Modern America has long paired the "American Dream" with home ownership. The idea of staying put, paying property taxes and periodically mowing the lawn belonged to citizens who were somehow more American than the poor saps who could only afford to rent the place they called home.
The notion isn't accidental. Ownership and the American Dream are deeply linked in government policies that favor mortgages over rent payments, dating back before Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1929. As secretary of commerce, amid the Red Scare, Hoover trumpeted homeownership, believing that if one had an equity stake in the country, they'd less likely fall under the spell of Communism. What followed during the Great Depression were a spate of federal measures to help troubled homeowners, at a time when half of all mortgages were in default.
Massive government programs supporting ownership still exist today, but record home foreclosures and spiraling prices have forced a redefinition of the American Dream -- one that includes renting.
In today's weak housing market, ownership has ceased to be an investment vehicle that millions used to trade up into the houses of their dreams in the boom years. And it's not an ATM machine for constant refinancing, either. Instead, for the past four years, ownership has been a culprit of distress. In June, one in every 411 housing units received a foreclosure filing, according to RealtyTrac Inc. Between 2006 and 2009, home prices fell more than 32%, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index.
Renting on the rise
With homeowner markets stressed, it appears renting has become more appealing than owning. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of renter households rose nearly 10% or by 3.4 million, according to a 2010 study of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The rise was most dramatic in the Midwest, where growth of renter households swung upwards by 15.4% between 2004 to 2009. The South added the biggest number of renter households with a 1.2 million increase from 2004 to 2009, the study states.
All that has made Capitol Hill rethink its definition of the American Dream. As recently as the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the mantra of homeownership was almost synonymous to civic duty, but top policymakers now say that homeownership isn't necessarily good for everyone.
In May, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan testified before a House committee that the financial crisis proved the need for a better balance between ownership and rental housing. And HUD senior official Raphael Bostic last week told the Washington Post: "In previous eras, we haven't seen people question whether homeownership was the right decision. It was just assumed that's where you want to go," Bostic said. "You're not going to hear us say that."