Is home ownership an inalienable right?
Back in May, before the summer heat started to take away my ambition to do anything that didn’t constitute moving from the sand to the water, I cleaned my office. I ruthlessly plowed through reams of ancient newspaper clippings, magazines, receipts and paid bills. But my resolve wavered when I came across a college term paper from 1977 titled, "A Generation of Homeowners," particularly interesting since I wrote it 10 years before I acquired my first real estate license.
My paper gave a background of housing in the country, starting with the post World War II building boom, noting that in 1950 a typical new house was 894 square feet. Since then it has grown to 1,590 in 1976 and is currently 2,349 square feet based on 2004 records. I went on to outline the changes in housing styles and configurations and the popularity of condominiums and co-ops.
Then I turned to financing and gave the history of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and how that agency encouraged homeownership by providing government insured mortgages with low down payments. Likewise, the Veterans Administration (VA) was established for returning war veterans modeled similar to the FHA system. These programs as well as the pent up need and desire for housing after the war created a belief in people that owning their own home was at the very least a desire and possibly a right.
I was astonished at how on track my research was at that time, relative to what has occurred in more recent years. Just like after World War II, homeownership has been promoted as government policy using several means involving mortgage debt. The creation of the government-sponsored entities, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which guarantee assets used to finance mortgage debt, poured money into the system, allowing more Americans than ever to purchase homes.
All of this was meant to be a good thing and it was, until it wasn’t. When Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac got too big and lending qualifications became too broad, no one in Congress had the courage to step in. But Wall Street sure stepped in and turned those sub-prime loans into investment vehicles, crashing the economy. Amazing how a government belief system that started over 60 years ago to help people may have contributed to the housing bubble we are all suffering through now.
So has the infusion of federal funds into the mortgage market created more homeowners? As of the last census data in 2004, 68.9 percent of all occupied housing unit are occupied by the unit’s owner, a percentage that has surprisingly remained relatively stable since 1960 with a low of 62.1 percent. Federally backed home loans have certainly given some people opportunities they might not have otherwise had, but in spite of that, the percentage of homeowners has settled to a number that has not substantially changed in almost 50 years.
The closing paragraph of my 30 year old paper said this, "The housing industry today is the cumulative result of a generation of change and progress. We may have upgraded the lifestyle of Americans, but we have created the myth that homeownership is good in itself, and caused much anxiety among those trying to fulfill the myth."
I guess my crystal ball was highly polished in 1977 because this was exactly the philosophy that helped to create the housing bubble. Is owning a home an inalienable right? As much as I would like to say it is, reality says it’s not, something I think Thomas Jefferson would agree with. Have a happy and safe Fourth.