Your home is your castle. And if you own it, it’s more than that. It’s your biggest investment, as well as your stake in grown-up society. And possibly your sense of self. At least since the 1920s, and really since the Republic began, owning a home has been the foundation of the American Dream. A place that is yours and nobody else’s (except the bank’s).
In this quarterly supplement, produced jointly by The Atlantic and National Journal, The Next Economy explores the future of American homeownership in the wake of the real-estate crash that brought on the Great Recession. Will the families of the next generation value homeownership as highly as their parents and grandparents have? Should they?
In the cover story, Paul Starobin examines this provocative question: Should homeownership remain the foundation of the American Dream? As a social good, owning a home isn’t all that wonderful, he finds; as an investment, it’s worse than stocks or bonds. Conservatives want Washington to keep its mitts off the housing market; liberals want to help renters instead. Daniel Indiviglio reports that everyone wants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac gone.
Yet, there’s something seductive about owning a home (Land’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing that lasts …) that won’t let go. It can bring ruin, as was the case in Las Vegas; Ronald Brownstein visits a boomtown where real estate was the foundation of growth—until it collapsed. But the historical graphs on pp. 14-15 show just how deeply this dream has taken hold. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan explains why a house is a gateway to the middle class and, above all, is a place to raise a family.
That people want what they want, whether it serves the greater good or not, has been true (as everywhere else) in California. The state famed for its urban sprawl has taken the lead in trying to fight it. A 2008 statute meant to foster housing density has shown some signs of working, as T.A. Frank discovers, but it may require fine schools and low crime to persuade Californians to give up their cars.
Given housing’s multiple functions—physical, social, financial, psychological—it’s no wonder that decisions about it are hard. Alina Tugend guides you through the thicket of practical considerations in choosing whether to rent or buy. Still, at the end of the day, as new homeowner Megan McArdle describes movingly on the back page, a house is more than a roof or an investment. It is a home.
This article appears in the March 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.