The Case Against Home Ownership

This morning on the Streetsblog Network, we’re featuring a thoughtful post from Greater Greater Washington in which David C dares to challenge the very foundation of the "American Dream" — home ownership.

186433302_143913ed9e.jpgPhoto by Transguyjay via Flickr.

variety of government policies and programs have dramatically increased
home ownership. But lately, some have been advocating that the
government stop subsidizing home ownership, arguing that it locks
people to a place, and when the economy goes sour people need the
flexibility to go where the jobs are. I would say that we need to take
it farther and that, in addition to allowing the unemployed to move to
work, encourage the employed to move closer to work.

He goes on to cite several studies that show
home ownership can be an inefficient use of a family’s financial
assets, as well as Richard Florida’s recent article in the Atlantic, "How the Crash Will Reshape America":

talks about creating national rental companies that will allow you to
transfer a lease to another property and facilitate your move, instead
of charging you for breaking your lease and leaving
you to fend for yourself in the next town. That’s similar to the way
people trade in a car for the new one. Our public policy should
encourage that as well.

we need to change tax laws that don’t accommodate all types of
mobility. Current federal tax laws allow deducting moving expenses. But
the time and distance requirements do not allow you, as puts it, to move just "to ease your daily commute to work."
But why shouldn’t we subsidize a move to ease your daily commute? We
subsidize your commute through tax deductions for commuting expenses.
Why not subsidize easing the commute? Doesn’t it also carry
environmental advantages that we want to encourage? Shorter commutes
strengthen families, and ease everyone else’s commute too. Isn’t that
more of a public good than home ownership?

A piece we ran a couple of weeks back on a similar topic, Where’s "Against Transportation,"
generated a lot of comments. We’re interested to hear your thoughts on
this one. Should we become a more mobile society, picking up and moving
where the jobs are? Is this even remotely realistic in a country where
many families rely on the incomes of two adults?

Bonus reading: Making Places (the PPS blog) has a related post called "A World Where Cars Have a Right to Housing and People Don’t."

  • When I read Dolores Hayden’s “Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life” back in high school (or early on in college) I was able to see how suburbia in the U.S. works for a lot of people BUT it also puts a lot of people out.

    If you are into living an isolated life with your nuclear family and an automobile at the ready, then it works great. A lot of Americans see this as an ideal situation, and we have 2 or 3 generations who are not equipped to cope with a non-suburban setting.

    If you want to live a life rich in social connection, on your own or in a less-rote family structure, without he need for an automobile – you’re screwed.

    Our Soviet Union style entitlement system for the suburbs forces everyone to one conclusion: “Git a car, git a house, and shaddup.”

    What is so great that we’re going to sacrifice two or three generations’ wealth to prop up this 20th century over-consumptive pipe dream of a living arrangement? The lovely front lawn? High teenage suicide rates?

    The suburbs have their place, but I don’t think it should be at the heart of so many federal, state, and local subsidies.

  • Suburbia seems well on its way of becoming the news “slums” and “ghettos” of America, so they will be abandoned. Just like the inner cities were abandoned when the people who mattered thought it was the old way to live. The dream of the gov’t abandoning people in Lancaster, Palmdale, Riverside and all of the other places the only place poor and working class people in the LA area can afford to live and not get shot at too much. The new focus will be the revitalized urban areas, as soon as they throw all of the poor people out.

    I mean in some way yeah I get the whole you should be able to move, but do you know how hard it is too find an apartment even when you have great credit and a job if you’re the “wrong” ethnicity. I remember looking for apartments in Los Feliz and people wouldn’t open the door. I had a friend who is a woman and African-American they asked her for 4000 dollars, then when they saw her they asked for 6,000 and then as the move in date got closer they asked for 8,000 dollars just to move into an apartment in Echo Park. Also asked for her 1099, tax returns etc…

    I haven’t read the original post by Sarah so I’m just responding just briefly looking over it, but there are lots of issues that people in the alt transportation movement forget to look at that really impact people who don’t fit in a certain demographic. Moving for me is really stressful. I would love to be able to move where jobs are, but even though I have money other factors make it really difficult.

    It’s not just taxes the prevent mobility its the old norms of where you can live and where you can’t live depending on who you are.

    If society is going to be mobile we’re also going to have a society that is less racist, less homophobic, less sexist and less classist.


  • All due respect, but I doubt very much that suburbia is going anywhere. I think the changes in urban planning will result in better-designed living/working spaces in high density and urban areas. But areas where the density is low enough, suburbia will still exist as it does today for many decades to come. More fuel efficient cars will enable people to maintain a suburban lifestyle well into the future.

    Urban space (hopefully) will become denser and more transit/walking/biking friendly, and those who want that lifestyle will move there. But there will always be people who want a suburban lifestyle.

  • I think you’re right David, especially because the loan guarantees and tax breaks that home-owners, car-owners, and nearly every player in the oil-car-real estate-finance quadrangle gets will see to it that the suburbs continue on until we’ve totally wiped out our chances to survive as a society.

    I *wish* that the above mentioned subsidies would apply to renters, but I know that the one of the last group politicians care about are renters! These folks are rarely in an area long enough to register to vote.

    It is fun to pretend that our politicians are trying to make decisions to please “the people”, but a lot of the time they are simply grasping at what will please the people who vote (or contribute to their campaign coffers).

    Maybe there is a way ’round these problems, but I don’t see any vested interests paying for campaigns in Sacramento and D.C. to help people rent!

  • Well if suburbia still has a viable lifeline, then I’m not sure of the point of the emphasis on bicycles if that’s what certain people truly believe. I mean to me the only way the bicycle is going to work is in an urban area where people work humanly possible to peddle to get to work, school and commerce. If the dream of suburbia dying is a silly pipedream, then possibly the emphasis in alt transit should be more on busses and trains than bicycles and trains. If suburbia isn’t going to die. I don’t know too many people who could use bike and train only forms of transit to get around. Not with a baby, not with groceries, not with a four year old with daycare one side of town and a job 20 miles away, because that is how suburbia is set up. If you think suburbia isn’t going to die and you’re not working for better bus service then you are pretty much saying the car is never going to die.

    In the US I have always lived in urban areas, Los Feliz, downtown…etc areas where I had very good train and cycling options if I wanted, but if I lived in Duarte, Van Nuys, or West Covina there is no way cycling or even taking a train without some awesome bus service is going to work. Not too many jobs in West Covina.

  • I meant to say if you think suburbia is still going to be around for 20 years and you aren’t actively working for better bus service to connect people to trains (because the bicycle isn’t going to work) you are through your actions of not advocating for true realistic options (for half the population women with children and elderly and disabled and people who just really aren’t going to cycle 40 miles + a day to pick up two kids and go to work and pick up dinner) are helping the auto industry continue to dominate in the LA lifestyle.

  • browne you need to watch these two videos:

    I think your analysis about what the suburbs will become is correct. The outer boroughs of LA County will become a brown collar around a gentrified urban core. This is happening right now, and will continue apace when oil prices make their inevitbale climb back above $3 by the end of the year (or so I’ve been told).

    “Suburbia” the idea will continue to be fueled by entitlement programs that would make the soviets blush. We will further bankrupt our civilization by pouring what energy and resources we have to extending this lifestyle’s “Best if used by” date another generation.

    L.A. has water, power, ports, rail, highways, and the coast – so the urban core(s) of Los Angeles will still be a regional powerhouse. The periphery of the city will become a perfect place to practice virulent strains of religion, cook meth, shoot people, and avoid the shortened arm of the law. For a taste of what will happen to the outskirts of L.A. see Detroit.

  • Ubrayj I’ve seen those videos and I think they are cute, but is this realistic for LA? I’m not trying to be negative, but is this possible in as Dorothy Parker said in a town that is 72 suburbs in search of a city. Is this possible where we are going to have a major crime problem soon and it is coming, with unemployment rates creeping past what it was in the worse part of the 80s and 90s when LA was crazy (you were here, just like me, you remember right?) If suburbia becomes what the inner city was how exactly are people going to ride their bikes safely 20-40 miles (oneway) to the city for jobs? There are quite a few people in LA who work the night shift, the early morning shift are we going to champion bike lanes over safe busses (can’t it at least be equal advocacy) in the alt tranportation movement. Most people in America don’t have degrees, most people don’t have the kinds of jobs where they can live in the places that are being revitalized, gentrified…are we working for an alt transportation movement for the most people possible in Los Angeles or are we working for an alt transportation movement with a few elite that can afford to live in the city, that can afford to live in a safe neighborhood, that can afford to have a flexible job where they don’t have to ride their bike at 11pm at night to their job as a security guard.

    In Portland the bike movement makes sense, in NY the bike movement makes since, in Seattle it makes sense, in the Coppenhagen it makes sense, because it’s not something that only the elite can do, but in LA cycling is elitist, the over emphasis on cycling (not saying it doesn’t have a place) but the over emphasis on cycling in the City of Los Angeles does not make logical sense if your point is truly to get people out of their cars and to get them to travel in a more sustainable way, it’s just ridiculous if that is your point.

    I personally have a problem with the car and this “individual, it’s mine” kind of attitude. I’m anti-car. I don’t like cars. I would like to see the alt transporation movement to be able to adjust their mantra depending on the location. Every get rid of the car solution can’t be the same for every city. LA is very, very different.

    Good public transit would bring the community together, the entire community. The community that includes the entire family, even grandma.

    Now if your point is that you want to be able to ride your bike in your world and your concern isn’t the general population and this isn’t so much about society, but your interest then ok, but if you really want to get people in LA out of their cars the alt tranportation movement is going to have to do better.

    I’m going to the bike summit and I’m going to be taking notes of the demographic that is there. I’m going to see how many people have kids, how many people are elderly, how many people are differently abled, because I really want to know if these people are being included and if this is truly a viable movment, from my perspective it just doesn’t seem like it, not in Los Angeles.

    I was talking to my friend who lives in Claremont and I was trying to get her to ride her bike and to use an alt way to get around. She has three kids one two year old, four year old and six year old. I asked her why she didn’t get childcare by her job and she said she couldn’t afford the childcare by her job, that she went to Altadena to get childcare for her two and six year olds, because that is where she could afford it, so she lives in Claremont, she works in Monrovia she has a six year old in school in Claremont a two and four year old in daycare in Altadena. Oh yeah she’s in school so she can get yet another degree so she can make sure she can take care of her kids. She’s in good shape. She is divorced. She has a job which involved six years of college to get and she doesn’t have enough money to have her kids in childcare in Claremont or Monrovia, she doesn’t have the time to bike across the city, but you know if there was reliable bus service maybe she could use that sometimes, but the way the system is set up now. There is no way. And her life is a real life example for lots of middle class people, now take her and lower her income to 15k per year and change her job to one where she has to be at work by 6am.

    For those two people in LA what do you think would help them the most, expanded bus service or a really great bikelane. Yeah affordable housing for both of them near their place of employment and daycare at their jobs would be great too, but again daycare at places of employment are things never really talked about in the alt transportation movement and in LA that’s something that is a big freakin deal. If employers were mandated to provide in house childcare if they have 50% of their employees with children and over 100 employees that would do a hell of a lot more to get people off the road than bike lanes.

    I guess would I would like to see a demonstration of the Coppenhagen video on a regular basis in Los Angeles and even the most diehard cyclist I don’t think they have the stomach to do it and that is one of the major problems with an over emphasis on just one mode of alternative transit.


  • L.A. will never be those other cities.

    Portions of L.A. will be like those cities.

    Take a good look at the geography and infrastructure of this town, and you’ll see that there are going to be winners and losers when/if energy costs gets precipitously high.

    Cycling is one way, of many, to allow goods and people to be transported across portions of L.A.

  • The fact that L.A. is not already the bicycle utopia of Copenhagen doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve bicycle services throughout our city. Building better bike lanes and bike paths provides a third alternative after private automobiles and public transit.

    Ubraj is a cycling advocate, Browne is a bus advocate (at least in the context of this thread), but I think we all realize that there is no one magic bullet that we should focus on to improve the transportation options of this city. We need to improve public transit (trains AND buses), and infrastructure for bicycles, as well as maintain our existing roads and highways.

    As for suburbia: Frankly, I think you’re both wrong when you imply it it’s going to become the purgatory you guys are describing. What will probably happen is more development will encroach on suburbia, and what is now suburban will become semi-urban, and the truly suburban areas will spring up in places where there is currently little development.

    For both such areas, plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, with potentially swappable batteries that are recharged from home using the grid or home solar panels, will allow people to live suburban lifestyles that are more sustainable well into the future. If people can’t afford to live in suburbia, they will leave it and move somewhere else, and those rich enough to afford it will take their place. But suburbia itself isn’t going anywhere.

    Bringing it back to the original topic of the post: This is a free country. Those who want to own their own home are welcome to pursue that lifestyle, and those who want to rent their whole lives are free to do so. In suburbia it makes more sense to own, in urban settings sometimes it makes more sense to rent (especially where there is rent-control, which could be seen as a type of subsidy for renters, ubrayj). People will pursue both types of lifestyle, and there is a spectrum of lifestyles in between depending on how close people live to their jobs and services.

  • Actually David for the sake of this discussion I’m an anti-car advocate. And I’m advocating the mode of transport that makes the most sense in LA. If I moved to a different place my preference would change, so that makes me alot different than Ubrayj.

    And we’re not really going off topic. We’re broadening the topic and getting out of this tunnel vision way of thinking that puts everything in a little box and never talks about issues outside of the box. Everything is related. If you want to bring it back to a certain section of the conversation then feel free to do that, but don’t try to act as if we’re wack jobs advocating for our own selfish interests. It’s pretty easy to just talk about your issue without minimizing someone else who thinks differently than you.


  • Mark

    David, you’re the voice of reason here. Technology is going to keep suburban areas alive, and why not? I happen to love the peace and quiet of living in a single family home (alone), not having to worry about making noise and disturbing my neighbors, and not hearing my neighbors noise coming through my walls. It’s great!

    Also, if someone wants a dog that’s any bigger than a poodle, he’s going to be much better off in a single family home with a back yard than in a condo building in a city.

  • This conversation just highlights the fact that we need more hard numbers in the alternative transport community.

    Who knows what suburbia will look like in 20 years; I’ve heard realtors say smart money is in the cities, but I don’t see any of the political and economic processes that created and continue to recreate suburbia slowing down at all. And if you’re someone who values single family homes and big dogs, I wonder exactly how you can be a liveable streets advocate at the same time.

    Speaking of what creates suburbia, for the Browne-Ubrayj head to head, we have to think about what the majority of mass transit is concerned with these days; commuter rail attempting, rather ineffectively, to coax suburban, white, wealthy communities out of their cars. It is necessary to push for a refocus on transit equity, putting the money where the ridership is, mainly in cities and with working class communities of color. But in Los Angeles, and most parts of this country, sheer density will not allow for mass transit alone to solve our (social) mobility issues.

    Further, I’m looking at 2001 NHTS numbers, which are not LA specific, but even in their “pacific” category, transit use is at a mere 2% of total modal share, while non motorized (walking/biking) is at 10%. Again, we can’t ignore the processes that create these numbers, mainly a split personality in the transit world priorities between “dependents” and “commuters”.

    But I would say rather confidently for both walking and biking, as having had little to no infrastructural investment or even popular support, that if we wanted to get the most bang for our buck we should push these non motorized modes as they are both already highly productive and don’t require massive transit like projects with all their political and financial planetary movements.

    And you know Europeans have committed to the triumvirate, personalbike-transit-bikeshare, and having great success with it, outside of flowery Copenhagen videos.

    I know the bus bench and most bus advocates are very much invested in social justice, and rightly so; we have to see alternative transportation as a push back against the inequitable auto-centric paradigm that dominates, bicycles included.

    But in this community, which we’re all a part of, when we make claims we have to be able to back them up with numbers outside of our own personal views, so that we can all push this thing forward.

  • Ramonchu,

    You tell us to use numbers then you pull out some numbers from nine years ago that put the whole pacific region in one category to imply that most people who don’t drive use a bike?

    That’s not true in LA. On my blog I always back up everything I say with fact. I’m one of the few blogs that actually do write editorials backed up with lots and lots of links not just me, myself and I.

    According to a 2006 study 11% of people in LA live in a household without access to a car. And if it weren’t 4am in the morning I would bet you one dollar that the vast majority of those people take public transit and I know I can back that up with a fact.

    Even on this board I bet if we did a poll you would find that people who only use cycling as their only alternative mode of transit occasionally have to get a car (and probably own a car) more than the average public transit user (and probably have access to a car via a spouse or partner) but if you use public transit you can completely divorce yourself from the car.

    If it rains I can still take the bus.

    In LA if you are only into cycing you are at some point going to have to get in a car, with public transit you dont have to use the car option.

    Do you know why cycling in LA can’t get rid of the car, because LA is too big. And the average person white, black, latino, asian can’t afford to live close enough to where the jobs are.

    Now a good public transit system that everyone could use could save people lots of money, maybe allowing them to live closer to their jobs, maybe then allowing them to ride a bike exclusively if they want to, but for now who do you see in the cycling movement in LA?


    You do see women, but the vast majority of those women are younger and do not have kids.

    How are you going to have a movement that only seems to cater to guys and younger women who don’t have children.

    No seniors, no children, no people with babies, no disabled people, not the entire cycling movement, but in LA we don’t have a cycling movement like in other parts of the world or other US cities, we have a very guy centric movement. I should see as many kids cycling as I do on the bus and I don’t.

    Even the alt transit advocates on this board that focus on cycling I bet if you did a poll they live with a partner that has a car, so what kind of livable street movement do we have when we only have women with no children who are able to cycle and guys who live in households where they have access to a car.

    That to me doesn’t really point to a viable movement in Los Angeles (not saying it can’t get there, I truly have faith that it can,) since most human get old, they get sick, they have children and not only that it points to some problems with priorities.

    This is not just me saying busses are better because they are just better, this is me saying that busses, trains and bicycles should be given at the very least equal floor time, because in LA we need some kind of motorized way to get people to point a to point b owing to the fact the cost of housing that allows people to be close to places of employment is very prohibitive and the fact that our city has been planned with this sprawl mindset.

    To me the cycling movmement should be closely alligned with affordable housing (housing within civilization) advocates, because to me those two movements are very closely connected and could bring about some real change if they worked together.

    And yeah the rents are going down in the newly gentrified urban areas of downtown and the surrounding areas, but people have also lost their jobs or have had their salaries cut, so again you have the same group of people (people with more money and no kids) being able to benefit from all of this.

    Now if this was just about me and my perspective then I really wouldn’t have to care. I have a job that’s not going away, I’m single, I live in downtown, but to me this isn’t about my world, but the world around me.

    Give the people in LA a real option. I find it alot easier to try to get people to take the bus or train to work sometimes than to get on their bike and ride 20 miles and even cyclists would agree with that. Every time I try to get people to ride their bike they tell me personal stories of how they live over here and work over their and their kids go to school way over there. I hear that story over and over again. And while I can say move closer and I have, I know that’s just not possible for most people.

    And if people want to focus on cycling exclusively and they want a livable streetsmovment then any time that is brought up then the subject of affordable housing (rent, own, whatever) should also come up, because cycling goes hand in hand with community, if affordable housing seems to be too hard to talk about then cycling in LA is going to become a mode of transit for the elite who can afford to do it.

    The working poor and working class will be driving their cars (or waiting for a bus for two hours in at a dark bus stop) and living in the suburbs and that’s going to be sad, because most people aren’t exactly middle class anymore and if that does happen the movement will have failed.

    Livable streets should include the most people possible and its not that hard, just make sure all points of views are part of the planning.


    Here’s the study about people without cars in Metro cities.

  • Going back to the original post though. I really do believe that the idea of homeownerhip is an archaic one. An idea that bankrupts people and makes them obsessed with this idea that home is an object. An object that can be bought and sold and that’s not true. I know many people who would be better off if they would get this “I need to get a house” thing out of their head.

    And if you have a twenty year mortage do you really own it?

    It seems to me more like some heavy weight that traps you into never moving, never growing, and never going outside of your comfort zone and when the economy changes, it seems to screw you, unless you happen to be one of those lucky souls that happen to live in the twenty year periods of bliss that certain industrial countries happen to have at times, but that’s the luck of the draw.

    Renting and a tax deferred savings vehicle seems to be a better way to have a secure future than pouring all of your money into a thing just so you can say you’re a homeowner.


  • Of course though if you have the flexibility to move where the jobs are, what do kids do about school? I did the move every five years thing when I was a kid, it was a bit hard, but maybe if that was the norm it wouldn’t be, but for now what do we do about that?

  • Taking the step of doing a lot of biking in L.A. is certainly something that works much better for young men and young women without kids than any other demographic. It’s not the solution for everyone in every situation.

    Buses work much better for people who live close to bus lines that have service more than once every hour. And being able to take the bus in the rain is nice, but that doesn’t say antyhing about the 1-mile problem most people have.

    I think painting this as a black-and-white issue is a waste of time. How can someone support bike infrastructure instead of bus and call themselves a liveable streets advocate? How can someone be fond of single family homes and big dogs and still call themselves a liveable streets advocate? How can someone advocate subway when more buses would provide more expanded service for the same cost? BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE TO PICK A SIDE ON THESE ISSUES. We need pieces of each of these partial solutions to construct a whole one.

    So yes, I am for bikes, for buses, for trains, for kids and dogs and yards, and no, I don’t think everyone should just move to downtown L.A.. The best solution is whatever works for your situation. For people in an urban environment, taking the bus and renting might work best. For those already living in suburbia, how about biking to a bus station a couple of times a week, and having your spouse use the car to get your kids to school, or having a family carpool? Heck, I grew up in suburban east-county san diego, and my family carpooled with another family whose kids went to the same school, and that was in the late 80’s. These solutions aren’t new. People will find what works for them economically.

    As for home ownership: Browne I definitely see your point that owning a place can “tie down” some people. But for many people I bet they’d tell you they’d much rather have the stability of a home with a fixed-rate mortgage (a home they can afford, of course) than variable rent. It just depends on the people. Some would love to rent and be more flexible, others want to start a family and thus will likely own.

    My wife and I have a condo, and are hoping to start a family within the next couple of years. We also have a dog who we take out for brief walks 3-4 times every day. We would love to find a small single family home that’s a bit bigger than our condo for the sake of having a family and has a yard for the sake of our dog. If we want 2 kids and a dog, there are very few options available to us in the renting world. We need to get a single-family home.

    Now, that doesn’t mean we have to move to Ventura county or Riverside. . . we are trying to find places near where we are now in Sherman Oaks or in North Hollywood so we can stay near walkable areas. It’s hard, but possible.

  • David you have to understand that being part of any environmental, eco, hippie, leftist type movement involves self-righteousness “I’m more hard core than you” rhetoric…it’s annoying, but we all do it, I have no idea why…I do laugh about it in my head often though.

  • End of ex-urbia? I think so:,0,3172400.story

    “Suburban” los angeles has a chance to survive, but true suburbia (on the outskirts of metropolitan L.A. is headed for a long slide into obscurity and lawlessness.



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