Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The History of Home Ownership as The American Dream

We have become so accustomed to politicians and reporters connecting the concept of home ownership to The American Dream.  I was interested, then, to read on the sociology blog Made in America that for much of our history the middle class was not that interested in home ownership.  America was a land of renters.  Claude Fisher writes:

In the late 19th and early 20th century (when we start getting some hard evidence), only about one-third of nonfarm homes were occupied by people who owned them. Most Americans were renters. Notably, middle-class Americans were not all that interested in home owning. Buying a home in those days required tying up a lot of cash in a building. Mortgages, even if available, were short-term and covered half or less of the cost. Home values actually fell from the 1880s into the 1920s (see Schiller chart near end of this post), so it was not a good investment. Indeed, houses just wore out. Working-class and immigrant Americans, on the other hand, were much likelier to buy once they could scrape together the money, which was usually not until middle age. For them, having a home was a source of some security — at least one had a roof overhead — and by taking in boarders, tending a vegetable garden, and perhaps having a goat or two, a house could be turned into a way of earning income.

What changed?  Programs to boost the economy after the great depression and the GI bill encouraged home ownership and federal funding for interstate highways included money to support community building.