More Americans See Renting as Acceptable

4.18.13 | Americans are increasingly likely to see renting a home as acceptable an option as ownership, according to a very new survey from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The How Housing Matters Survey was conducted between November 2012 and March of this year by Hart Research Associates to learn more about national opinion on housing issues and policy. Among its findings:

  • Americans still perceive a housing crisis, with 58 percent of respondents saying we’re still in it, and another 19 percent saying the worst is yet to come.
  • More than 7 in 10 renters hope to own, someday.
  • Renting is becoming more acceptable; even 45 percent of respondents who are owners agreed they could rent at some point in the future.
  • Renting is becoming more appealing; 57 percent of respondents agree that “buying has become less appealing” while 54 percent agree that renting “has become more appealing.”

And most importantly, for its potential effect on Congress and national housing policies, the survey finds that Americans outside Washington, D.C., have “a balanced and realistic view about national housing policy.(Emphasis in the original text.) How balanced? Try this:

After having been provided with information about U.S. housing policy and demographic and lifestyle changes, more than 3 in 5 self-identified Democrats (69%), Republicans (62%), and Independents (65%) believe the “focus of our housing policy should be fairly equally split on rental housing and housing for people to own.” This balanced approach toward government policies supporting both rental housing and homeownership shows similar support among all races, ages, regions, and income levels.

As such, the MacArthur Foundation survey dovetails neatly with the links between housing and resilience this space previously noted here: the Pew Research Center’s study of young adults and their debt levels as we stumble out of the Great Recession, which found that between 2007 and 2010, home ownership among younger households dropped from 40 percent to 34 percent — a result that prompted John W. Schoen of NBC News to conclude the housing bubble’s burst has left younger Americans rather leery of home ownership.

It also jibes with our report on the Bipartisan Policy Center‘s call for a complete overhaul in the federal government’s housing policy, Housing America’s Future: New Directions for National Policy (PDF), and Richard Florida’s essay at Urbanland on The Fading Differentiation between City and Suburb.

Whether the appearance of these reports in quick succession means there is momentum toward a national housing policy overhaul remains to be seen. There are as yet few signs of coherent conversation from Capitol Hill, but these reports suggest that a national conversation is beginning. And with the next Congressional election just a year and a half away, this may well be the time to start pressing the parties and the candidates as they emerge.

It’s more than a national conversation, though. Housing policies are also affected and driven by local zoning codes that still more often than not enshrine biases toward ownership and segregated use. For example, do your local zoning codes allow apartments to be built above ground-floor businesses or stores, or merely tolerate those “grandfathered” in? Do they allow “coach” apartments to be built above alley-sited garages? Do they allow apartments and ownership units to be built in the same neighborhood, much less next to each other? In suburban districts in particular, do they encourage multifamily dwellings?

More often than not, the answers are still “no.” Or at least, “not without jumping through these nice hoops.” That, too, must change, especially as the population ages and shared housing and walkable communities become, if not a necessity, then a growing preference.

Though somewhat dated, James Howard Kunstler’s books, The Geography of Nowhere (1993) and Home From Nowhere (1996), offer what I still consider the best primer on this facet of our housing problems. The Congress for the New Urbanism also offers a good overview on this question with its CNU Report: Housing Affordability (PDF), issued in 2008.

Photo/ Barbara Ray

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