Why Homeownership Has Hurt Us

Nobel Prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps would like to see the financial sector reorient.

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Americans' ability to take the mortgage interest deduction ranks up there with the right to bear arms and watch football games. Homeownership is part of the American dream, and the U.S. government has long done its part to encourage home buying among citizens of all economic strata. Economist Edmund Phelps, a 2006 Nobel laureate and Columbia University professor, has criticized the U.S. financial sector's orientation toward financing residential construction and away from business investment and innovation. Phelps spoke recently with U.S. News. Excerpts:

Is the sacrifice of business investment and innovation the key negative to the financial sector's focus on housing?

That was my key negative, but I also had some animus against the idea that everybody ought to own his or her own home. I thought this was a bizarre social goal. I don't know how that goal came to be established. And I don't know why it was established, really. But it does seem to be that even sophisticated people I talked with seem to have a little catch in their throat when they think about the importance of young people being able to buy their own home. I just don't know what's going on here. Why not rent your own home? Is it emotional, as in, part of the American dream? Or has it just been the best way for people to build wealth?

We could argue whether or not it's the best way. But what is surprising is this new ethos, this new enthusiasm for homeownership suggests that it should be—for people who aren't rich anyway—the main way they hold their wealth and that there's something almost un-American about holding your wealth in stocks and bonds. The celebration of homeownership seems to be part of a countermovement against popular owning of shares in corporations. We could have an economy where house owning is professionalized by real estate owners. And everybody rents his house from those professional real estate owners.

There has been research that shows homeownership makes for better citizens.

Yes, I have seen that. Or, I can well imagine that some unemployed sociologist would look into that hypothesis. Of course, my position doesn't deny that communities are socially healthy. I'm not attacking the idea that people live in conglomerations of houses in proximity to one another, sharing the same water mains and the same newspaper delivery boy and so forth. I'm not objecting to that. That could happen with or without homeownership. Of course, I come from more of an urban culture. I grew up, until age 6, in Chicago. My parents rented their apartment and, at the end of the Depression, my parents wanted to replicate that situation. So, again, we lived in a somewhat suburban setting outside of New York City and, again, they rented.

So, I grew up thinking that renting is perfectly normal. And then, strangely enough, I never did buy a house. I live in New York City and I'm still renting. My own personal narrative shows that it is possible to live a respectable life without ever having owned a home. [laughs]

Haven't you noted in the past that homeownership can reduce the mobility of a workforce?

Yes, I did bring that up. One of the downsides—there are upsides—but one of the downsides is that it tends to lock you in at your present employer. That's not true in New York or Los Angeles, where there are so many employers—and not only those cities, of course. But if you own your home in Peoria and you're working for some specialized firm, and things don't go so well there—at that point, you'd like to have the mobility of picking up stakes at no cost and looking for some similar kind of firm elsewhere. But if you own your home, it could be very expensive to sell it in a hurry and that tends to reduce worker mobility. I've got to say, to be perfectly honest, that the other side of the coin is that mobility isn't necessarily right up there with apple pie as something that's good for us. Because when people are very mobile, they can be very difficult employees. As in, disloyal?

Yes, you got it.