Does Homeowning Really Promote Good Citizenship?

The current issue of Housing Policy Debate, a quarterly put out by the Fannie Mae Foundation, has an interesting article by Donald Krueckeberg, an urban planning professor at Rutgers, that debunks the widespread notion that homeownership promotes civic virtue. (To find Housing Policy Debate, click here, scan down to the “housing research” heading, and click on Housing Policy Debate. Volume Ten, Issue One, where Kruckeberg’s essay appears, hasn’t been posted as of May 24, but it should be soon.)

Chatterbox is intrigued by Krueckeberg’s argument because he is trying to sell his present house and buy a new one. Chatterbox has been a homeowner for the past eight years. He has always suspected that this experience, contrary to the American-dream propaganda regularly emanating from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the non-charitable arm of Fannie Mae (click here if you want to read Matthew Cooper’s excellent Slate article on the latter), has not made Chatterbox a better citizen. Now Krueckeberg confirms this.

“Such is the frailty of the human heart, that very few men who have no property, have any judgment of their own,” wrote John Adams in 1776. Krueckeberg cites this as conclusive evidence that this country has always had it in for renters. Until the mid-19th century, many states denied the vote to people who didn’t own property. When the income tax was instituted in 1913, the federal government permitted taxpayers to deduct mortgage interest and local property taxes. Today, this has ballooned to an annual tax subsidy of $74 billion to a largely affluent chunk of society. By contrast, as Chatterbox’s friend Phillip Longman observed in his 1996 book Thrift(click here to buy it used), “less than a third of renter households with very low incomes (below 50 percent of median income in their areas) receive any federal housing assistance whatsoever.” The tax breaks extended to homeowners are, Longman notes, a lousy investment; if this capital had been spent elsewhere during the past 30 years, perhaps productivity wouldn’t have sagged so much.

Renters are often blamed for ruining residential neighborhoods. But according to one 1994 study of Baltimore homebuyers and renters cited by Krueckeberg, homebuyers are less “neighborly” than renters. Although the homebuyers in the study participated more often in neighborhood and block associations, they didn’t participate more often than renters in other community activities. Chatterbox wonders whether the renters were more active in volunteer groups whose interests extend beyond the immediate neighborhood–e.g., to people poorer than themselves. (For the purposes of this discussion, Chatterbox isn’t considering renters who benefit from local rent control or rent stabilization regulations like the writer Tony Hiss, who, according to an article in last week’s New York Times , is living in his father Alger’s old New York apartment; rent control is a bad policy, and its beneficiaries are essentially owners–the thing of value being not the dwelling itself but the right to keep its rent down.)

Before Chatterbox was a homeowner, he was never hip to whether his neighbors were “owners” or “renters.” After he owned a house, however, he got nervous whenever a neighbor rented a house to someone who might trash the place and lower surrounding property values. (Beware of college students!) In other words, Chatterbox became more intolerant. When a crime wave hit the neighborhood, Chatterbox joined the local Orange Hat patrol and subscribed to a neighborhood Internet mailing list. On the plus side, this activism helped nip the crime wave in the bud and created warm bonds with many neighbors who’d been strangers before. Without the fear that the muggings were a threat not only to physical safety but also to property values, Chatterbox might never have overcome his natural indolence and joined up. On the minus side, Chatterbox found himself part of a social movement aimed at getting the D.C. police to shift scarce foot patrols away from more crime-ridden (but less well organized) neighborhoods and into his own. It was great chasing crooks out of our neighborhood, but Chatterbox suspects they went on being crooks somewhere else.