If Americans took away one lesson from the housing crash, it’s that a house is not always a Treasury bond. In the latest Fannie Mae survey on attitudes toward housing, only 56 percent of respondents say they consider a home a safe investment—that’s down from 83 percent in 2003.
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As thousands of foreclosed homeowners have transitioned to apartment living, renting has acquired a certain cool. The number of renters has jumped 16 percent since 2004 to almost 106 million, according to Census figures. Apartment communities catering to millennials that resemble destination living are popping up in cities like Dallas, offering swimming pools, chain restaurants, volleyball courts, and other amenities. The number of permits for construction of multifamily housing units (the majority of which are rental apartments) soared 61 percent between the first-quarter of 2011 and first-quarter of 2012.
Though renters’ numbers have surged, their political clout hasn’t. Homeowners receive numerous tax benefits unavailable to renters, including the mortgage interest deduction, home sale deductions, property tax deductions, and tax-free capital gains. Of the federal housing subsidies in 2009, 79 percent went to homeowners and 21 percent to renters, according to the National Multi-Housing Council. In Washington, the major players on national housing policy are groups like the National Association of Realtors, the National Association of Homebuilders, and the Mortgage Bankers Association, which go to bat for homeowners, not renters.
Sixty-year-old Bill Deegan says he’s out to change that. A two-time town councilman and former host of the radio show “Renter Nation” on Phoenix station KFNX, Deegan launched a free-membership organization last month, also called Renter Nation, that aims to advocate for renters. The group’s motto is “by, for, and about America’s residential renters,” and so far, Deegan and his team have been busy mobilizing renters through social media, and reaching out to media in an effort to break down stereotypes of anyone who sends checks to a landlord. For example, on June 1 they issued a news release criticizing the upcoming Spike TV series World’s Worst Tenants and urged advertisers to reconsider their support. The Fiscal Times recently talked with Deegan on the changing landscape of renting.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): How did Renter Nation start?
Bill Deegan (BD): I was in my car one day in early 2009 listening to a story about proposed bailouts for existing homeowners and tax credits for new owners. And I’d been reading about people who stay in their homes literally for years without making a mortgage payment before foreclosure. Being a renter, I know that if you don’t pay, you’re often out in a month. I thought this isn’t right, this isn’t fair, so I decided that I was going to call whoever advocates for renters nationally and give them my two cents. Lo and behold, I discovered that there was no such group. So I decided to start one myself.
TFT: What do you want to accomplish?
BD: We want to empower renters. Our website gives practical information like how you get your security deposit back and what to do about noisy neighbors. You can shop for an apartment and download coupons. We have a blog where people can keep up on issues that affect renters. And there’s Rentertainment, where we and our users post videos, photos, and other entertaining stuff related to renting. It’s a for-profit site, but we also plan to use a portion of the revenues to organize for changes in housing policy.
TFT: You have a kind of manifesto on your site called “I’m proud to rent.” What are you getting at there?
BD: I think it’s ingrained in our culture that renters are second-class citizens. And that’s reflected in our national policies, especially the mortgage interest tax deduction. The National Multi-Housing Council notes that of the federal housing subsidies in 2009, 79 percent went to homeowners and 21 percent to renters. So I think we’re being shortchanged—we’re about 38 percent now of the population but getting only 21 percent of the resources. I think renters have been silent too long, and it’s time we spoke up.
TFT: What’s wrong with promoting homeownership?
BD: We’ve got nothing against homeownership. It’s fine for some people. Just don't ask me as a renter to subsidize it. I think a home should just be viewed as a place to live, and if it happens to appreciate in value, good for you.
I’m a total advocate for renters and multifamily housing. With more multifamily housing and denser development, there’s less of a footprint on the environment. You don’t have tract houses encroaching on farms and fields and wildlife habitat. It means fewer roads and less need for capital expenditure for sewer lines and other infrastructure—and less reliance on imported oil.
TFT: But those who support homeownership cite studies indicating that neighborhoods with more homeowners have less crime and better citizen involvement, for example.
BD: I’d point you to research last year by Grace Bucchianeri of the Wharton School of Business called The American Dream or The American Delusion—she notes that if you look at studies that have controlled for income, housing quality, and other factors, homeowners are no happier than renters, and she doesn’t see evidence that homeowners are better citizens. Just look at New York City, where something like 70 percent of the population are renters. You want to tell me New York doesn’t have citizen participation? They sure do. And as for crime, I don’t think that’s true, especially now. Here in Arizona, you have subdivisions where half the homes on the block are in foreclosure and there’s all sorts of stuff going on in those houses. That’s not a place I want to live.
TFT: The National Association of Realtors just had 10,000 of their members come to
Washington to promote homeownership. Other than fiscal watchdog groups, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of vocal support for your side of the housing debate. What’s your political strategy?
BD: Having been a politician, I know that leaders respond to a constituency that votes. That’s why we’ve affiliated with MTV’s Rock the Vote, so [renters] can register. We want to make renters aware that if they want something in their community that is beneficial to renters, they have to vote.
We also want to mobilize by working with what we estimate are 30,000-plus local, state, and regional tenants associations. We’d love to join with them to organize a million-renter march, for example. We would like to be sitting at the housing policy discussion tables in Washington and our state capitals.
TFT: What else needs changing?
BD: There are thirteen cities here in Arizona alone that have renter’s taxes, which to me is a discriminatory tax. There are communities in this country like Madison, Mississippi and West St. Paul, Minnesota that put caps on the number of renters who can live there. I view this almost as a civil rights issue. You substitute black or Hispanic for renter and it’s just purely discriminatory. These are the kind of things that we're going to be working on.
We want to change the culture—not only how society views renting, but how renters feel about themselves. There’s nothing wrong with renting—it’s a good thing. It gives you flexibility, which is especially important when unemployment is high like right now. I know homeowners who got job offers in other cities but can’t move because they’re stuck in underwater mortgages.
TFT: One of the problems with being a renter is the lack of control—you can’t paint without permission, you can’t change the kitchen, and you could lose your home whenever the landlord sells. Could there be a new model of renting?
BD: It’s a good point. Landlords could make accommodations, say, longer-term leases—so that instead of signing a one-year lease, maybe you go with a five-year lease and then you as the renter have some latitude in terms of design. But local laws would have to be changed to allow that model.