Home ownership: politics, consumerism, and selling the American Dream
November 19, 2019 10:15 PM   Subscribe

Before Joseph R. McCarthy said that the State Department "is thoroughly infested with Communists" in 1950 (Ohio County Library), he fought against government-provided housing, such as that provided veterans who returned from World War II and found a housing shortage (Washington Post), as seen in the Housing Act of 1948 (CQ Press). And that's just the opening of The Homeownership Obsession, how buying homes became a part of the American dream—and also a nightmare (Long read by Katy Kelleher for Curbed)

More on the politics of housing in the U.S.:

Why the party that wrecked America can’t fix it (Jon Rynn for Grist, Sep 30, 2008)
The Republican party has a problem. They have based much of their power, over the last several decades, on the idea of ever-expanding (almost exclusively white) suburbs. The thinking was, as those suburbs become less and less dense — as one wag put it, the further away the houses are from each other — the more those suburbanites will vote Republican. As William Levitt, the builder of the first modern suburb after World War II said, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist.”
How the Federal Government Built White Suburbia -- Federal housing policies didn’t just deny opportunities to black residents. They subsidized and safeguarded whites-only neighborhoods (Kriston Capps for Citylab, September 2, 2015)

The Great Eliminator: How Ronald Reagan Made Homelessness Permanent (SF Weekly Staff, June 29, 2016)
During a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1981, his first year in office, the new president — who would use the recession as an excuse to cut taxes and slash government spending to spark growth, the infamous “Reaganomics” — presented a solution to homelessness, an issue seen at the time as a temporary problem that would soon cycle itself away, just as it had several times before.

In classic small-government fashion, Reagan's fix did not involve government. If only “every church and synagogue would take in 10 welfare families” each, the president said, the problem could be weathered until it passed. It was a truly conservative approach, reminiscent of how homelessness was addressed in the 19th century.

And it was “absolute balderdash,” said the Rev. Moore, according to a Dec. 25, 1982 United Press International wire story picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle. The responsibility for dealing with homelessness wasn't the church's — it was the state's, the bishop said, just as it had been since the Great Depression.
On the practical side: 10 Common Home Buying Myths ( Liz Davidson for Forbes, Sept. 26, 2013)

Expanding on #10, "The only additional ongoing cost will be PITI (principal, interest, taxes, and insurance)," is the Nerdwallet Cost of Homeownership Calculator, which looks at 16 costs that you may have to consider when figuring out the ongoing cost of home ownership. And that's not factoring in other expenses, such as appliances, furniture, home repair and maintenance, as discussed in The True Cost of Owning a Home, an article by Cameron Huddleston for Kiplinger (March 1, 2009), with the tagline "Your mortgage payments are only a fraction of what you'll pay once you move into a house."

Or, as noted in Katy Kelleher's Curbed article, "Suburbia has always been good for industry. Big houses required big appliances and used lots of carbon, creating a “hydrocarbon middle-class family” that was buoyed by three industries: coal, steel, and automaking."
posted by filthy light thief (20 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this ! Not QUITE old enough to remember the Army - McCarthy hearing. They took place roughly 3 years before my birth. Even as a small child I viscerally hated the guy.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:23 PM on November 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

And to think, this was when Republicans were still connected to actual reality, not a bunch of indoctrinated cult members. And even then, when they weren't yet marching in near complete lock step, they were already busy changing the game, rather than playing it.
posted by wierdo at 10:41 PM on November 19, 2019 [9 favorites]

Soundtrack for the thread
posted by flabdablet at 12:26 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

One thing that always gets to me in reading about the post war era is how not secretive the racist and exclusionary ideology of the suburbs were - there wasn’t some dogwhistles encoded drive to tear up public transit and use car ownership as defacto segregation, it was pretty out in the open (hell the conspiracy by car, road, and rubber manufacturers to destroy L.A’s public transit made it all the way to the Supreme Court) - the first Levittowns had explicit racial barriers to selling and when one family sold their home to an African American family in Pennsylvania it sparked a near riot. Prioritizing Private home ownership (and dumping sacks of money on private construction companies and developers in return) was one of the ways the New Deal contained the seeds of its own destruction since mass suburbanization enforces the values of the suburbs and are, by design, psychologically and politically isolating (liberal suburbs and conservative suburbs were closer to each other politically in the last century then say, liberal cities or conservative rural areas). It also didn’t help that once public housing became racially coded all the funding dropped out of it and a lot of them where built cheaply and shoddily, often on purpose. (Fun fact, it’s actually illegal to build new public housing here in NY! I’m sure that’s just apolitical and sensible thinking and not the real estate industry’s hand up politician’s asses)

“ Small-c conservatives like to talk about how proprietorship — running a business, owning a house, etc. — is a source of virtue: you learn responsibility from stewarding things. If you believe this, there is a strong case against the concentration of wealth and power. If most Americans are dispossessed —from the means of production; from power in their cities and workplaces; from democratic participation—and are only given space in the economy to be consumers & employees, aren't they being denied more opportunities for stewardship? Labor unions, co-determined corporate boards, worker coops, neighborhood councils, tenant unions, civic & religious groups, local businesses, stable housing — these are all venues of ownership... and opportunities for the cultivation that conservatives say comes with ownership. Just to note, for bad faith readings of this: I'm of course not arguing that business owners and owners of property are more virtuous than the rest of us. Just read the headlines to see otherwise, of course! Rather, I'm just saying there is a conservative disconnect between raising up the virtues of stewardship and ownership on the micro level while at the same time not being concerned about the concentration of ownership and power in the hands of the few at the macro level. And on a positive note, there might be opportunities to break through to some authentic traditionalist conservatives about the need for economic de-centralism (like @matthewstoller talks about) and economic democracy (like labor & tenant union-promoting socialists talk about).“ - @PeteDDavis
posted by The Whelk at 6:23 AM on November 20, 2019 [17 favorites]

Also “In a recent book, “Capital City,” the geographer Samuel Stein puts this debate into context, and adds to it. He argues that our housing dilemma derives from an unholy fusion of development and politics, which he calls “the real estate state.” Stein, a geographer at the City University of New York, tries to establish how industrial cities, in becoming postindustrial, opened the way for real estate to enter the breach. “Landowners have been determining the shape of cities for centuries, and the idea of housing as a commodity—even as a financial asset—is not exactly state of the art,” Stein writes. “What is relatively new, however, is the outsized power of real estate interests within the capitalist state.” New Yorker review
posted by The Whelk at 6:53 AM on November 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

Utilities, furniture, pest control and many other "home ownership expenses" noted in the calculator s / gotcha articles are all expenses also incurred as a renter. In some municipalities the landlord has to cover heat and hot water, but in others (like San Francisco, for example) they do not.

The real upside of home ownership is that there is no landlord who can unceremoniously boot you from your home because they want moar pr0fit$.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:40 AM on November 20, 2019 [17 favorites]

The real upside of home ownership is that there is no landlord who can unceremoniously boot you from your home because they want moar pr0fit$.

Ahh, unless your home is a condo, and a majority of owners decide to cash out to the new breed of deconverters turning buildings back into rentals. Ironically, or demonically perverse, one of the major hustlers of this crap in Chicago is a group that led the conversion of rental buildings to condos back in the 70's and 80's.
posted by Chitownfats at 9:42 AM on November 20, 2019

That and exorbitant HOA fees are among the top reasons to not buy a condo.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:56 AM on November 20, 2019

The real upside of home ownership is that there is no landlord who can unceremoniously boot you from your home because they want moar pr0fit$.

That might be the only upside. But it is big if you have kids and have limited flexibility to move. We are into our 2nd year renting as empty nesters while we decide what we want to do next. Whatever it is I'm sure we'll be renters because I'm not missing homeownership at all.

I'm curious what the new tax code will do to homeownership - as many people living in less expensive parts of the country probably don't pay enough mortgage interest at current rates to justify itemizing their deductions.
posted by COD at 10:00 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Monthly, it seems, my local newspaper publishes some sort of real estate PR piece posing as front-page news; today it was this: ”Hot times for homes priced above $300,000 in the Twin Cities.” It always boggles my mind because home buying is such a huge thing and moving is such a pain in the ass - am I supposed to read this article and suddenly feel like now is the time to upgrade? Or is it a way for certain real estate agents/agencies to get their name in print and not seem as sketchy as their colleagues posing on the bus stop bench advertisements? Obviously the real estate industry wants these articles published, as they need transaction fees to keep the money flowing, and people who buy a house and live in it for 50 years are of limited utility. But it seems like such a journalistic scam each and every tine I see these stupid headlines. Scams upon scams upon scams.
posted by Maarika at 10:06 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

grumpybear69: Utilities, furniture, pest control and many other "home ownership expenses" noted in the calculator s / gotcha articles are all expenses also incurred as a renter.

Some rentals include utilities and pest control. But I think the point is that when buying a home, you generally get more space to fill (and heat/cool, and maintain) than if you have an apartment.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:45 AM on November 20, 2019

Ahh, unless your home is a condo, and a majority of owners decide to cash out to the new breed of deconverters turning buildings back into rentals.

I think this, and landlords booting residents for more profits, are both issues exacerbated by this 'suburban expansion' policy. During the suburban expansion period, rental property development was curtailed, rents for single family was mostly a mom and pop or small owner type business where rents grew at the rate of inflation. Large corporations didn't really enter this business because the excess profits just weren't there. For the most part, mom and pop didn't boot paying residents because they couldn't afford to. Yes, sometimes people were booted out for higher rents, and some homes had corporate owners, especially in growing areas, but it was much more rare. See this chart for rental price increases.

But at the tail end of this expansion, represented by the housing price crash of 2005-2008, big corporations began buying up homes for rental property at firesale prices, and have turned this into a big business. The policies that curtailed rental home development pushed up prices and rents on existing properties dramatically. Rent is highly correlated with housing prices, so the economic constraints on building new single family homes (all the best land around the growing cities is taken and pushback against highway expansions) really starts to hurt property over time. Since 2008, single family construction has dramatically declined, but rental property construction is still constrained because all the same regulations that subsidized home ownership made rentals hard to construct. We are still dealing with the outcome of those laws today; some places have changed and some support adaptive reuse, but the cost 'tail' vs needs is going to be measured in decades.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:34 PM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

White flight driven suburbanization is also arguably a contributor to the historically large record of US carbon emissions:

"The segregated land use patterns and transportation systems that dominate the U.S. landscape have reified race through the perpetuation of a distinct white over black racial hierarchy; those same land use patterns and transportation systems have contributed significantly to global warming by causing a dangerous spike in CO2 emissions. To address the root causes of climate change thus requires a dismantling of the land use and transportation patterns that protect racial hierarchy and preserve white privilege in the United States."
posted by mostly vowels at 5:03 PM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Laying our car choked cities and suburbs at the feet of housing policy is ahistorical. Government policy began encouraging suburbanization in the 1930s, resulting in thousands of streetcar suburbs all over the country.

Other factors, including federal money being available for building and expanding roads while streetcars were operated by private companies who bore the full cost of operation and maintenance expense from the farebox or went bust, along with abusive trade practices by companies that manufactured buses, tires, and gasoline were behind the shift to the car centric suburb.

As crime in cities rose, the opposition to having public transportation of any sort quickly grew, but by then it didn't really matter (in the sense of affecting the trend..that toxic attitude has very much mattered in other ways) anyway, since the default had already shifted and development of suburbia quickly ceased to be driven by the rail companies.
posted by wierdo at 7:26 PM on November 20, 2019

I appreciate the post, but I'm trying to articulate why the link on the front page annoys me as much as it does. Maybe because I'm a True Believer when it comes to home / place / land?

Also, while trying to deconstruct all of that, the author is meanwhile living my dream life and acknowledging that she is experiencing all of the benefits I imagine it includes:
I have five acres of woods, two dogs, several gardens, and a very long commute. This cost $200,000, but our mortgage here is less than we paid in rent in Portland (and much, much less than my husband and I paid in rent in Boston).

Homeownership was part of my husband’s dream. He always wanted children, and he always wanted a yard he could mow, floors he could sand, walls he could paint, and a wood stove that he could feed with seasoned wood (gathered from his own personal forest). I’ve come to love living in our house. My emotional attachment to this place grows with each new plant I put in, each robin that nests on our roof.
And then the rest just seems meandering and without making a point. Or maybe it's a point that almost all of us know too well at this point.
posted by salvia at 12:41 AM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

In a conservative society, citizenship is proportional to property owned. Below a certain level, your rights trickle down from those who own your livelihood and home. Whether that level is renters or everybody below the absolute monarch is a quantitative matter.
posted by acb at 1:40 AM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

One of the other reasons for the rise of real estate developers is that they are one of the few remaining businesses rooted in place. Which means they are one of the few reliable sources for municipal elections.
posted by postel's law at 4:44 AM on November 21, 2019

Other factors, including federal money being available for building and expanding roads while streetcars were operated by private companies who bore the full cost of operation and maintenance expense from the farebox or went bust, along with abusive trade practices by companies that manufactured buses, tires, and gasoline were behind the shift to the car centric suburb.

If you have ever taken a look at streetcar suburbs, if the streetcar ran for even 10 years, they are an outlier. The suburban streetcar model wasn't even sustainable back then. The hypertrophic (another person I read has said this about American cities) city design [space between buildings] made multiple car lanes possible 100 years before cars were even around, and this design pattern is why 'street car suburbs' were always going to fail. American cities have too much [useless] space between buildings, even in cities.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:43 AM on November 21, 2019

Funny, I used to live in one of those streetcar suburbs in a house that was built about a decade after the streetcar arrived, in 1930. Said streetcar lasted until the early 60s before the tracks were buried. (No, they didn't even bother pulling them up!)

It strikes me as odd to call a thing that drove development patterns around pretty much every US city of any reasonable size for over half a century an outlier seems strange to me, but whatever. If you look carefully at the way those suburbs were developed, you'll notice that they're laid out with very narrow lots so as to maximize the number of lots within easy walking distance of the streetcar line. Lines that mostly made money, by the way, and in almost every case lost less money than was spent rejiggering cities to accommodate more cars and maintaining the larger streets built at that time.
posted by wierdo at 10:24 AM on November 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

Alternate soundtrack for the thread.
Courtesy of Malvina Reynolds, and used as great accompaniment for Weeds' suburban setting.
posted by bartleby at 8:43 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older The Cash Railway Website   |   The city is roaring around these tiny sounds, but... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments