The Trouble With Mass Homeownership
When Emiliano Zapata led poor peasants into revolt during the Mexican Revolution, one of the group’s first demands was for land reform—for the principles of “Tierra y libertad!” In Russia, workers rose up in the July days of 1917 under the Bolshevik slogan, “Peace, land, and bread.” And by century’s end, the pursuit of land and freedom had lost little momentum: the victorious African National Congress in South Africa had as one of its central goals the aim of redistributing land and addressing the history of unequal ownership. For most revolutions in the twentieth century, mass participation began in part because of peoples’ powerful desire for land ownership and security of tenure.
The link between land ownership and security made considerable sense in the agrarian context. In the twentieth century, however, cities began growing at an unprecedented pace and scale: by 1920, the majority of Americans lived in cities, by 1950, so did most of Western Europe (minus Portugal and Ireland), by 1970 most of Latin America, and by 2007, the majority of the world. While farmers required long-term tenure, in cities, the opposite was often true: mobility could open up more and better-paid employment opportunities, while property ownership could lock workers into consuming larger or smaller houses than they needed. Property ownership also often entailed debt: few homeowners purchased their property outright. Yet the ideal of mass homeownership grew in popularity even as more and more people moved to cities. What was once a cry for land and freedom became a cry for homeownership.
This reworking of a property ideal to a homeownership ideal had unsavory consequences: people confused mortgage debt for security of tenure, and they elevated homeownership to a set status above rental housing despite the far greater investment exposure to risk of the former. It was better, people believed, to own your own home. Homeowners had greater security of tenure. Homeowners had recognized and accepted property rights. These ideological patterns continue today: equal access to housing is often measured in comparative rates of homeownership across race, gender, and so on; homeownership rates become a shorthand for talking about wealth and class mobility. At the global level, the Inter-American Development Bank bemoaned the fact that over “half of the families in 41 of Latin America’s biggest cities cannot afford to buy a proper formal dwelling using their own means” in a survey report of 2012. The African Development Bank last year approved a loan to Ghana in order to develop a more affordable mortgage finance system, and another World Bank report observed, “Homeownership may increase stability and civic engagement, and provide financial security in old age.”
It is true that particular forms of homeownership can bring economic advantages including improved credit and tax incentives. But not all homeownership is the same—a point understood well by experts and knowledgeable consumers but obscured in public discussions that associate rising homeownership rates with improved economic circumstances. This confusion is not accidental. In the U.S., the federal government has a long history of promoting homeownership. And since at least the late 1940s, governments and social scientists have often conflated the virtues of fee-simple with debt-driven mass housing in public forums at the global level. State promotion of homeownership began in earnest during the Cold War, when the U.S. urged governments around the world to adopt housing policies that would yield greater political quiescence at home and abroad. In Taiwan in the 1950s, for instance, U.S. technical assistance experts discovered that mortgage loans in the port cities of Keelung and Kaohsiung quelled political dissent, neutralized labor activism, and drastically reduced petty theft by laborers. By the 1960s, countries in Latin America debated how best to grow a domestic middle class via homeownership programs, and newly independent states in Southeast Asia used homeownership to break apart older political allegiances and to build up their own legitimacy. By the end of the twentieth century, governments around the world had bought into the idea that homeownership made people less likely to riot, to damage property, or to organize as laborers.
Today governments continue to make use of this sort of rhetoric, arguing for instance in Greater Manila that the clearance and relocation of poorer urban residents is acceptable because these families are becoming homeowners—albeit of homes nobody wants on the far periphery of the city. The effort to expand the formal land market also rides on the false assumption, long discredited by social scientists, that title is inherently valuable.
This conflation of property ownership with economic security must stop. In the U.S., homeownership deepened and continues to fuel the divide between a small elite who understand how to maximize investments and take advantage of mortgage interest deductions (even following 2017 changes to the federal tax law), and the majority who do not, as made plain by the foreclosure crisis of a decade ago. Homeownership continues to reinforce racialized housing markets that produce unequal housing investments. And homeownership provides a language and ethos of entitlement that ignores histories of discrimination and violence.