President Obama recently announced a new plan to reduce costs for first-time home buyers. Not everyone agrees with the plan, but, among policymakers, the basic goal is relatively uncontroversial. Five years after the nation’s most recent foreclosure crisis, almost everyone seems to think home ownership is inherently positive for the country.
American culture has long portrayed owning a home as something to strive for, if not a virtual requirement for full adulthood. But as far back in 1938, Charles F. Lewis argued in Law and Contemporary Problems that there was good reason for that mindset to change. Lewis, the director of a foundation that helped build a new rental development in Pittsburgh, argued that over the previous two generations the aspects of life in the U.S. that made ownership desirable had radically changed.
In the pre-industrial, less urbanized past, he wrote, “To have a bit of the soil, to have a stake in the land was for the average man a proud badge of his independence. He prided himself on his ability to build it, to own it, to protect it. It was to him, in truth, his castle. He looked with ill-concealed superiority upon his less fortunate or less ambitious neighbour who was merely a tenant and who kept his roof over his head only by a landlord’s sufferance.”
But, as the population shifted from villages to cities, Lewis wrote, the typical family’s “land was cut away until finally all that remained of once proud acreage was a narrow city lot with strangers’ houses built up close on each side… all of the once vaunted glories of home ownership have passed, the old shibboleths have lost their meaning, and only the hollow fiction remains.”
Meanwhile the industrializing economy promoted instability—”Today, large numbers of our people, particularly among the white-collar workers, must as a matter of economic necessity keep themselves free to follow the beck and call of opportunity or of transfer to a distant city”—while smaller families demanded less room and made vertical construction a more viable option.
To Lewis, the changing society demanded “large-scale, planned communities built in one operation from the ground up and managed on a long-term rental basis.” His foundation’s project in Pittsburgh and others elsewhere demonstrated that such projects could be both socially valuable and profitable.
Today, large-scale rental communities are not uncommon, but Lewis’s vision of the rise of the renter did not pan out as he expected. After hovering a bit below 50 percent for decades, the rate was dropping in 1938, but less than a decade later it shot up dramatically—driven partly by post-war government policies—hitting 65 percent around 1980 and then rising again to close to 70 percent in the early years of the 21st Century.
Today, you will sometimes still hear arguments against owning a home, many of them similar to Lewis’s. For the most part, though, the assumption that homeownership is inherently valuable is as ingrained in the culture as Lewis describes it being in the pre-industrial era.