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April 06, 2012

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Hannah Silver

Ros,

I find this to be a very interesting subject, as well. I think you and I both have heard conjectures on the subject of the future homeownership from a wide variety of sources this semester. I do not really know where I stand on the issue of renting versus owning.

As Professor Moomaw mentioned in class, supposedly if you own your own home then you're more likely to vote, you are more likely to invest in your children's education, and you might go back to college yourself. Overall, you are more likely to get engaged in the community - which certainly makes sense, seeing as how you would have more of a tie to the neighborhood you live in, knowing that you will be there for a fairly long period of time. Settling down strengthens communities. What could you possibly see wrong in that?

On the other hand, as we learned on Monday via a representative of the VHDA, Generation Y is a mobile generation with potentially different goals for our housing futures, and they are not about to settle down. My grandparents got married when they were 20 and 21 and moved into their first house, where they stayed for many years. I am now 22. I know that I am not anywhere close to my first homeownership experience in the next 5-10 years, as I am only now graduating from college, getting my first in what I expect to be a series of several to many different jobs, potentially in cities all over America. Rental housing is clearly the way to go for me. I don't think that has anything to do with the allure of homeownership itself, as my dream is still to have a little place of my own - though I am not sure if that is a house, apartment, town home, houseboat - but for now, I am a transient being.

However, my recent-graduate demographic is only a part of the people involved in the homeownership question. What about low-income families?

What has struck me as truly enlightening has been my work with Southside Outreach in South Boston, VA through Professor Quale's ecoMOD seminar. (See http://www.ssorg.org/.) This tiny nonprofit working in essentially rural Virginia has done wonderful things for low-income renters in their area, i.e., they have built houses for them and removed them from the rental market entirely. Why do this when homes tend to incur so many more upkeep costs? Earl, who runs the organization, has stated that he has not had a single foreclosure on his homes since he started building in the late 90s, which is due to several factors. For one, he gives his homeowners a very comprehensive training in budgeting for a new home and maintaining it. Many foreclosure simply come from people not anticipating the additional costs with owning a home, as they do exist. Most importantly, what I find most fascinating about Earl's homes is that he has been able to produce the homes - cute little ranches that the families love - at such an efficient cost that most of his homeowners are paying LESS per month in their mortgage and utilities than they have paid for rent in their previous homes. He is passionate about his model because when people in the area encounter foreclosure on their homes, they oftentimes end up back in rental housing where they are paying MORE to live than in their foreclosed home - an obviously unsustainable and terrifying cycle for a family.

I AM torn, though. I would not want to discourage Earl from significantly improving these families' situations, yet I do not think it is sustainable to continue to produce more housing stock, when we already have quite a bit available. I am very interested in the adaptive reuse (or simply reuse) of building for homes. I think that a great way to go about improving our affordable housing situation would be to revamp a lot of the houses we already have. Unfortunately, we're in a tough place with reuse as the most viable reuse options are actually homes from the pre-war era, those without AC systems and ticky-tacky construction techniques, as they have better insulation, higher quality materials, and more reasonable layouts. (I learned that in Professor Bluestone's Historical Preservation Theory class, for reference.) The GI Bill's post-WWII housing boom increased the housing stock significantly, though quality slipped in those mass-production hey-days. Those homes are what we have to work with now - fully dependent on modern HVAC systems and shoddy quality - not built to last, as our great-grandfathers' homes may have been. If only we began reinvesting in those homes that we already have - they would be more likely to be closer to the center of town, reducing sprawl and keeping low-income renters near the community resources they most need, and it would be more economically feasible than building new developments (as construction and demolition proves to be much more costly up-front and for the environment on average than a reuse project). We would start to look more like communities in Europe, where limited room for growth has led to a more compact development, regardless of if the housing stock is rental or homeownership. The Brits AND the Germans probably have a significant upper hand on us as far as reuse and density go, regardless of who has more ownership or more rental.

That all being said, I suppose the only way I can conclude is that I am in the same boat as you, unsure of where we stand with homeownership's importance in our evolving society. I know that I am happy to have options for renting right now, and will want to have options for ownership later. For those with greater needs than I, as in, those who have immediate housing needs, I think we need to start to open up the discussion of how housing vouchers assist those who need to find housing more immediately. Rental housing vouchers are great, and the expansion of this program into assistance with mortgage and closing fees on ownership transactions has been a heartening improvement from HUD. I am eager to see where that goes. I'm also eager to see if I live on a houseboat in 10 years.

Hannah

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Based on your insights on homeownership in the time of post-housing bubble, it will be better for the housing authorities to create easy-payment loans for the echo-boomer generation. That way, they will have a chance to own a house, despite having a low income. After all, they are a good target audience to help revive the housing market. Aside from that, it may also offer job opportunities that will match their careers.

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Depending on your ideas on homeownership in plenty of time of post-housing percolate, it will be better for the real estate government bodies to make easy-payment loans for the echo-boomer creation.

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