Building a Different American Dream, Brick by Brick
By NANCY MILLER,
Posted: March 02, 2011
For what seems like generations, owning a home was not just a goal but a core value of America –a brick-by-brick strategy to build a society based on communal ties, responsibility, and hard work. Democrats and Republicans alike envisioned what George W. Bush called an "Ownership Society". Upstanding citizens own homes. Losers or shirkers were satisfied to be renters.
If the events of the last three years haven’t already bulldozed the national dream of home ownership, the words of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner surely should. In testimony Tuesday before the House Committee on Financial Services, Geithner talked about unwinding Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – the insolvent quasi-governmental behemoths that have dominated the mortgage market -- and how private lenders should replace them. Fannie and Freddie, of course, were created to spread the American dream from every hilltop to the prairies and the inner cities across the nation. If they go, where goes the vision?
In his prepared testimony, Geithner said, “While we believe that all Americans should have access to affordable, quality housing, our goal is not for every American to become a homeowner. We should provide targeted and effective support to families who have the financial capacity to own a home but are underserved by the private market, as well as a range of options for Americans who rent.”
It is emblematic and sad that the end of an era comes in the clunky prose of a life-long bureaucrat. The new vision begins with “while” – the favorite hedging tool of people who are afraid to make direct statements --- and ends with what the vision is NOT (our goal is not for every American to become a homeowner). It’s at just such moments that one longs for a touch of poetry, a vision. I wish he had something like:
We have lost our way in America, forgetting what was really in our houses –a place to live out our day-to-day values, not a cash machine for the next vacation. More than that, we must acknowledge that home ownership, a worthy goal, is just one way for the middle class to express its devotion to hard work, freedom and ingenuity -- the true ideals of our nation.
But the moment passed, and without a look back Congress and the White House have begun the long, hard slog of re-creating a vision for how we live, where we live, and how we pay for it.
According to RealtyTrac, since the start of the recession, nearly three million homeowners have lost their homes and another 5.85 million are at risk; meanwhile, more than eight million jobs were lost – a humbling number. It’s no surprise then that just 64 percent of Americans now view home ownership as a good investment, down from 83 percent in 2003, according to Fannie Mae’s fourth quarter national housing survey. Yet the ideal of home ownership is far from dead. More than one-third of Hispanics and African Americans surveyed say they plan to buy a home in the next three years versus 23 percent of the general population.
Policymakers and individuals alike need to see that renter or owner, there’s no place like home.
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