I am Alex’s liver.

I’ve always thought Richard Florida was one pound of good ideas in a five pound bag, able to provide fodder for a lively civic discussion but mostly a lot of empty space. The whole Cool Cities thing, which Florida milked like it was the last cow on earth, only the cow actually dispensed liquid gold, and it sort of did — got a lot of people talking (a good thing), but otherwise meh.

So it was with a less than enthusiastic attitude that I read his thoughts in the Atlantic Monthly on “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” and found he’s still not impressing me all that much. And then I got to this passage:

So how do we move past the bubble, the crash, and an aging, obsolescent model of economic life? What’s the right spatial fix for the economy today, and how do we achieve it? The solution begins with the removal of homeownership from its long-privileged place at the center of the U.S. economy. Substantial incentives for homeownership (from tax breaks to artificially low mortgage-interest rates) distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would. That means less spending on medical technology, or software, or alternative energy—the sectors and products that could drive U.S. growth and exports in the coming years. Artificial demand for bigger houses also skews residential patterns, leading to excessive low-density suburban growth. The measures that prop up this demand should be eliminated.

If anything, our government policies should encourage renting, not buying. Homeownership occupies a central place in the American Dream primarily because decades of policy have put it there. A recent study by Grace Wong, an economist at the Wharton School of Business, shows that, controlling for income and demographics, homeowners are no happier than renters, nor do they report lower levels of stress or higher levels of self-esteem.

And while homeownership has some social benefits—a higher level of civic engagement is one—it is costly to the economy. … Too often, it ties people to declining or blighted locations, and forces them into work—if they can find it—that is a poor match for their interests and abilities.

As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly.

I’ve been reading this more and more of late, usually written by someone who resides in New York, San Francisco or some other area where real estate is vastly expensive and it’s not at all uncommon for people, even those with upper-middle-class incomes, to rent their whole lives. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a crack about George Bailey, the sap, and quotes from his lecture to Mr. Potter: Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so…

Since nobody else seems to be saying it, let me be a voice in the wilderness and say it now: While homeownership is not an unalloyed good across the board, it is by far something that’s more good than bad, and I’ve lived in the neighborhoods that prove it. Richard Florida teaches at George Mason University now, but he used to be at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, and you’d think he’d know better. It’s hard to know how much of Florida’s shtick is bomb-throwing, but you suspect he’s being deliberately provocative when he spews some of this crap — that the government should encourage renting, not owning, and that an unanchored labor force is better for the economy than a homeowning, lawn-mowing one. (That part about happiness and self-esteem is simply solid-gold bullshit, so I have to think he knows what he’s doing.)

Take it from a resident of some fairly crappy neighborhoods: When, as a homeowner, you hear that the place across the street, having failed to sell after 18 months on the market, is now going to be rented, you do not say to yourself, “Oh, good — some nimble knowledge workers of the new economy are coming to the neighborhood!” You say, “Swell. Another bunch of people who will park their cars on the lawn, fail to tuck the curtain inside the tub during their showers and never be home on trick-or-treat night.”

Why is this even being debated? Homeowners have a stake in the local schools, raise hell about local crime, start neighborhood watch patrols and care intensely about their neighbors, even if it is only because it affects their own property values. It hardly counts against them. They’re also more likely to do that other economy-goosing activity: Have children. Frankly, an economy that requires me to uproot my family every three years for another rented townhouse doesn’t sound like an improvement, even over the current unpleasantness.

The problems attached to the current housing market came about because lending standards fell so far that the policy no longer encouraged responsibility, but irresponsibility. For most of the decades since the government started encouraging home-buying, through tax policy mainly, it has worked splendidly to improve communities and build wealth. Can we stop having this discussion?

Maybe some of you are wondering about today’s headline. Good thing you stuck this far:

I was in Fort Wayne this weekend, so Kate could see her buddies and I could do likewise. Friday I met Alex at Henry’s, my old local, after work. Alex drinks Jack Daniel’s on the rocks, and I was reminded of one of his odd habits — he folds the cocktail straw into a triangle and saves them:

Two going on three

And then what does he do? He has a storage system:

When he fills it up, he can trade it for a new liver.

When it’s full, he can trade them in for a new liver.

And so we greet Monday, and a new week. Let an old post from Coozledad guide your actions this week: How to catch a bull.

Posted at 1:13 am in Current events, Same ol' same ol' |
 

52 responses to “I am Alex’s liver.”

  1. mark said on February 23, 2009 at 1:52 am

    Nice post. I agree with one exception. I’d put a cap on the mortgage deduction. Anybody who can pay more than, say, 35,000 a year in interest doesn’t need a public subsidy for amounts above.

    Hope you enjoyed Henry’s.

  2. Colleen said on February 23, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Interesting point. Yes, if renters are so swell, then why did my ‘hood assn change the covenants to disallow them? There is one rental on our block, and I bet you can tell which one it is when you drive by. The one with the peeling paint and the car that hasn’t moved …since I can remember when….in the driveway. I think renting in a vibrant, happenin’ place is a way different story than renting in your average rust belt city…

  3. beb said on February 23, 2009 at 7:56 am

    I was going to say the same as Mark. A cap – a generous cap – on the mortgage deduction seems like a good idea to discourage people buying more house than they need or can afford.

    Then again I’m reminded of comments by Hilzoy at Washingtonmonthly.com that “means testing” often ends up being intrusive and requires a lot more government employees to manage than just letting everyone have the benefit. (This was response to talk about the homeowner bailout Obama was proposing. Chronic tightwads were upset that someone might get away with something they didn’t deserve. Thus they wanted extensive means testing to limit who gets bailed out.)

    Homeowners take care of their houses because they want it to be worth something. Landlords don’t take care of their rental properties because that cuts into their profits.

    And while Nancy didn’t mention it, the predicted 5-8 inches of snow only became around 3. So it was better weekend than it could have been.

  4. coozledad said on February 23, 2009 at 8:19 am

    I was saving up our wine corks as fuel for home heating, but they started making them out of HDPE or something. The bug-juice warehouse where we buy it now is going to start carrying an estate grown organic wine in boxes.I’m going to ask them if they have a backpack model.

  5. whitebeard said on February 23, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Having owned houses in Montreal and now Connecticut for a fixed location from which to sally forth to work is the greatest thing since sliced bread and bottled milk. But then again I stayed on my last job for 23 years and still write freelance there, so I am not the wandering kind.
    So, Florida’s theory is that we should do more renting and enrich fat, greedy, selfish, heartless, evil Republican landlords and be a mobile work force, going where the crops need cutting and the bricks need mortaring.
    The only reason the whole home ownership gig got out of hand was that fat, greedy, selfish, heartless, evil Republican bankers preyed on gullible people by telling them that home values would always increase.
    And need I mention those fat, greedy, selfish, heartless, evil Republican broadcasters and writers who perpetually tell us it’s our fault for wanting too much.

  6. BigHank53 said on February 23, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Where I live, there’s a lot of older houseing stock that’s tiny: less than a thousand square feet. I’ve seen a couple places under five hundred square feet. As you might imagine, they’re not terribly expensive since they’re impractical for family use. Single folks, retirees, childless couples seem to like them just fine.

    Nobody’s building places like that anymore. A house needs to be ~1500 square feet to qualify for an FHA construction mortgage. And there’s lot of other parties that like a larger house, too: the builder can charge more for a big house than a small house on the same lot, the town can assess a higher value and collect more tax, the real estate agent collects a higher percentage, and a bigger loan brings more interest income into the bank.

    Making sure you don’t wind up on the street? Somebody else’s problem.

  7. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 23, 2009 at 9:03 am

    Houston, Tranquility Base here. Consensus has landed.

    (Caveat: Whitebeard, you might want to check who Madoff and Mozilo and Stanford donated to. Just for starters, and that’s a pretty good start. It wasn’t Republicans. Perhaps “fat, greedy, selfish, heartless, evil Republican bankers” is an overreach, no?)

    Conservatives completely agree that making labor/workers into a purely mobile, rootless, uninvested in any one location cohort is bad for society, dangerously bad. Beb is right about means testing, in both my opinion and actual experience, which is why i’m hesitant about applying it to SocSec/Medicare, even though there really ought to be a way. If the homeowner bailout requires means testing, then it should be completely restructured to come at it from a different angle — like a mortgage deduction cap, which takes the means testing and builds it right into the immediacy of the provision. A mortgage deduction cap would have to be reviewed from time to time, but ONLY makes sense to anyone who looks at this issue, and should right across the aisle.

    The problem is that the lobbying pressure is equally hard across the aisle (see “Friends of Angelo”), and Congress tends to cave whenever it comes up — i hope Obama tries to push it through again. But Florida really is getting quite obvious in his cluelessness. Second the blogmistress: we’re here in this mess “because lending standards fell so far that the policy no longer encouraged responsibility, but irresponsibility. For most of the decades since the government started encouraging home-buying, through tax policy mainly, it has worked splendidly to improve communities and build wealth. Can we stop having this discussion?”

    You’ve really got to be even more detached from everyday life for average Americans, than even your average member of Congress is, to think that emphasizing renting over homeownership is a good idea.

  8. Linda said on February 23, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Beb:
    “Means testing” is also a way to make sure less people get a benefit. You can ratchet up the hurdles until only the most persistent–or, ironically, the most skilled and determined fraud–will go after them.

    I wish I could find the Toledo City Paper article directly rebutting Florida’s “cool cities” ideas. Basically, it said that high employment cities did not come out of coolness, but by having a skilled, cheap workforce that employers flocked to. But if those same employers found a skilled, even cheaper workforce somewhere else, THAT place became full of clubs,coffee houses and coolness, because employers relocated there. Duh.

    Home ownership is not a big deal among the young upper class. Most of their wealth–if they have any at that young age–is in stocks and other investments, and they have nothing to lose if their neighborhood goes to hell. They just leave. Among the working class and poor, home ownership is an anchor, for themselves and their immediate environment. But Florida is sucking up to the former, not the latter, so what does he care?

  9. Julie Robinson said on February 23, 2009 at 9:18 am

    The Silicon Valley area is another area that refutes Florida’s premises. Friends lived there for 5 years and found that few were interested in anything outside work. They didn’t go to funky coffehouses or cutting edge performances, much less own homes or build up the community. They were there to work 24/7 and build up their bank balance. They didn’t plan on sticking around more than a few years, so why care about the community? Friends, schools, church, local government or the arts were outside their narrow scope. A sad place to live, which is why they left.

  10. JenFlex said on February 23, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Mark and Beb beat me to the punch on the unlimited deductions…I actually thought Florida had a point that the “American Dream” has been extended to a degree which is unsustainable and unhealthy.

    To me, it also seems like there is a parallel between homeownership and health care which is going to require a fairly contentious and emotional discussion, and that is how much (home/health care) is “enough” from the standpoint of being what we should as a society afford one another as citizens (and therefore subsidize).

  11. del said on February 23, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Whitebeard’s right to mention rental stock property. It’s an issue of importance. Renting and flipping are both big business. Other countries seem to handle things differently. Someone once told me that in Italy if one owns and rents out a second home the renter’s legal rights nearly supersede the landlord’s (sounded like the renter would have something like a life estate).
    Jeff, I was about to agree with Whitebeard about characterizing the landlords as greedy Repbublicans as a neighbor had come to mind. He stopped working in his 40’s and now just rents houses in Detroit. He had 2 McCain lawn signs and drives a Hummer. Yea. But then I remembered another neighbor who also rents houses in Detroit (though she still works), and she’s a democrat who drives a Smart car. So perhaps it’s a wash. But the Republican’s just so much more . . . conspicuous.
    As for the political contributions by Madoff, and Mozilo, that’s a little different. As a con man Madoff’s political contributions might have been measured to impress his marks. Bet he was on the boards of several foundations and charities. Mozilo might be inclined to contribute to whoever wields the power.
    Here in the Detroit area a prominent Republican developer (of trailer parks) after whom several public facilities are named and who just donated half a million dollars to the public high school, donates the maximum allowable sums (as does his spouse) to both political parties as a business strategy.

  12. Randy said on February 23, 2009 at 9:45 am

    My city (Winnipeg), like so many others, just keeps sprawling out, creating the donut hole downtown. I’ve had well-intentioned friends move into some inner-city neighborhoods, only to be running away a few years later after too many break-ins or car thefts. The sad part is these neighborhood could easily turn around with a few incentives. We could even avoid gentrification and get a good mix if we had some incentives to move in and fix up a place.

    The recession’s impact here is still developing, but we’ve seen a big slowdown in sprawl this year. Someone on a call-in show said if you want people to slow down and be nicer to the environment, don’t preach to them, just put them into a recession, and they’ll do it out of necessity. Makes sense, until the recessions ends.

  13. del said on February 23, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Interesting that sprawl is declining in this economy in Winnipeg and elsewhere. I just read a book about the new urbanism called “Suburban Nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream.” Great read. The main point was that neighborhoods of modest urban-density with mixed housing stock are the best places to live. Just say no to gated-communities and homogeneous planned housing developments a short drive away from Walmart. Neighborhoods should be pedestrian and public transportation friendly. Maybe there’s a silver lining to this economy if it serves to renew our communities.

  14. James said on February 23, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Jeff:

    “…you might want to check who Madoff and Mozilo and Stanford donated to. Just for starters, and that’s a pretty good start. It wasn’t Republicans.”

    Uh… yeah, well, actually it was. In fact it was both parties.

    Con men always play the averages…

  15. LA Mary said on February 23, 2009 at 11:01 am

    Until I bought my current home, I was a renter. In NYC there was no other way, and when the ex and I first moved to LA, we didn’t have any cash. Also, we figured we were short timers. We rented two different houses in three years. Both landlords were unreachable if there was a problem, and both put the houses on the market within six months of our moving in. Luckily, we learned enough about our rights as tenants from the crap we went through with the first one to fend off the crap of the second, but it was no fun.
    Maybe a fifth of the houses on my block are rentals, and I have to say, you can’t tell the renters from the owners. They’re good tenants. This was not always the case, but that was not the tenants’ fault. We had one guy who owned a half dozen rental houses, and he was a terrible landlord. He didn’t maintain buildings so he got bad tenants. He died. The estate sold off the properties, and things improved dramatically.

  16. Sue said on February 23, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Does anyone have any doubt that, should we become a renter nation, it will because someone passed legislation providing “incentives” to landlords which will somehow turn into someone’s cash cow? Just seems to be the process lately, that’s all.

  17. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 23, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Love the over/under. Should have said “it wasn’t ONLY Republicans,” but with 75-80% Dem and 15-25% Rep split, i think my point holds — “fat yadayada Republican bankers” doesn’t hold up.

    Anyhow, i’m hoping Obama gets his deal worked out where the payroll tax goes on past where it now stops, at what, $240,000? Crazy. But if he even mentions cutting any entitlements, Dem leadership won’t even let him bring it to the table. I hope he wrangles out a deal on that one, because this Chevy driving Repug thinks payroll taxes ought to go right up to whatever you make (yes, fellow GOPers, i know the arguments against it, but it just doesn’t work in this economy).

    On the housing plan — people come to our agency, a housing/homelessness non-profit mainly doing transitional housing, on a regular basis who walk away fuming. They’re in a home or rental, and they’re heading up against it, and we have some funds for preventing homelessness, which is much cheaper than dealing with homelessness having already occurred. Our service coordinator talks them through intake, and then tells them—well, it gets repeated as “they said i don’t make enough for them to help me!”

    What we say is, when your income, current and projected (and we try to be reasonable but hopeful, not including lottery tickets) means that your current housing costs will put you back where you are in a couple of months *even if we pay every back debt you have* today, then we can’t help you. Your situation is unsustainable, and you need to make a change, which we will help you with.

    That’s answered with “but i’ve raised my babies in this place” or “i’ll never find a place as nice/big/adequate for what we pay (and they aren’t paying)” which is all true. But if you have $1,000 coming in and $750 a month is your total housing cost, you, um, don’t make enough for us to help you.

    What i’m hearing about the housing part of the stimulosity plan is a certain willful tone-deafness about this very factor. They toss around 9 million facing impending foreclosure, and i’m sure that’s true. But i doubt most of those would make it past our screening policies — most of which are rooted in HUD/federal mandates for our primary grants. So how many of the 9 million can/should qualify for some form of federal assistance if in a couple years you are guaranteed to be right where you are, *even if we pay every back debt you have* today.

    I’m guessing, based on my experience here in central Ohio, that vanishingly few of these 9 million will make it past the sustainability hurdle. So what’s the point of the plan, other than bank bailout by indirect means? Which may be the real point after all.

    Sorry i get so long-winded, it’s when i’m waiting for a callback before we can determine whether to file charges. Fifteen more minutes, and some blue paper goes out our other door, and off to another unhappy family. And i sit here and scribble, scribble, scribble. . .

  18. Sue said on February 23, 2009 at 11:28 am

    MMJeff: “Your situation is unsustainable, and you need to make a change, which we will help you with.” So, how do you help them, those who have to leave a home because 750 of their 1000 is going to housing costs and that’s not sustainable? What are the options for these people? By the time they come to you, are you the last resort?

  19. brian stouder said on February 23, 2009 at 11:33 am

    If I have to pay and pay and pay in any case, then of course I’d rather build equity. Even if the value of the house falls to zero (and how many do that?), if I eventually own it then that beats making payments forever.

    Here’s an Oscar article I thought was oddly disjointed

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29337814/

    It’s headlined “Hugh Jackman gives his all” – and it (rightly) praises his perfomance, but then midway through it transitions into a pan job.

    And for my money (so to speak), the reviewer missed the best moment (which, come to think of it, would be equally panworthy or praiseworthy), which was when Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman came out….and Stiller was in full Joaquin Phoenix mode; very funny, but also cringe-inducing…

  20. Jolene said on February 23, 2009 at 11:42 am

    The question of eligibility and whether Obama’s mortgage modification program will really help anyone is a serious one, Jeff. The already existing programs that I’ve read about have very high failure rates, but there’s some empirical evidence as to what works. In particular, programs that reduce payments going forward are more successful than programs that suspend payments temporarily on the theory that homeowners will catch up w/ other bills and be OK thereafter.

    The Obama programs take the former approach, so that’s encouraging. Although I’m not fully in control of the details, I understand that, for one part of the program, homeowners can’t be more than 5% underwater. In other words, they are ruling out people whose home loans and home values are totally out of whack.

  21. Peter said on February 23, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Sorry to be coming in late to this discussion – being an architect and all, I would normally have self interests in renting vs. ownership, although I only work on commercial projects. That being said:

    1. There allready is an unintentional type of cap on mortgage interest payments – that’s why you her so many GOP’s and suburban New Yorkers bitch to no end about the alternative minimum tax. If you are able to take huge deductions on mortgage and property taxes, you’ll find that you will need to pay more to the alternative tax penalty.

    2. “artifically low mortgage rates”? Did I miss something? Sure, the Fed sets the prime, etc., but they didn’t set it low just for shits and giggles, and they certainly didn’t just to have low mortgages.

    3. House sizes – I could go all day on this one. The one poster is right about FHA loans only for 1500 sf houses or larger; but did you know that Habitat for Humanity’s homes in the US start at 1375 sf? That’s bigger than my house, and I’m sure it’s bigger than most of yours. I’m not doing the floor rant that was on last week; it’s just a sad reflection of how we’ve supersized everything.

  22. Jolene said on February 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    Speaking of commercial real estate, Gov. Schwarzenegger said on This Week yesterday that there is “another shoe to drop”, which is the possibility of foreclosures on commercial buildings. As he observed, with business downturns, commercial tenants may fold, and the owner will eventually be unable to pay the mortgage. Charming prospect.

  23. Jeff Borden said on February 23, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    LA Mary,

    You are blessed to live in a city where there is no snow or you’d certainly be able to quickly determine who is renting and who is owning on your block. On our modest block in Chicago, the owners are out as soon as the snow stops falling or they return from work, whichever comes first, shoveling their steps and sidewalks. Sidewalks in front of poorly-managed rental properties –it is the responsibility of the owner, not the tenant, to address snow removal– tend to build up with snow, slush, ice, etc. There are several between my house and the L stop and they become more treacherous as the winter wears on.

    The renters themselves are charming folks, by and large, but they see no need to be good neighbors on issues like snow removal, leaf raking, etc. I can’t really blame them. They are paying good money for a decent place to live and should expect their landlord take care of the building and its environs.

  24. del said on February 23, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Agreed Jeff B. But though snow removal is a safety measure, it’s also a bit like lawn care in that it’s driven by aesthetics and social pressure to conform. Renters who blow off a light snowfall don’t feel as compelled to keep up with the Joneses as they’ll be movin’ on soon anyway and won’t have to worry about Mrs. Kravitz’ complaints. Disclaimer: I consider myself “relaxed” about such matters — though I did shovel our porch steps today (but not the whole walk).

  25. jeff borden said on February 23, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Del,
    My house sits on a typical Chicago lot –25-feet wide and 150-feet deep– so I don’t have much to shovel. And my lawn is roughly 4-feet by 20-feet, if that, and we mostly plant impatients, because grass just won’t grow there. Even hastas battle to survive in front of my house, thanks to the enormous root system of the Chinese elm between the sidewalk and the street.

    We’re also fairly laissez-faire in our attitudes, but there are enough elderly neighbors around to shame me into assuring that if they take a tumble on the snow or ice, it won’t be in front of my house. I’d feel awful if something like that occurred.

  26. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 23, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Peter — huh? Having recently walked through a few of our Licking County, Ohio Habitat for Humanity houses, let me say that may be a set of designs up on HFHI’s website, but most of the affiliates out here in da world are building a very familiar, very standard 1,100 sq ft shotgun shack on steroids with a nice front porch.

    Sue, we have a database (see http://www.lcchousing.org ) that allows us to help people find a more sustainable place, but the initial reaction is “i won’t live in that neighborhood” or “that’s too far away from my friends” or other semi-reasonable responses. Not infrequently, folks leave angrily (“how stupid is that – i don’t make enough for you to help me?”) and a week or two later call back and say “can we come in and look at that list again?”

    What we hate is when they leave indignant, end up a few months later with an eviction on their record, which puts major limits on what all we can do for/with them, and they’re still needing help. Our staff works hard at the sweetness and light, and chewing out people for being selfish or stupid doesn’t happen here, but sometimes in the lunchbreak room, the conversations are searing.

    BUT — We got notice that our HUD grant for 2009-2010 came through, so this is one happy board pres!!!! I’m so happy y’all can say anything you want about Republicans as a class, group, or demonspawn genera, and i won’t even say a word. Have at us . . .

    (Re: HUD joy –we aren’t a major metro area like Columbus or Cleveland, so after Ohio’s eight biggies get their share, the rest of us are on what’s called the “Balance of State” application, where we’re the largest of twenty other groups all in the BoS, some of which, um, bring down the grant score numbers with whackdoodle application stupidity, so this is a major sweat-bullets thing every two years – used to be 3 – because we can have our ducks in an awesome tidy row and still get pulled down in the overall scoring and allocation.)

  27. Dexter said on February 23, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    For once I’m busy…but don’t forget to go to Eastern Market at sun-up for our Paczkis!

  28. Jason T. said on February 23, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    A-MF’ING-MEN, Nance. TESTIFY.

    Rental properties are DESTROYING many neighborhoods around these parts.

    Property values are low in the Pittsburgh area, which is a mixed blessing … we didn’t have the real-estate boom (and resulting crash) but houses are so cheap that many end up as rentals. We have neighborhoods approaching 75 percent rental.

    College students, people who have been thrown out of public housing, transients, take your pick — some of them are crummy tenants.

    Others are the victims of crummy landlords who bleed their tenants and let their properties fall apart.

    Give those same tenants ownership of homes, and they get a lot more interested in building a community.

  29. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 23, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    And a totally non-partisan point: thanks James, for the links, that’s the easiest searchable database for contributions i’ve used.

    When i look at an entry like this one and scroll back ten years, you have to ask – what was he doing?
    http://www.newsmeat.com/fec/bystate_detail.php?city=Greenwich&st=CT&last=Fuld&first=Richard

    You can’t even see a pattern to “trying to keep both sides” obligated and indebted. It’s just sloppy and incoherent behavior, a “Master of the Universe” tipping the help as the urge and opportunity struck him.

    Semi-partisan: Obama gave an awesome speech on the upcoming budget this morning i just watched on MSNBC.com, and if he means half of it, and does a quarter of it, i’m likely to vote for him in 2012 (by which time my dad will probably be bothered by something or another and will vote the other way, darn it).

  30. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 23, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Peter, had to go back and check the http://www.habitat.org site, and yes, they still say and show the basic design (top pic on this page) at just on or over 1,000 sq feet — http://www.habitat.org/how/naexamples.aspx

    Have no idea where your data came from, but i’ve laid block and mixed mud for enough Habitat houses to say my data is accurate to the millimeter, or should i say to the lost fingernail. I’ve never see a bigger Habitat house built, which isn’t to say that we haven’t somewhere — it could be that the standard they’re building in New Orleans is larger because of the flood story they have to build to get them up high enough to qualify for insurance. Could that be where the number came from?

  31. Sue said on February 23, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    The habitat house currently being built in my municipality measures as follows: “Living Area” 1152, “Unfin. Basement” 1152, “Porch” 68 for a total of 2372. All fees were waived but the square footage usually fee’d on a permit is the total. I assume the square footage you folks are counting is the living area? It’s being built to code re setbacks and minimums, on a lot that fits the smallest zoning for single family.

  32. Jolene said on February 23, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    I’m a little surprised by the objections to a 1100-1400 sq. ft. HFH house. For a family, that seems fairly modest.

  33. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 23, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    I’d usually go by “living area,” since the unfinished basements of Habitat houses are usually really, really unfinished. The choice of crawl space vs. unfinished basement is usually a mix between site layout, how much block and concrete was donated, and what kind of crew we have at work; most of the ones i’ve worked on were crawl space type, so you’d just say 1152 and call it a day.

    Back home, and listening with rapt fascination to the summary of the breakout sessions at the White House – if you’re curious as i was about who all was in the room: http://www.cspan.org/pdf/obama_022309.pdf

  34. brian stouder said on February 23, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    I think that’s about the size of our house, and we’re snugly comfortable (say that three times fast!)

    My limited understanding of President Obama’s mortgage relief plan is that it is aimed at people with incomes, and who are not very far behind on payments (sticks in my brain that people who are 90 days past due are too far gone to qualify) who need to refinance OUT of a high-interest mortgage rate, but who are precluded by their ‘under water’ mortgage status.

    So it’s not as that angry floor-trader said, where people stop paying and then get Uncle Sam to pick up the tab; it’s a government backed re-fi deal, for people who can be put back on track.

    Prediction: four years from now, when the GOP can look back upon three straight national whippings, any thoughtful person (such as we have around here) who could possibly have supported McCain/Palin versus Obama/Biden in ’08, will never, ever, ever be able to vote for Obama/Biden versus the much more-moderate Obama-lite (so to speak) presidential candidate that the GOP will surely present in ’12.

    Just sayin’

  35. Sue said on February 23, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    MMJeff, no, it’s a full basement, furnace downstairs, etc. Plans include a basement bedroom and bath, but it looks like the only thing to be built initially will be the basement egress window. This is a joint effort between Habitat and our high school Vision House program (students supposedly build, complete, landscape etc., then usually sell to finance next year’s project); first Habitat collaboration since the Vision program started about ten years ago. Maybe that’s why it seems more upscale?

  36. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 23, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Sue, sounds right; a joint vocational class involvement always brings some interesting upgrades with it, because the teacher wants the kids to learn how to frame in or make an “x” and sometimes the local build committee needs to say — uhh, thanks, but no thanks! Other times, you say “if you got the supplies donated, frame it in,” because stuff that the purchasing family will never add might make it more salable when they turn it around . . . .and keep in mind that this is part of the plan from the start, that someday the sweat-equity partner family will sell the house to another family starting small, as they (ideally) move up a bit from the solid, modest foundation we’re helping them re-engage with in their Habitat home.

    In other words, it’s really never the plan for the first occupants to stay there thirty years, so we think about the neighborhood and the market for what we’re putting out into the mix down the road, too.

  37. nancy said on February 23, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    It’s always been my understanding that basements, even finished ones, don’t count in a house’s square footage, unless they’re daylight walkout deals, capable of being exited without going through the rest of the house. Just one of those odd real-estate facts I picked up along the way.

  38. jeff borden said on February 23, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    I think these definitions vary from place to place. We don’t call our house a four-bedroom home, for example, because one of the rooms being used as a bedroom had no closet. It had been a young boy’s room and the previous owners had placed an armoire in there, then dubbed it a bedroom. That’s apparently a no-no in Chicago. It’s a moot point now after the remodeling we’ve done and that room became part of our master bedroom. I’ll have to check and see if our finished basement counts as living space, but my initial thinking is probably not.

  39. nancy said on February 23, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Tell the truth, Borden: That fourth bedroom is now Imelda’s Room, and houses Mrs. Borden’s rather extensive wardrobe.

  40. jeff borden said on February 23, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    Actually, no. M’lady’s dressing room used to be a kitchen in the days when the house was a two-flat. The room I’m talking about was a small bedroom off the hallway. Once we were done taking down walls, it was merged into an even tinier bedroom to make one decent-sized room.

    It is true that m’lady does indeed have considerable holdings of clothing, but blessedly shops at TJMaxx, Marshall’s and the brand name stores only when big sales are on. Plus, she never, ever throws anything away because her weight never varies. So, it’s not only the dressing room and several pieces of furniture holding her clothing, but two closets and a clothes bar in the basement, which is supposed to be my inner sanctum. Alas, I cannot even fire up a Macanudo down there because it will stink up her clothing.

    It is a small price to pay.

  41. LA Mary said on February 23, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    I’ve got about 1700 sq. feet and no basement. I have one room under my kitchen, exterior entry only. Before the most recent do-it-yourself addition, which happened before I bought the house, it must have been less than 1000 sq feet. It was basically three rooms and a bath, all small.

  42. Rana said on February 23, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    You know, speaking as someone who’s younger than most of the folks here, and who has never owned anything more expensive than a car, I find myself somewhat disturbed by the line of cause and effect y’all seem to be working here, that promoting home ownership leads to stability, while renting leads to instability. My own experience suggests that the line of causation runs in exactly the opposite direction; in other words, that one needs to be financially and socially stable before home ownership becomes viable.

    D. and I would love to own a house. But there are two factors that work against us: the expense, and the lack of long-term work. In other words, we are not financially unstable and lack grounding to the community because we are renters; we are renters because the support we need to become long-term members of the community is lacking.

    We do the best we can – we attend community events, shovel our sidewalks, plant flowers and veggies in the backyard, and rake our leaves (we would mow the lawn too, if it weren’t included in the rent), attend block parties, frequent local stores, etc. – but D’s job is only guaranteed for another year and a half, and I’ve only got the work for this current semester.

    Given this instability, it makes no sense whatsoever for us to buy a house, especially given the economic problems this community faces. There is a LOT of unsold and decaying real estate in this town; if we wanted, we could probably buy a genuine mansion for dimes on the dollar – but then we’d be saddled with it when the time came to leave.

    The issue isn’t whether we can afford a house or whether we would like to own one.

    It’s whether the situation is stable enough to make a long-term commitment to a specific place. Buying a house would not make us more stable anymore than renting makes us unstable. The line of causality runs the other way.

  43. Pam said on February 23, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    For many people, home ownership is not the American dream but just something they must do in order to own a dog.

  44. jeff borden said on February 23, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Rana,

    We love our house, but I always enjoyed my rental places, too. Well, except for my old townhouse in Charlotte, where the cockroaches were indomitable and undefeatable. My motivation for not buying before landing in Chicago was my fervent belief that I was not going to stay where I was. I spent 10-plus years in Columbus, Ohio, but for probably nine of those years I was looking to get out. Ditto for Charlotte, where I logged less than 4.5 years.

    It sounds like you’re being very wise about not taking on the expense and responsibilities that come with a big, fat mortgage until you are ready. But, at some point, you may start to chafe at the idea you have spent X dollars on a place to live over X years and have zero to show for it. At the very least, once we drive the final stake through our mortgage, we’ll have reasonable cost certainties (absent the fluctuations in gas, electric and taxes)and something we can cash out when needed, though hot at the lofty levels we might’ve received a couple of years ago.

    I was 42 when we closed on our house. My wife was older than that. Some people I know bought a small condo in their mid-20s. Everyone’s life follows a different script. I’m certain you are a great neighbor and member of your community as a renter. If you decide to plunk down the cash for your own place, great. If not, that’s great, too. It’s no one’s business but yours.

  45. Rana said on February 23, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Not really arguing with you Jeff, but you’re missing a big part of my point.

    Those “X years”? Have never added up to more than five – and that was just once, when we were both new grad students and hadn’t met. All the rest? TWO, or fewer.

    That’s the sort of instability I’m talking about here. We would both love to stay in a place for longer than two years. Heck, the first time we managed it, I was ecstatic that once, just once, I’d be able to plant a garden in the spring and be around to harvest it in the fall.

    Forget being able to calculate fixed versus unpredictable costs over a ten year period – for any given year we’re lucky if we know where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing the next. (We’re both academics – and I’m a freelancer as well, ironically because it lends some stability to have a non-location-specific source of income.)

    It really does not make sense to commit to a 30-year mortgage on a house in an economically depressed area when you can only count on being employed for a couple of years in that location. Five years, maybe. Ten years, definitely. But two or fewer? No way.

    (It’s at times like this that I suddenly become aware of how different a demographic I inhabit than most of the regulars on this site! *laughs*)

  46. Gasman said on February 23, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Jeff (tmmo),
    Before you crow too much regarding banking industry contributions being made at a higher rate to Ds vs. Rs, at what time period are we speaking of? Is this figure for the last eight years or just the last election cycle? If it is the latter, I would suggest that it merely reflects an awareness by the banking industry of the handwriting on the wall. They will contribute to whomever is in power. That they recognized the ascendency of the Ds only means that they are less wedded to ideology than practicality. What was their contribution ratio during the Bush years? I willing to bet that it was likewise skewed in the direction of the Rs.

    There were damn few Republicans that raised any concerns on the issue of unethical practices within the banking industry during the Bush years. These very practices were the Gospel being preached by W and the Rs. These same policies have led to our economy cratering. The Rs got nothin’ to hang their hats on in this argument. They plain screwed up.

  47. grapeshot said on February 23, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Thank you NN, for putting into words what only briefly managed to cross the surface of my mind after reading that same article. I couldn’t articulate it, but after reading that article, I did a mental “hmph” and moved on, thinking that it was a huge bag o’hot air that said very little.

    Is it just me, or is The Atlantic occasionally starting to slip?

  48. beb said on February 23, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    I grow up just outside Mishawaka. It was mostly farm land. Since then housing developments have sprouted up like so many mushrooms have a rain. The thing is the houses always looked enormous. My folks would always wonder how anyone could afford them. Now we know that the people in those houses probably couldn’t afford them. I sometimes wonder how long it will be before these houses start to be carved into duplexes.

    I think Rana has confused the discussion of how home ownership increases a communities stability with issues of personal stability. From her description of her situation renting seems the most sensible choice for her. People can be good renters. People can be good landlords. Nonetheless, one cause of the terrible decline of Detroit were landlords just walking away from their properties in Detroit.

    Jeff (TMMO) – I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we need a new political party for reality-based conservatives like you. Apparently Gov. Crist of Florida is going to be excoriated for accepting all the stimulus money from Washington. Republicans like Crist aren’t supposed to accept bail-out money. Nutty.

  49. Rana said on February 23, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    beb, you can talk directly to me. I don’t bite – usually. Being spoken of as if I’m not in the room tends to make me want to.

    I’m not disputing that communities may be adversely affected by low rates of homeownership.

    What I am debating is the direction of causality. Is a community de-stabilized because there are a lot of renters in it – or are there a lot of renters in a community because the community is not stable? In areas like New York, for example, the vast majority of people rent – but New York hasn’t collapsed into a distopic wasteland last time I looked. Or look at many of the commuter suburbs surrounding areas like Los Angeles and San Diego and Phoenix, where there is 100% homeownership, but no community to speak of. And I’ll see your large numbers of landlords walking away and raise you the increasing numbers of “jingle mail” mortgage defaulters.

    The assumption that I’m questioning here is the notion that large numbers of renters leads to a lack of community and economic instability in and of itself, instead of asking what it is about a given place’s economy and culture that encourages renting instead of home ownership. A large ratio of renters to home owners may be a sign of economic decline and social anomie, but it is not necessarily a cause of it, let alone The Cause of it.

    Plus, I have to admit it personally grates to see these comments idly tossed out about those horrible renters (shudder) who nobody would ever want to have in their communities – just as I would presume it would grate if I blithely asserted something along the lines of all home owners are self-centered people who’ve given up their ambitions for something better and are now only interested in settling for what they can get and competing with their neighbors. Qualify those statements, please!

  50. Dexter said on February 24, 2009 at 1:35 am

    There is a donut shoppe a mile north of me and it’s calm here, and I can smell the paczkis frying already. They open at 6:00…but I will be heading to another town where they make them right, not just another jelly donut…these other ones are perfect. I love raspbery the best.

  51. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 24, 2009 at 7:24 am

    Hey, Rana, working towards wanting to own a home while you’re a renter tends to promote stability in neighborhoods and families. It’s a “renters mindset” towards life (overflowing toilets are always someone else’s problem) in general that starts to trigger problems in outward and inward ripples.

    Gasman, thanks to the links, um, James (it was James, wasn’t it?) provided, i can say the giving records were back about ten years inclusive. And i’ll repeat before heading out to visit a number of rural schools (so no soup for you out of my ladle), go look at those three guys — Mozilo, Madoff, Stanford at the links above courtesy of James. No crowing done or implied, it’s the sheer reckless incoherence of the donation pattern . . . it’s the lack of a rational pattern that morbidly fascinates me.

    The summit at the White House yesterday makes for very interesting reading, and i’m amazed by how relatively little coverage it’s getting this morning. I love Obama’s comment from the podium: “You just watch, one day, one day, Eric Cantor’s gonna say ‘That Obama just had a good idea.’ You wait, someday, it’s gonna happen.” I love that. And having said it out loud makes it that much more likely it could happen someday.

    We’re not going to hit bottom until Dow 5500 if there’s a pool on that started today, but sadly, i don’t care, because we got our HUD grant, so i don’t have to fire seven people next month! Huzzah! Huzzah!

  52. Dorothy said on February 24, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Who knew there were so many hot buttons in this group regarding renting vs. owning?!

    I wanted to chime in wrt Nancy’s comment #37 above. One month ago today we moved into our 1695 sq. ft. home. (that’s just the upstairs sf) We have a walk out basement. A sliding glass door opens to our back yard. Downstairs there are two storage areas, two bedrooms (one is our office), a full bathroom, and the main open part section is my sewing & quilting studio. (usually this is called the Family room) However the appraiser calls this a two bedroom home. This refers to the bedrooms UPSTAIRS. This rationale escapes me.

    Originally we wanted just our master bedroom upstairs, along with the master bath, kitchen, living room, laundry room and a formal dining room. We had to scrap the original plans and add another bedroom and full bath to satisfy the bank and secure the loan. This makes no sense to me, but we did it and our house is lovely. But the whole square footage thing just seems to be so random and unregulated. We saw plenty of existing homes when we were working with a realtor and in the listings they counted ALL the bedrooms, regardless if they were up or downstairs, and whether it was a walkout basement or not.

    And by the way, I’ve only helped with building one Habitat house and it was extremely tiny. I have no idea what the sq. footage was but I think it was equal in size to a two car garage. Maximum.