Doesn’t everyone want to own their own home? That sense of belonging, the feeling that you and your place have somehow adapted to each other, remains much more difficult to achieve in a rental. While home prices have notably outstripped incomes in many parts of the country, the dream of home (or, in New York, apartment) ownership remains a potent part of the American story. I think there are a number of reasons why that still holds true.
The idea of a place of one’s own drives the American story. We became a nation out of a desire to slip the bonds of Europe, which was still in many respects a collection of feudal societies. Old rich families, or the church, owned all the land and, with few exceptions, everyone else was a tenant. The magic of America lay not only in its sense of opportunity, but also in the belief that life could in every way be shaped by the individual. People traveled here not just for religious freedom, but because in America anything seemed possible. As the East became more crowded, the pioneers pushed further and further west, lured again by the sense that that way lay freedom, independence and the possibility of land ownership.
Although today no western frontier exists towards which to aspire, the lure of America as a place in which one’s destiny is one’s own remains as powerful as ever. And what more powerful expression of arrival, of equal opportunity harnessed, than the ability to cross the threshold of a dwelling which actually belongs to you?
Furthermore, as homeowners discover, living in an owned home feels different from living in a rented home. It’s not just that an owner can personalize the space; it touches a chord even more fundamental than that. Home ownership enhances the longing for self-determination at the heart of the American Dream. First-time home owners, young or old, radiate not only pride but also a sense of arrival, a sense of being where they belong. It cannot be duplicated by owning a 99-year lease.
Millennials, I am told, seek experiences rather than possessions. They mistrust the economy (not hard to understand after experiencing the recession of 2008-2009) and prefer not to be overly burdened with stuff. But things change when, no matter how many years delayed, these 20- and 30-somethings advance in their careers or decide to choose a partner and create a family. Then the itch to own, like a final gateway into the adult world, tends to set in.
As we become a country more polarized between the haves and the have-nots, homeownership can serve as a fundamental equalizer. With interest rates low, and home prices throughout much of the country still affordable for those earning little more than the median income, ownership grounds Americans in their communities like nothing else. In those cities like San Francisco and my own New York, where homeownership can be financially out of reach for the majority of residents, we look to more creative private/public partnerships to create additional middle class and lower middle class housing for sale, not just for rent. That way we work together as a nation to keep the dream alive.