When a House is Not a Home and Citizen Wealth is a One-Way Street

Citizen Wealth Housing Ideas and Issues

            New Orleans      It’s a fact of modern American life that most of family wealth lies right under the roof where we live.  If you are able to buy a house, then you’ve managed to move up a rung on the ladder towards more security.  Many economists and politicians would have us believe that home ownership also is a step in the direction of more societal equity, but that would seem to be wrong now.

Unfortunately, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, over the last ten years from 2010 to 2020, “71% of increase in housing wealth was gained by high-income households…In 2010, high-income homeowners [those earning more than 200% of their area’s median income] held 28% of all US housing wealth.  By 2020, that figure rose to 42.6%.”  “The median homeowner had $254,900 in wealth in 2019, compared with $6,270 for the median renter. Middle-income and low-income households’ share of total housing wealth declined in the decade …because they made up a smaller proportion of overall homeowners than they did in 2010….”  In short, the housing “haves” did great on the high end of the housing market, and the housing “have less” folks did worse and were largely left in the dirt in the last decade.

There’s worse news if you’re ready for it.  Low-and-middle income homeowners are still in better shape than renters, but for those trying to take a small step up from renting to move into manufactured housing, or what most of us still call mobile homes, the picture there is also an ugly one.  A consolidation push, similar to what private equity is mounting in residential rental properties, is also happening to manufactured housing with companies trying to gobble up these trailer parks and push up the land rents, taking advantage of the fact that for many, their so-called mobile home is now anything but mobile and could easily cost $5000 or more to move, if they were able to find another location.  Not owning the land makes the homeowners a semi-captive market which enables rents to go wild and new owners to add additional rules for other required investments to cost out the many families trying to move forward with these homes.  The New York Times reports that these kinds of “investors” are now “among the country’s largest landlords.  Some 22 million people live in manufactured homes in the United States…[and] Fannie Mae says that manufactured housing represents more than 6 percent of the nation’s housing units.”

Homes are a major source of citizen wealth in the US, and economic equity should be a critical public policy, rather than just an election talking point.  Nonetheless, there’s no way to look at the numbers without realizing that the gaps are increasing and little to nothing is being done to even stabilize low-and-moderate income housing and homeownership, much less narrow the bridge between the rich and the rest.  Remember when the issues of home and land ownership were thought to be vital to protecting our democracy and “way of life”?  Whatever happened to that, and how will we survive the future this way?