I was reading this article in Time Magazine that discussed whether our “fetish” with homeownership in this country makes any sense. While I understood the points they made about buying a house not being the pinnacle of every American’s dream anymore, now that it is no longer seen as a sure thing, I think the issue here is more about buying the house you need, versus the McMansion you might want to keep up with the Joneses.
Buying a home is an investment in a community. If you have a kids,the location of your home, whether you rent or own, determines where they go to school, who their friends are, and where they will feel like they are “from” when they grow up. While we’re a much more mobile society than ever before, almost everyone I know remembers the house the grew up in and many of them even go to back to visit it as adults, even when the house itself is no longer “in the family”. For example, whenever I go back to my hometown, I almost always drive my kids past the house where I grew up, and I tell them stories of which trees I climbed, and the names of the people who lived in each house up and down the street, although it’s been years since anyone we know still lives in the neighborhood. These memories of kick the can, riding bikes around the block and up to the store, playing until dark, and trying to ignore when your mom rang the big bell, signalling it was time to come home, still seem very real to me, although its been close to twenty five years since we lived there.
The physical place where we grow up becomes a part of who we are, and creates that sense of home, even when you have a home of your own. When my mom moved out of the house where I grew up, it was a sad thing. When I go to visit her know, even though she still lives in the same area, it now feels like I’m visiting my mom’s house, not my home anymore. My home is where I know live with my husband and children, but I still miss that sense of origin I had in the house where I grew up.
There is a sense of community when you live in one place for a long time. Neighbors can become like family. There’s a sense of belonging to an extended group and covering for each other, like when my old neighbor would come and help plow our driveway to make sure my husband could get to the hospital, without so much as a request- they just looked out for us, and we felt bonded together in some way, even if we weren’t best of friends otherwise.
As we start to look at houses and real estate as commodities, it’s pretty easy to cheapen this sense of having an investment in a community and its future. Will you contribute to the fund raising efforts for the new school, even if your kids will no longer be there? Often, the answer is yes, because you know if your kids were that age again, it’s what you would want. But if you won’t be in this place for very long, you really don’t care as much, and your investment in the future of the community lessens accordingly.
Back in the early 90’s I lived in a small town in Florida. The community was somewhat transient because of the large student population. There were lots of apartments and town homes, where people largely rented versus owned. And the maintenance of many of these places reflected the temporary nature of the residents. My boss had many rental units he maintained, and the wear and tear on the property was inversely related to the amount of rent charged- the higher the rent, the less likely we’d have to fix a dishwasher or broken window, and the cheaper the rent, the more likely the place was to need new carpet or have repairs done. There’s no investment in the property, as well as no investment in the community as a whole.
When people are transient in an area, they don’t have the time to really settle in and feel a part of the larger community. People don’t make an effort to know your neighbors, because these people are unlikely to be in your life long enough to matter, much like those folks on your freshman dorm floor you barely remember.
The really dark side of all of this is to look at the alternatives. If we move to a society where fewer and fewer people own homes, the rental buildings will likely to fall into the hands of fewer, wealthier people who have the time, money and energy to deal with an ever-changing group of tenants. Those property owners, like feudal lords, will start to wield more and more political power in local areas, as its their tax dollars that will determine what happens in the schools. You may have a vote, but the landed gentry are the folks elected officials will listen to when they ask for zoning changes, or variances that aren’t subject to ballot box decisions. The less investment the transient people make in a community, the less power and influence they have as well. Think of the influence Donald Trump has in New York versus his tenants. You get my drift.
Home ownership has it’s downsides. But I know I own a home, not just a house. It’s not a commodity, it’s like another character in our lives. It’s where our children feel safe and grounded. It’s where we spend holidays, and make memories. It’s where my kids friends come and sled on the back hill, and I offer them cookies and hot chocolate to chase away the chill. It’s more than an economic investment and decision, although it is that as well, don’t get me wrong. But my house is my home, not a checking account. By treating it as another family member that needs good care and feeding, it treats us well in return. I can’t take it with me if I move, but I know I will miss it, like I miss the home I grew up in, that will always be like a long lost friend to me.
And that’s why home ownership is something to encourage in America.