Rent, Don't Buy, the American Dream


Raising the debt ceiling, enacting budget cuts, and closing loopholes all seem to be popular topics of the day. There is a lot riding on a deal, including an increase in interest rates; and everyone (including myself) who is looking to buy a home has an eye on that, since any change in rates can impact the amount of home loans one qualifies for, which in turn affects what home one can afford. But are we putting too much stock in home ownership as the key to wealth and achieving the American dream? If we broaden our definition of how to build wealth, it becomes apparent that this is a flawed approach, and that instead an increased focus on affordable rental housing can go a long way to increase access to wealth.

With Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA, and tax subsidies, our government has a huge presence in the housing market (Charles Wallace wrote a great piece breaking down the impacts of the credit and what it costs and who it benefits). The mortgage interest deduction is a tax break designed to give homeowners a break on their taxes and encourage renters to buy homes, and has a 2012 budget line of $100 billion. The fact is, we have the credit, but the housing market isn’t booming — in fact, the last housing boom had more to do about access to credit than it did tax breaks. This makes a case to eliminate the deduction. As Wallace puts it, “Canada and Britain don’t allow it as a tax deduction, and the real estate markets are booming in both countries.”

Even if we ignore the tax breaks subsidizing home ownership, the benefits still do not fully add up for everyone. For a low to middle income family, their home purchase represents a significant piece if not all of their asset wealth. The cost to buy a home for these families makes their home and its equity their largest source of wealth, leaving all their wealth tied into one asset without diversification. When that asset doesn’t perform like it should, their ability to build wealth is gone.

Affordable rental housing can be a solution to these wealth building issues. Without the burden of paying a property tax bills or being responsible for repairs, a renter has an opportunity to use the money they save in those areas to diversify their investments. Thus, because we focus so much on home ownership being the key to the dream and wealth, we are ignoring another housing crisis we have: The lack of affordable rental housing. This shortfall leads to higher rental costs, limiting a renter’s ability to build wealth.

As I have written, I still also believe in other solutions to the housing crisis. However, if we invested more into affordable rental housing and provide less investment in home ownership, we would see an increase in wealth diversification and an elimination of the pressure to purchase. With so much invested in home ownership, people are not shown alternatives to building wealth. The path to the American dream has been defined for them, and it is highly flawed.  If we broaden our housing investments and ways to define wealth building, I believe that we can reshape how people define accessing the American dream, and realize there are many alternatives to home ownership.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons