So, along with National Candy Month, National Safety Month, and Perennial Garden Month, June is National Homeownership Month. The District is celebrating with, among other events, a Housing Expo and Foreclosure Clinic this Saturday at the Convention Center (featuring a to-be-announced D.C. United player!)
Homeownership, obviously, has taken a beating over the last couple of years. According to a Federal Reserve report out last week, the homeownership rate has declined 2.3 percent from a high of 69 percent in 2006, approaching the magnitude of the drop seen in the early 1980s. Americans tend to think of homeownership as a good thing, since it prompts people to invest in their communities (which would certainly dovetail with the thesis that 20-somethings ruin them). But lately, some heretical voices have piped up.
Richard Florida led the charge, saying that the volatile economy benefits from people who are more flexible, unburdened by mortgage payments, able to capitalize on new opportunities in other cities. He draws a parallel between the healthier economies of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and their lower rates of homeownership, while the places that have been hit hardest by the recession—Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis—had the highest. Stable, long-term housing in those places was anchored by the big manufacturing empires that have now nearly evaporated.
While Florida focuses on the upsides of a mobile workforce, Ryan Avent outlines some of the downsides of homeownership. For one thing, a few homeowners very near a given change in the neighborhood may fight hard to keep it out, even if it would benefit the larger community (think Big Bear, or 1922 Third Street). For another, they might try to keep out higher-density developments for lower-income people, in the interest of protecting their property values (think the Carlos Rosario school’s plan to build residential housing in Columbia Heights). “Why we’d want to subsidize this activity is beyond me,” he says.
My two cents, for what it’s worth: Not everybody in this economy is a go-go younger worker who wants to pick up stakes whenever the next rung in the economic ladder presents itself. Quite a lot of people past a certain age will always rather own homes, simply for ability to be free from the whims of a landlord (though as an owner, you’re still subject to the whims of your neighbor, as Howard Wilson could attest). The government shouldn’t push people into homeownership, nor encourage the kind of rampant home construction that got us into this economic predicament in the first place—but those who want to stay rooted in an urban community shouldn’t be discouraged from it either.