill, which gave them federally-guaranteed loans, helped start the era of widespread home ownership.
But a younger generation is less likely to marry as early, to stay in the same job or to want a patch of lawn with a barbecue grill. Many young professionals move into well-appointed apartment buildings or complexes that offer a hint of luxury without the weight of a mortgage. They are no less conscientious about their responsibilities for want of a house payment. And when a new opportunity beckons in another city, they can pull up stakes without the anchor of a house.
I haven’t fully recovered from the home-ownership ethic of my childhood; I’m a renter because of an unexpected job relocation. But I now know there is no reason to regard home ownership as the foundation of the American dream.