Homeownership wasn’t always part of the American Dream. The American Dream originated as a concept about increasing one’s quality of life, which was well established before the Country’s independence from Britain. John Kenneth White and Sandra L. Hanson discussed the history of the American Dream in the introduction to their edited collection “The American Dream in the 21st Century” (2011; Temple University Press). They describe the American Dream as being fundamental to the Declaration of Independence. But the, the idiom “American Dream” was not in our lexicon until the twentieth century. Although James Truslow Adams has been credited for the phrase “American Dream;” White and Hanson attribute its first use to Walter Lippmann, who used it in his 1914 book “Drift and Mastery.” Adams’ 1931 work “The Epic of America” was the first widely accepted promotion of the phrase “American Dream.”
Homeownership most likely became a part of the American Dream as the middle class developed and rose in economic prominence. However, it probably wasn’t until the 1930’s when homeownership and American Dream were associated; when the Federal Housing Authority was established to make owning a home affordable. Before the FHA, buying a home meant signing up for a short term mortgage with a high down payment; which made renting the only option for most.
Homeownership can also be gauged by the health of the middle class. As the Amercican middle class fares, so does homeownership. This is evident from the effects of a recession; when the middle class takes the brunt of an economic downturn, homeowner rates typically suffer as a result.
Homeownership rates have steadily decreased from a peak approaching 70 percent just before the housing crash, to the current rate of 63.5 percent (census.gov). From the Census October 27th press release:
“National vacancy rates in the third quarter 2016 were 6.8 percent for rental housing and 1.8 percent for homeowner housing. The rental vacancy rate of 6.8 percent was 0.5 percentage points (+/-0.4 percentage points) lower than the rate in the third quarter 2015 and not statistically different from the rate in the second quarter 2016. The homeowner vacancy rate of 1.8 percent was not statistically different from the third quarter 2015 or second quarter 2016 rates.
The homeownership rate of 63.5 percent was not statistically different from the rate in the third quarter 2015 (63.7 percent) and 0.6 percentage points (+/-0.4 percentage points) higher than the rate in the second quarter 2016.”
The decline has been attributed to shrinking middle class, changing demographics, and the residual economic malaise of the Great Recession. Although the declining homeownership rate seems as if it is a recent phenomenon, it’s actually cyclical. Anthony DePalma reported for the New York Times about the declining homeownership rate in the post-recession climate of the 1980’s (IN THE NATION; Why Owning a Home Is the American Dream; nytimes.com; September 11, 1988).
The recent research of the future of homeownership by Spader, McCue, and Herbert projected three scenarios (Homeowner Households and the U.S. Homeownership Rate: Tenure Projections for 2015-2035; Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard; working paper, 2016). The low scenario is that homeownership rates continue to decline to a rate of 60.6 percent through the year 2020. The high scenario is that homeownership rates will once again increase through the year 2025 and peak around 65 percent. However, they also provide for a scenario where homeownership rates stabilize and maintain at current levels:
“The base scenario, which holds homeownership rates constant at their 2015 levels, shows that projected changes in the demographic composition of U.S. households by age, race/ethnicity, and family type will largely offset one another, affecting the homeownership rate only minimally through 2035. Under this scenario, projected household growth will add 8.9 million homeowner households and 4.7 million renter households by 2025, and 15.7 million homeowner households and 9.4 million renter households by 2035. Alternatively, the low and high scenarios produce a range for the national homeownership rate of 60.7 percent to 64.8 percent by 2035, resulting in different levels of growth in homeowner and renter households.”
They concede that the trajectory of homeownership is complex, stating:
“… the homeownership rate’s actual trajectory will depend on how quickly the foreclosure backlog clears, how many foreclosed households reenter homeownership, and whether young households’ slowed rates of homeownership entry persist in future years. Additionally, any major changes in the broader economy, housing finance system, or households’ attitudes toward homeownership may also influence future homeownership rates to the extent that they alter households’ demand or access to homeownership…”
Home owners are more inclined to maintain their homes and neighborhoods, as well as being invested in protecting their home and community; which may account for lower incidences of reported crime. Besides stabilizing communities, many of these benefits may also account for positively affecting home values.
The benefits of homeownership have been well documented and discussed by Research Economist Selma Hepp for the National Association of Realtors®:
“In addition to tangible financial benefits, research has shown that homeownership brings substantial social benefits for families, communities, and the country as a whole. Because of these societal benefits, policy makers have promoted homeownership through a number of channels. Homeownership has been an essential element of the American Dream for decades and continues to be so even today. Some of the documented social benefits include:
- Increased charitable activity
- Civic participation in both local community and national issues (including voting)
- Greater awareness of the political process
- Higher incidence of membership in voluntary organizations and church attendance
- Greater social capital generated
- Greater attachment to the neighborhood and neighbors
- Lower teen pregnancy by children’s living in owned homes
- Higher student test scores by children’s living in owned homes
- Higher rate of high school graduation thereby higher earnings
- Children more likely to participate in organized activities and have less television screen time
- Homeowners take on a greater responsibility such as home maintenance and acquiring the financial skills to handle mortgage payments and those skills transfer to their children
- Lower teenage delinquencies
- General increase in positive outlook to life
- Homeowners reported higher life satisfaction, higher self-esteem, happiness, and higher perceived control over their lives
- Better health outcomes, better physical and psychological health
- Tremendous wealth gains for homeowners under normal housing market conditions (outside of the terrible bubble/bust housing years)
- Homeowners not only experience a significant increase in housing satisfaction, but also obtain a higher satisfaction even in the same home in which they resided as renters
- Family financial situation and housing tenure during childhood and adulthood, impacted one’s self-rated health (in particular, the socioeconomic disadvantaged indicated by not being able to save any money or not owning or purchasing a home are less likely to self-rate their health as excellent or very good).
- Less likely to become crime victims
- Homeowners better maintain their homes, and high quality structures also raise mental health -renter-occupied housing appreciates less than owner-occupied housing
- Housing prices are higher in high-ownership neighborhoods
- Maintenance behavior of individual homeowners is influenced by those of their neighbors”
As the American Dream continues to evolve, so does the goal for homeownership. Although many have not been recently swayed by benefits, the cycle may once again reveal the true value of homeownership.
Copyright © Dan Krell
Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.