How much home ownership is too much? For decades, it’s been U.S. government policy – one backed by hundreds of billions of dollars annually in direct and indirect subsidies [Download Here] – to encourage Americans to own rather than to rent. Yet even if the issue hadn’t become tangled with sub-prime loans, the housing bubble and the collapse of Fannie and Freddie, it would be hard to claim that the policy has been a success. The ownership rate peaked at 69 percent in 2004 (before slipping a percentage point or two), which is just 7 percentage points higher than it was a half-century ago. Equally striking, the ownership rate today is no higher than in Canada, where much smaller subsidies are used far more effectively because they are targeted to low- and middle-income families.
The major impact of the subsidies (which increase along with the size of the taxpayer’s investment in housing) has been a dramatic increase in home size. According to the Census, the median new house was 50 percent bigger in 2007 than in 1973 – a period in which average households were shrinking from 3.0 to 2.6 people. It’s always nice of course, to have extra bedrooms, maybe a den or an in-ground pool. But you’ve gotta wonder whether the feds should be spending a quarter-trillion dollars a year to make it happen, even as government deficits soar into the ionosphere.
So why is it so notable when Sheila Bair, chair of the FDIC, argues that homeownership “should not be pursued to excess when there are other, equally worthy solutions that help meet the needs of people for whom homeownership may NOT be the right answer.” Because American housing policy amounts to a massive patronage machine, sustaining livelihoods in bloated construction, marketing and finance sectors and defending itself from political criticism by sharing the goodies with affluent homebuyers.
Is change possible? The tea leaves aren’t encouraging. Congress, after all, had an easier time extending the generous first-time homebuyer subsidy (thereby undermining the incentive to buy immediately, when the housing market was most depressed) than in extending benefits to the long-term unemployed. But as Herb Stein (that rare economist with a deep sense of irony) put it, “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” And surely (maybe? possibly?) plowing federal cash into ever more Jacuzzis and Sub-Zero refrigerators fits the category.