The American Dream of Home Ownership A Young Concept

Or at least that is what is revealed in this excellent summary of the 20th century history of home ownership in America at the WSJ.

Somehow we went from this:

Until the early 20th century, holding a mortgage came with a stigma. You were a debtor, and chronic indebtedness was a problem to be avoided like too much drinking or gambling. The four words “keep out of debt” or “pay as you go” appeared in countless advice books. As the YMCA told its young charges, “If you can’t pay, don’t buy. Go without. Keep on going without.”

To this:

During the wild late 1990s and the first years of the new century, the dream of home ownership turned hallucinogenic. The home financing industry—at the impetus of the Clinton and Bush administrations—engaged in the biggest promotion of home ownership in decades. Both pushed for public-private partnerships, with HUD and the government-supported financiers like Fannie Mae serving as the mostly silent partners in a rapidly metastasizing mortgage market. New tools, including the securitization of mortgages and subprime lending, made it possible for more Americans than ever to live the dream or to gamble that someone else would pay them more to make their own dream come true. Anyone could be an investor, anyone could get rich. The notion of home-as-haven, already weak, grew even more and more removed from the notion of home-as-jackpot.

As the author of the article, Thomas Sugrue, concludes, maybe what happened what just a natural endpoint to unrealistic expectations of what housing is and how we should temper this misguided ideal with realistic expectations. Real estate and construction remain powerful lobbies within the halls of Congress (has anyone else seen the ubiquitous Realtor’s Association commercials?) and will probably remain in a symbiotic relationship with the political structure as long as we keep shoveling the corrupted notions of the postwar American Dream.


via m.ammoth (with better further commentary)


In further home buying news: Fraud Reported in Program to Help New Homebuyers


  1. Ian

    Great post. That’s basically what I was talking about in Chris’s post the other day. A home is not a right, and spending on debt is an enormous problem in our culture. Its too easy to look for a scapegoat like “evil” lending banks when the problem goes much deeper and is much more complex than that.

  2. JM

    Thanks. I had a further two paragraphs of ranting I edited out. The m.ammoth post also quoted another blogger’s comments that referenced de Tocqueville actually making a similar cultural observation:

    This is not a new distinction, but it certainly is a vital one. Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America that the American restlessness, the constant pursuit of money because of the insecurity and evanescence of family fortunes in an intensely liquid capitalist, industrial society, saturated Americans’ practices of farming and property ownership. To a lesser extent — rather than a greater — than older and more traditional societies, Americans cherished the stability, autarky, and intergenerational continuity of property ownership. In an age when most agriculture was still subsistence agriculture, Tocqueville saw that Americans had managed to huckster farming into a short-term investment scheme; the American farmer might buy a patch of land, cultivate it for a few years, and, once the rocks had all been removed from the fields and the land turned to good account for a few seasons, that farmer was likely to sell it off and move away.

    So maybe there are longer cultural roots as well. I actually angered one of my parents the other day when they used the phrase ‘starter home’ by saying that there’s no such thing – a home is a home or you rent. What is it a start for?

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