What is specifically American here — though it’s increasingly seen in other countries, too — may be the modern sense of equal citizenship, engendered by the illusion that we can sustain conspicuous housing consumption even among a majority of the people.
In short, this all has a great deal to do with culture, and little to do with financial wisdom. After all, financial theory suggests that people should not own their own homes, at least not in the way that many do today. A cardinal tenet is that people should diversify — meaning they shouldn’t put nearly all of their financial eggs in one basket, which is what homeownership now means for so many people.
American mortgage institutions encourage people to take a leveraged position in the real estate market, which is quite risky because home prices can and do decline, as we have learned so painfully. Leverage a risky investment 10 to 1 and you can expect trouble — and we have plenty of it today. More than 16 million homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, according to Mark Zandi of Economy.com.
If we choose to keep subsidizing individual homeownership, we must also commit to adding safeguards so that homeowners are less financially vulnerable. Of course, that will require some creative finance.
But first, we should rethink the idea of renting, which could be a viable option for many more Americans and needn’t endanger the traditional values of individual liberty and good citizenship.
Switzerland, for example, is a country with strong patriotism, a fighting spirit of national defense, a commitment to freedom and tolerance, and a low crime rate. Yet its homeownership rate is just 34.6 percent, versus 66.2 percent for the United States, according to the two countries’ 2000 censuses.
Swiss national identity doesn’t depend on homeownership. Instead, Riccarda Torriani, a historian at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, links the country’s sense of identity to such things as its system of direct democracy, which enforces popular participation in government; the idea that its citizens are frontier people (living in or near the rugged Alps); and a history of collective courage in defense of freedom, even when outnumbered.
BUT America isn’t Switzerland. Our values and habits of thought are very different. Moreover, our homes are largely scattered in vast suburbs, often with distinct features. If many of these homes needed to be converted to rental units, home prices might well drop.
A stock of apartment buildings in central cities, of course, makes rental management much easier. This is true in Switzerland, as well as in American cities like New York, which aren’t typical of the rest of the United States. We need to consider a gradual transition toward new kinds of housing finance institutions — entities that may lead us to a different kind of housing, yet preserve our core values. Although such innovation isn’t likely to end subsidies, it should refocus them on enhancing the qualities of life that we really value.
We need to invent financial institutions that take into account the kinds of communities we want to build. And we need to base this innovation on an approach to economics that captures the richness of human experience — and not on efficient-market economics, which disregards human psychology and assumes that our basic institutions are already perfect.
Robert J. Shiller is professor of economics and finance at Yale and co-founder and chief economist of MacroMarkets LLC
This is an interesting debate. There are probably advantages to society of a fairly high homeownership rate (as opposed to tax advantages to the individual) – perhaps homeownership creates a stronger bond to the community (more community involvement, awareness of crime, and more), and homeowners tend to keep up their properties (unless they have negative equity!). Shiller argues for other psychological benefits that are harder to quantify.
There are negatives too; as an example, homeownership reduces geographic mobility, especially right now, and that makes it harder for some homeowners to move for employment reasons.
And of course withdrawing all of the subsidies for housing would lead to plummeting house prices. So any unwinding of the housing subsidies, like government subsidized mortgage rates, would probably have to be reduced gradually. This is an interesting discussion as we decide what to do with Fannie and Freddie.