New Yorker economics writer James Surowiecki:
Americans may disagree about nearly everything, but few contest the idea that owning your home is a good thing. ...
To recover from recession, economies need prices to fall until they reflect genuine supply and demand. With certain kinds of assets, like stocks, these adjustments take place quickly, sometimes viciously so. Buying and selling houses, though, is a far slower process. The good thing about this is that housing prices never suffer crashes on the scale that you sometimes see in the stock market. The bad thing is that it can take a long time for housing prices to reflect reality. Homeowners, as economists have shown, tend to remain unreasonably optimistic about the value of their homes, and they hate to drop their asking price. As a result, existing-home sales in the U.S. are now at a nine-year low.
Homeownership also impedes the economy’s readjustment by tying people down. From a social point of view, it’s beneficial that homeownership encourages commitment to a given town or city. But, from an economic point of view, it’s good for people to be able to leave places where there’s less work and move to places where there’s more. Homeowners are much less likely to move than renters, especially during a downturn, when they aren’t willing (or can’t afford) to sell at market prices. As a result, they often stay in towns even after the jobs leave. And reluctance to move not only keeps unemployment high in struggling areas but makes it hard for businesses elsewhere to attract the workers they need to grow.
This doesn’t mean that the U.S. should become a nation of renters—even if both New York City and Switzerland show that high rates of renting are compatible with great prosperity. With the bursting of the housing bubble, though, it’s time not just to scrutinize the excesses of our home-buying process but to recognize the risks and costs inherent in owning a home. Sometimes the price—for the home buyer and for the economy as a whole—is too high to pay.
Housing tenure is not a given. It is associated with particular modes of production. Homeownership was a critical cog in the fordist economy - stimulating purchases of everything from cars and washing machines, spurring the large-scale development of infrastructure. But it is a significant institutional impediment to the flexibility, adjustment and mobility the creative economy requires. NYC and London will derive even greater benefits over time from high rates of renters. My hunch, which I outline in Who's Your City and Atlantic writer Matt YgIesias picks up on, is that sooner or later housing tenure types will adjust.