Our tepid economic recovery has been profoundly undemocratic in nature. Between the “too big to fail” banks and Ben Bernanke’s policy of dropping free money from helicopters on the investor class, there have been two recoveries, one for the rich, and another less rewarding one for the middle class.
Viewed in this light, the recent run-up in home prices, the biggest in seven years, offers some relief from this dreary picture. Home equity accounts for almost two-thirds of a “typical” family’s wealth (those in the middle fifth of U.S. wealth distribution); there is no other investment by which middle-class families can so easily grow their nest eggs.
Perhaps even more important, the growth of housing sales also revives something many have written off as obsolete: “the American dream” of owning a home. Since the great recession, some economists have argued that the future of America will be a “rentership” society.
Others such as Richard Florida have argued forcibly that home ownership is “over-rated,” maintaining that America’s fixation on it has fostered “countless forms of over-consumption that have a horribly distorting affect on the economy.” Workers, he argues, are better off as renters since this allows them to change jobs more nimbly. If anything, he suggests, the government would be better off encouraging “renting, not buying.”
Perhaps this is true for some, but overall the desire to own a home is far from dead. A 2012 study by the Woodrow Wilson Center found that over 80% of Americans associated homeownership with the American dream. A 2012 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, found “little evidence to suggest that individuals‘ preferences for owning versus renting a home have been fundamentally altered by their exposure to house price declines and loan delinquency rates, or by knowing others in their neighborhood who have defaulted on their mortgages.”
Some predict that changing demographics — and attitudes — will erode such sentiments. Yet homeownership seems to be embraced by two groups who will dominate our future: the emerging millennial generation and immigrants . Between 2000 and 2011, there has been a net increase of 9.3 million in the foreign-born (immigrant) population, largely from Asia and Latin America. These newcomers have accounted for roughly two out of every five new homeowners.
But, still, the housing recovery is the best news to hit the American middle class in at least half a decade. Some investors seem to be realizing there are limits to rental income and might be persuaded to start selling homes to individuals. Already in Phoenix, a hotbed of investor interest, the percentage of homes sold to investors dropped to about 25% in March from a high of 36% last summer.
If this trend takes hold, investors, rather than undermining the market, could be seen as having played a critical role in maintaining housing during a very hard time. If they start an orderly withdrawal, or start selling their homes to families, the speculators, not always a lovable group, could end up being among the unlikely saviors of the American dream, particularly for the next generation.