Thanks to commenter Fred who pointed me to this oldie but goodie from Holman Jenkins:

A wisp of memory came to mind last week. Then-Fannie Mae chief Franklin Raines visited The Journal years ago and entertained himself by mocking editorial writers who assume that establishing that a policy is economically inefficient is enough to establish that it's unwise.

He yukked it up quite a bit, in fact, noting that voters are perfectly entitled to assert values other than those of the market, namely that homeownership is a social blessing and should be encouraged with subsidies. And so we've done with tax subsidies, lending subsidies and a concerted set of policies by Bill Clinton's HUD to move low-income people out of rental units and into homes they own. His goal, which was achieved, was to lift the homeownership rate from 64.2% to 67.5% of households.

But a home financed by a mortgage is not just an asset. It's also a liability. We owe thanks to Carolina Katz Reid, then a graduate student at University of Washington, for a 2004 study of what she dubbed the "low income homeownership boom." She considered a simple question -- "whether or not low-income households benefit from owning a home." Her discoveries are bracing:

Of low-income households from a nationally representative sample who became homeowners between 1977 and 1993, fully 36% returned to renting in two years, and 53% in five years. Suggesting their sojourn among the homeowning was not a happy one, few returned to homeownership in later years.

Even among those who held on to their homes for 10 years, the average price-appreciation gain was 30% -- less than if their money had been invested in Treasury bills. This meager capital gain was about half that enjoyed by middle-income homeowners.

A typical low-income household might spend half the family income on mortgage costs, leaving less money for a rainy day or investing in education. Their less-marketable homes apparently also tended to tie them down, making them less likely to relocate for a job. Ms. Reid's counterintuitive discovery was that higher-income households were "twice as likely to move long distance if they're unemployed."

Almost needless to add, the great squarer of circles for middle-income homeowners, the mortgage-interest deduction, won't turn a house into a paying proposition for those with little income to shelter.

Bottom line: Homeownership likely has had an exceedingly poor payoff for millions of low-income purchasers, perhaps even blighting the prospects of what might otherwise be upwardly mobile families.

America cherishes a national delusion that homeownership is the secret route to wealth and prosperity. Yes, housing has performed very well over the last few decades, but a lot of that increase stems from a serious of idiosyncratic factors that will not be repeated:

  • The rise of the long term amortizing mortgage after World War II, which pegged prices to monthly incomes
  • The long fall in nominal interest rates after Paul Volcker got serious about inflation
  • The increase in the value of the mortgage income tax deduction
  • Ever-rising demand from the baby boomers as they move through their life cycle--a trend that is about to halt, if not reverse

Nonetheless, I still see finance gurus urging everyone to buy a house, ASAP! Homeownership may be a fine idea, but the flexibility of renting has its advantages too; neither solution is right for everyone.

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