Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The poor, the homeless, renters, and anyone who doesn't aspire to buy a house.
If you are not interested in strengthening the cornerstone of your middle-class life by owning your very own home, you may have missed Barack Obama's big speech on housing Tuesday in Phoenix. For the most part, none of it applied to you.
The president is currently on a speaking tour pitching his proposals to shore up the key pillars of middle class happiness: as he puts it, a good job, a good education, affordable health care, a secure retirement, economic mobility, and "a home to call your own." Most of these goals are indisputably universal. The last one is not. Sixty-five percent of American households own their own home today, which leaves more than a third of us in some other situation: happily renting, struggling to find affordable rent, or even homeless all together.
Josh Barro has an excellent piece at Business Insider arguing that Obama should stop talking about how great homeownership is, to the exclusion of millions of these other people:
Why not instead emphasize that renting—that is, not taking all the money you have in the world and putting it into a highly leveraged real estate investment—is a perfectly valid life choice, even for people leading prosperous, middle-class lives?
A truly productive presidential housing speech would ditch the entire frame that "a home is supposed to be our ultimate evidence that in America, hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded," or that (apparently irresponsible) people who don't own their homes are all just itching for the chance.
Sheila Crowley, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, put this particularly well yesterday: "A balanced housing policy requires that the housing that someone rents is understood to be his or her home as much as the housing that someone buys."
But the even broader problem with Obama's speech is that he neglected more than just the idea of renting as a viable housing choice. He said little about the lack of affordable rental housing for many families even with decent incomes, and he said nothing about the steep shortage of affordable rentals particularly for the low-income. Housing for the poor never came up on Tuesday, a casualty of the calculation to wrap this whole speaking swing around the middle class.
As for the people who have no homes at all, Obama did briefly suggest that we "keep up our fight against homelessness." Although in the next sentence, he took a curious pivot toward homeless veterans, as if they represented the entirety of the homeless population and not one subset of it.
It would be nice to hear a speech that focused instead on the difficult housing realities of all of these other groups, with perhaps a mention of homeownership tossed in, an obligatory footnote to the topic.
Top images of Obama speaking in Phoenix Aug. 6: Larry Downing/Reuters