Maybe home ownership's not for everyone

Commentator David Frum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

SCOTT JAGOW: The problems in the subprime mortgage market have raised an interesting question: Is owning a home really the right thing for everybody? Commentator David Frum believes it might not be.


DAVID FRUM: The fact that almost 70 percent of American adults now own their own home is hailed as a great social achievement.

But the achievement came at a price. Encouraged and subsidized by government, mortgage lenders loosened their lending standards to spread home ownership so widely.

These loose standards now threaten the whole American financial system, but they also do harm to low-income borrowers.

If a low-income person rents, he or she can easily move to find a better job. Just give your landlord notice, pack up your clothes and off you go. But selling a house is expensive and time-consuming, so you are more likely to stay put and hope for the best.

A renter can predict what an apartment will cost. A homeowner risks unexpected expenses if the boiler blows or the roof leaks.

If renters fall behind on the rent, they're evicted. When homeowners fall behind on mortgage payments, they lose all their equity in foreclosure.

If we're going to subsidize saving and investment for lower-income people, does it really make sense to encourage them to save and invest in the least liquid and most risky possible way?

In the 1990s, President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich nearly reached a deal on a program to direct subsidies instead to low-income people who save for their own retirement in special retirement accounts. The idea was eventually dismissed as too costly.

But what if some of the federal money currently spent to promote low-income home ownership were redirected to promote low-income saving instead?

Maybe we should also question the great American home ownership ideal for middle-class people as well.

We often complain that Americans save less than almost any other people on earth. But most of us think we're saving when we buy the biggest house we can afford with our federally-subsidized mortgages.

Why put away a crummy $100 a week when the miracle of leverage can double your home equity? It looks like all of us are about to get a very sharp answer to that last question, administered the old-fashioned way: very, very painfully.

JAGOW: David Frum is a former speechwriter for President Bush and now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Share your thoughts with us.

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