Rise of the renting class
Owning a home wasn't always as easy as the liar loans of 2000's made it. When the economy went bust during the Great Depression, legislation intended to stimulate plummeting housing starts and defaulting mortgages laid the foundation for a bigger role of government over the housing market. Hoover signed the Federal Home Loan Act, and in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Home Owners' Loan Corporation to provide low interest loans.
And the government was just getting started: a flurry of legislation was passed over the ensuing decades, helping veterans, minorities and the populace as a whole secure mortgages. But it appears the pendulum has swung.
"The government shouldn't blindly encourage homeownership," says Joe Gyourko, real estate finance professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "If the government does anything the government should encourage people to make the right decision."
Gyourko says that he's not entirely against the idea of homeownership. After all, as a father of two, the 53-year-old professor owns a home. But he stresses that ownership should be looked at more broadly -- beyond any kind of long-term investment or cost benefit over renting.
Owners don't pay the landlord, but they pay taxes and maintenance costs on their house, and Gyourko says those costs can end up being roughly the same.
As far as buying a house as a smart long-term investment, Gyourko says that's not always true. He says between 1975 and 2008, the price for houses of similar quality and size appreciated an average of about 1% per year after inflation. Investors could have earned more by buying Treasury bills.
The post-crisis role the federal government decides to play in the housing market remains to be seen. In response to plunging home prices and record foreclosures rates, the Obama administration is pursuing an overhaul of policies that could put much less focus on homeownership. The administration could also scale down government support of home loans and put more focus on affordable rentals, but it isn't clear what direction officials will take.
The issues with Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500), the mortgage-finance giants seized by the government in September 2008 amid huge problems with bad loans, remain a touchy topic with lawmakers.Their combined bailout, according to some estimates, could reach $1 trillion -- a figure some might pin as the ultimate cost of generations of policies geared to favor home ownership.
Many blame the agencies' loose lending practices for contributing to the financial crisis. Republicans wanted the mortgage giants' fates to be addressed in the recently approved Dodd-Frank bill overhauling the nation's financial regulations, but that didn't happen.
However lawmakers define the government's role in the housing market, consumers have already begun redefining the American Dream: One where it has become socially OK to mail in a rent check rather than a mortgage coupon.