What if everyone owned their own home?

Mar 14 JDN 2459288

In last week’s post I suggested that if we are to use the term “gentrification”, it should specifically apply to the practice of buying homes for the purpose of renting them out.

But don’t people need to be able to rent homes? Surely we couldn’t have a system where everyone always owned their own home?

Or could we?

The usual argument for why renting is necessary is that people don’t want to commit to living in one spot for 15 or 30 years, the length of a mortgage. And this is quite reasonable; very few careers today offer the kind of stability that lets you commit in advance to 15 or more years of working in the same place. (Tenured professors are one of the few exceptions, and I dare say this has given academic economists some severe blind spots regarding the costs and risks involved in changing jobs.)

But how much does renting really help with this? One does not rent a home for a few days or even few weeks at a time. If you are staying somewhere for an interval that short, you generally room with a friend or pay for a hotel. (Or get an AirBNB, which is sort of intermediate between the two.)

One only rents housing for months at a time—in fact, most leases are 12-month leases. But since the average time to sell a house is 60-90 days, in what sense is renting actually less of a commitment than buying? It feels like less of a commitment to most people—but I’m not sure it really is less of a commitment.

There is a certainty that comes with renting—you know that once your lease is up you’re free to leave, whereas selling your house will on average take two or three months, but could very well be faster or slower than that.

Another potential advantage of renting is that you have a landlord who is responsible for maintaining the property. But this advantage is greatly overstated: First of all, if they don’t do it (and many surely don’t), you actually have very little recourse in practice. Moreover, if you own your own home, you don’t actually have to do all the work yourself; you could pay carpenters and plumbers and electricians to do it for you—which is all that most landlords were going to do anyway.

All of the “additional costs” of owning over renting such as maintenance and property taxes are going to be factored into your rent in the first place. This is a good argument for recognizing that a $1000 mortgage payment is not equivalent to a $1000 rent payment—the rent payment is all-inclusive in a way the mortgage is not. But it isn’t a good argument for renting over buying in general.

Being foreclosed on a mortgage is a terrible experience—but surely no worse than being evicted from a rental. If anything, foreclosure is probably not as bad, because you can essentially only be foreclosed for nonpayment, since the bank only owns the loan; landlords can and do evict people for all sorts of reasons, because they own the home. In particular, you can’t be foreclosed for annoying your neighbors or damaging the property. If you own your home, you can cut a hole in a wall any time you like. (Not saying you should necessarily—just that you can, and nobody can take your home away for doing so.)

I think the primary reason that people rent instead of buying is the cost of a down payment. For some reason, we have decided as a society that you should be expected to pay 10%-20% of the cost of a home up front, or else you never deserve to earn any equity in your home whatsoever. This is one of many ways that being rich makes it easier to get richer—but it is probably the most important one holding back most of the middle class of the First World.

And make no mistake, that’s what this is: It’s a social norm. There is no deep economic reason why a down payment needs to be anything in particular—or even why down payments in general are necessary.

There is some evidence that higher down payments are associated with less risk of default, but it’s not as strong as many people seem to think. The big HUD study on the subject found that one percentage point of down payment reduces default risk by about as much as 5 points of credit rating: So you should prefer to offer a mortgage to someone with an 800 rating and no down payment than someone with a 650 rating and a 20% down payment.

Also, it’s not as if mortgage lenders are unprotected from default (unlike, say, credit card lenders). Above all, they can foreclose on the house. So why is it so important to reduce the risk of default in the first place? Why do you need extra collateral in the form of a down payment, when you’ve already got an entire house of collateral?

It may be that this is actually a good opportunity for financial innovation, a phrase that should in general strike terror in one’s heart. Most of the time “financial innovation” means “clever ways of disguising fraud”. Previous attempts at “innovating” mortgages have resulted in such monstrosities as “interest-only mortgages” (a literal oxymoron, since by definition a mortgage must have a termination date—a date at which the debt “dies”), “balloon payments”, and “adjustable rate mortgages”—all of which increase risk of default while as far as I can tell accomplishing absolutely nothing. “Subprime” lending created many excuses for irresponsible or outright predatory lending—and then, above all, securitization of mortgages allowed banks to offload the risk they had taken on to third parties who typically had no idea what they were getting.

Volcker was too generous when he said that the last great financial innovation was the ATM; no, that was an innovation in electronics (and we’ve had plenty of those). The last great financial innovation I can think of is the joint-stock corporation in the 1550s. But I think a new type of mortgage contract that minimizes default risk without requiring large up-front payments might actually qualify as a useful form of financial innovation.

It would also be useful to have mortgages that make it easier to move, perhaps by putting payments on hold while the home is up for sale. That way people wouldn’t have to make two mortgage payments at once as they move from one place to another, and the bank will see that money eventually—paid for by new buyer and their mortgage.

Indeed, ideally I’d like to eliminate foreclosure as well, so that no one has to be kicked out of their homes. How might we do that?

Well, as a pandemic response measure, we should have simply instituted a freeze on all evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the pandemic. Some states did, in fact—but many didn’t, and the federal moratoria on evictions were limited. This is the kind of emergency power that government should have, to protect people from a disaster. So far it appears that the number of evictions was effectively reduced from tens of millions to tens of thousands by these measures—but evicting anyone during a pandemic is a human rights violation.

But as a long-term policy, simply banning evictions wouldn’t work. No one would want to lend out mortgages, knowing that they had no recourse if the debtor stopped paying. Even buyers with good credit might get excluded from the market, since once they actually received the house they’d have very little incentive to actually make their payments on time.

But if there are no down payments and no foreclosures, that means mortgage lenders have no collateral. How are they supposed to avoid defaults?

One option would be wage garnishment. If you have the money and are simply refusing to pay it, the courts could simply require your employer to send the money directly to your creditors. If you have other assets, those could be garnished as well.

And what if you don’t have the money, perhaps because you’re unemployed? Well, then, this isn’t really a problem of incentives at all. It isn’t that you’re choosing not to pay, it’s that you can’t pay. Taking away such people’s homes would protect banks financially, but at a grave human cost.

One option would be to simply say that the banks should have to bear the risk: That’s part of what their huge profits are supposed to be compensating them for, the willingness to take on risks others won’t. The main downside here is the fact that it would probably make it more difficult to get a mortgage and raise the interest rates that you would need to pay once you do.

Another option would be some sort of government program to make up the difference, by offering grants or guaranteed loans to homeowners who can’t afford to pay their mortgages. Since most such instances are likely to be temporary, the government wouldn’t be on the hook forever—just long enough for people to get back on their feet. Here the downside would be the same as any government spending: higher taxes or larger budget deficits. But honestly it probably wouldn’t take all that much; while the total value of all mortgages is very large, only a small portion are in default at any give time. Typically only about 2-4% of all mortgages in the US are in default. Even 4% of the $10 trillion total value of all US mortgages is about $400 billion, which sounds like a lot—but the government wouldn’t owe that full amount, just whatever portion is actually late. I couldn’t easily find figures on that, but I’d be surprised if it’s more than 10% of the total value of these mortgages that would need to be paid by the government. $40 billion is about 1% of the annual federal budget.

Reforms to our healthcare system would also help tremendously, as medical expenses are a leading cause of foreclosure in the United States (and literally nowhere else—every other country with the medical technology to make medicine this expensive also has a healthcare system that shares the burden). Here there is virtually no downside: Our healthcare system is ludicrously expensive without producing outcomes any better than the much cheaper single-payer systems in Canada, the UK, and France.

All of this sounds difficult and complicated, I suppose. Some may think that it’s not worth it. But I believe that there is a very strong moral argument for universal homeownership and ending eviction: Your home is your own, and no one else’s. No one has a right to take your home away from you.

This is also fundamentally capitalist: It is the private ownership of capital by its users, the acquisition of wealth through ownership of assets. The system of landlords and renters honestly doesn’t seem so much capitalist as it does feudal: We even call them “lords”, for goodness’ sake!

As an added bonus, if everyone owned their own homes, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to worry about “gentrification”, since rising property values would always benefit residents.

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