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Housing recovery: Good for would-be homeowners?

Rows of homes stand at a housing development on March 6, 2013 in Mesa, Ariz.

The Federal Reserve's bond and mortgage purchases have kept long-term interest rates low, but they haven't done what the Fed intended -- which was to help would-be home buyers get affordable mortgages.

Instead, they've fueled a new round of speculation by investors and real estate developers. And that's meant a new generation of Americans has become renters rather than owners.
   
Yes, home sales and prices have been rising, which in turn has created lot of construction jobs and made some home-owners feel a bit wealthier. All good for the economy, at least for now.

But the housing market hasn't turned around because banks are issuing lots of new mortgages. Lending standards are still tight, and banks are reluctant to lend -- especially to younger. Unemployment remains high among millennials -- more than 8 percent even for recent college graduates. And their student debts keep mounting. As a result, the number of first-time home buyers is still shrinking, and young buyers now make up their smallest share of the housing market in more than a decade.

The rise in home prices and construction is being fueled instead by big investors -- many of whom are paying cash and have no intention of living in the homes they buy or build. They're getting a high return on investment by borrowing at rock-bottom rates and then turning the properties into rental units, which young individuals and families are moving into in record numbers.

Last month, a Pew Research Center survey found that the share of millennials who own their homes has fallen from 40 percent to 34 percent since the start of the recession, with a similar decline in residential debt.

Overall, the percent of Americans owning their homes continues to drop, while the percent renting is growing.

The housing market may be bouncing back, but not homeownership. And that's a big change for an economy and society once based on the ideal of owning your own place.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

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