THE BLOG
09/21/2010 05:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The New War on Homeownership: Could It Lead to a Permanent American Underclass?

As long as most of us have been alive, owning your own home has been a big part of the American Dream, but suddenly some prominent media voices are saying, "Not so fast!" Some of these newfound doubts about homeownership have a distinct aroma of racism about them.

Most Americans still look at homeownership the way they always have. If you ask renters or young people if they hope to own a home one day, the resounding answer will be, "Yes!"

But there is a growing movement - epitomized by Time's Sept. 6 cover story, "Rethinking Homeownership" -- to make America a nation of renters. By amazing coincidence, those claiming that too many people own homes seem to have had that brainstorm just as Latinos, African Americans and Asians were beginning to get a piece of the action.

The Time piece bemoaned what it calls "the dark side of homeownership ... foreclosures and walkaways, neighborhoods plagued by abandoned properties and plummeting home values." The story declared flatly, "Homeownership has let us down." It even blamed homeownership for "the hollowing out of cities" and pretty much every wasteful, energy-inefficient aspect of the suburban lifestyle.

Time wasn't the first to call for a retreat from homeownership. In a June 7 Wall Street Journal column, Richard Florida called owning one's own home "overrated." At present, about 67 percent of Americans own their homes, and Florida thinks we'd be better off at between 55 and 60 percent. That, he claims, is the rate of homeownership in America's "most economically vibrant regions."

Such reasoning is nonsensical, as we'll see in a moment.

Implicit in all this - not stated plainly in polite company, but lurking just under the surface - is the idea that things were fine until the wrong people started buying houses. On right-wing blogs the accusation is often more explicit, blaming government programs for putting people of color into homes.

Of course homeownership is not for everyone. But it was not homeownership that "let us down." What let us down were predatory and dishonest lending practices that made homeownership a casino game. That's why entire financial institutions such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and others collapsed. Meanwhile, firms such as Goldman Sachs encouraged investors to purchase mortgage-backed securities even as they were betting that the housing market would collapse.

While some pick and choose statistics to make a bogus claim that homeownership is somehow a drain on economic vibrancy, multiple studies point in the opposite direction. Homeownership leads to stability, both for individual families and the neighborhoods in which they live.

And that, in turn, correlates with all sorts of social benefits. Numerous studies, for example, have shown that children of homeowners are more likely to graduate from high school than children of renters, and are at least twice as likely to go to college. Other research has found homeowners to have higher rates of life satisfaction, self-esteem and sense of control over their lives.

Federal Reserve statistics show that communities of color were victims, not perpetrators, of the mortgage disaster. Among buyers with the best credit ratings - FICO scores of 720 or higher - 13.5 percent of Latino borrowers and 12.8 percent of African-American borrowers received high-cost loans, compared to only 2.6 percent of white borrowers. That led to higher foreclosure rates and a massive loss of wealth.

The problem wasn't that "irresponsible" (read: nonwhite) people recklessly bought homes they couldn't afford. The problem was that they didn't get equal treatment simply because they had the same income or FICO score.

The question is not whether we should be renters or homeowners. The question is how to go back to the original idea of homeownership: seeing a home as the place that protects your family, not something you invest in for a quick flip.

People of color simply have not had as much access to this bedrock source of financial stability as whites. In 2009, while 74.9 percent of whites were homeowners, only 59.1 percent of Asians, 48.9 percent of Latinos, and 47.5 percent of blacks owned their own homes. Not surprisingly, for every dollar of wealth the average white family owns, families of color have 15 cents.

Some, it appears, want to keep it that way.

Rather than blaming communities that were victimized by predatory lending practices, we should search for responsible ways to make sure that Americans of all races have equal access to the benefits that well-planned homeownership can provide for individuals, families and neighborhoods.

Preeti Vissa is community reinvestment director of The Greenlining Institute, www.greenlining.org.