The virtue and financial sense of homeownership - and the second-class status of renters - are pervasive ideas in America, but housing experts are reconsidering the conventional wisdom.
"We have one long-standing paradigm, that mortgage-based homeownership is the solution," said Jane Zavisca, associate sociology professor at the University of Arizona.
Homeownership can provide an increased sense of stability, more community involvement and social capital, and it can have health benefits for those who have good equity in their homes, research shows. But it is not always financially prudent, and prospective buyers are starting to take notice, said presenters at a UA housing symposium held Thursday.
In Tucson, where incomes are stagnant for both low- and middle-income earners, many are more reluctant to take on housing debt they may never be able to pay off, said Evelia Martinez, who works for the nonprofit Don't Borrow Trouble Pima County, a program of the Southwest Fair Housing Council.
"Why take on a debt when you know you're never going to make more than minimum wage?" she said. "I work with people losing their home to foreclosure. People are working two, three jobs to keep their homes."
Martinez was one of a few dozen attendees at the Thursday symposium, at which academics and housing professionals - from local nonprofits, and city and county agencies - compared notes on the lead-up to today's housing crisis, and the lessons to be learned from it.
Today, the symposium continues with sessions on housing barriers for low-income and minority groups and on the fallout when homeownership fails.
In the early 20th century, homebuyers didn't consider themselves "homeowners" until their mortgages were paid off, said Zavisca. Today, simply putting money down on a house equates to ownership.
Just one-third of owner-occupied homes have no mortgages, Zavisca said. Another third of residents have paid for at least 20 percent of their home, and another third have no equity or negative equity and owe more than their home is worth, Zavisca said.
Enormous inequality in the distribution of wealth preceded the unraveling of the housing crisis in the Great Depression, as well as the recent recession, said Cornell University professor Louis Hyman. The richest 1 percent's share of overall income hit 24 percent in 1928 and again in 2007, he said.
Hyman questioned the wisdom of our largest financial institutions investing in debt instead of new businesses and called for a "rebalancing of the system" to focus on productive ventures and job creation.
"We're confusing the symptom of prosperity (homeownership) for actual prosperity," he said.
IF YOU GO
• What: Housing symposium, "Rethinking Mortgage-Based Homeownership"
• When: Today. Speaker sessions start at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Panel discussions, Q&As follow.
• Where: University of Arizona Student Union, Ventana Room, fourth floor
• Cost: Free
THE AMERICAN MENTALITY
University of Arizona sociologist Jane Zavisca's research in Russia found fundamental differences in perceptions of mortgage-based homeownership.
• Russians were more interested in the total cost of their home over the life of a mortgage, including interest, while Americans focus on the closing cost.
• In Russia, she found skepticism that taking on massive debt to become a homeowner would pay off in the end, where Americans tended to believe it would always work out.
• In the U.S. taking on a mortgage is seen as "a virtuous kind of debt," Zavisca said. In Russia, "mortgages are thought of as completely insane."
• Russians interviewed thought of interest as "overpayment," while Americans tend to consider it a routine expense.
Source: Jane Zavisca, University of Arizona
Contact reporter Emily Bregel at email@example.com or 807-7774. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel.