the quest for homeownership -- 11/9/20

Today's selection -- from American Bonds: How Credit Markets Shaped a Nation by Sarah L. Quinn. As America urbanized, the idea of the virtuousness of homeownership replaced the idea of the virtuousness of owning a small farm:
"Over the nineteenth century, homeownership replaced yeoman farming in the American imagination as a kind of idealized experience that many aspired to have. To understand what an accomplishment homeownership was perceived to be, it is necessary to consider the nineteenth-century worldview.

"Early Americans valued property ownership for specific political reasons. 'Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition,' Thomas Jefferson wrote. In the longstanding American republican ideal, with its roots in the Jeffersonian tradition, working for someone else made a man reliant on another person for his well-being. This dependency was thought to compromise freedom of ac­tion and thought, and even the autonomy of a man's actual vote. In contrast, a man who owned property -- as a farmer, craftsman, or small businessman ­governed himself. This freed him to contemplate and follow his ideals.

"In this republican worldview, the very act of acquiring and maintaining property was thought to instill in the owner the civic virtues of reliability, integ­rity, self-restraint, and strong character. Self-governance was the bedrock of the nation, and property ownership made self-governance possible. It was only after 1815 that tenants started gaining the right to vote in most states. In South Carolina, men without property were disenfranchised until the Civil War. This social stigmatization and political marginalization of renters persists. Ananya Roy has argued that the United States is still defined by a 'paradigm of prop­ertied citizenship,' illustrated, for example, by the way that homeless people are denied access to public spaces afforded to others.

"The rise of manufacturing presented no small challenge to this way of think­ing. Factories and industry produced wage labor as surely as they produced commodities. Self-employment dropped from 67 percent of the population in 1870 to 37 percent of the population by 1920. Viewed through the lens of the republican tradition, with its Lockean belief that property ownership promotes political investment and stability, the transition from agriculture to manufacturing was potentially a dangerous transition into dependency.

"Homeownership offered a solution to this looming problem. The ideal of self-governance at work could be reconstituted as that of self-governance at home. After all, could not all the gains associated with independent work also be realized through a kind of domestic dominion? Purchasing a home required frugality, hard work, and reliability. Owning a home, like owning a business, instilled in men a neighborly obligation and sense of pride. All of this created better citizens: 'A man who has earned, saved, and paid for a home will be a better man, a better artisan or clerk, a better husband and father, and a better citizen of the republic.' Civic virtue was thus grafted onto the act of owning a home, with the promise of rescuing masculine independence. The detached home itself stood as a physical representation of this independence, the manicured lawn signaling an appreciation for and mastery over nature.

"Homeownership did not just instill civic virtues; it also promised to have a pacifying effect on labor. Since the 1830s, housing reformers had warned that tenements were breeding grounds for disease and leftist politics alike. Reformer Lawrence Veiller argued that moving workers from tenements to single-family homes had pacifying potential. As Americans worried about the destabilizing ramifications of showdowns such as the Pullman strike, some argued that raising wages would mollify workers by enabling them to obtain better housing, although most housing reformers were interested in better living standards for the poor, not homeownership per se. The old saw that property ownership encouraged a more conservative citizenry was not lost on reformers of all stripes: 'It is an advantage to a mill-town employer to have property-owning employees,' wrote one author. 'The labor force is more stable and there is less likelihood of a strike, the employees not wishing to jeopardize their positions after a house has been acquired, lest they have to move.' For immigrants, owning a home would promote assimilation, or 'Americanization.' A working homeowner was thought to be a small capitalist, and so less likely to riot or strike. …
"The ideal was not simply to live in a detached single-family home with a yard, but to own it. Walt Whitman proclaimed that 'a man is not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on.' From the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, residential home­ownership in the United States climbed. In 1890 only slightly over one-third of nonfarm households were owner-occupied, as compared to a full two-thirds of farming households. This gap had shrunk considerably by 1930: home­ownership for farmers had dropped to 54 percent, and urban homeownership had risen to 46 percent. Yet even those numbers fail to capture the extent to which Americans, including city dwellers, were able to achieve the goal of being a homeowner. Economic historian Richard Sutch notes that if you set aside younger households still saving up their down payments and focus just on households headed by people over the age of 60, some 83 percent of farm households and 58 percent of nonfarm households were owner-occupied even in 1890. Approximately 28 percent of these farm and nonfarm homes were mortgaged in the 1890s, but these numbers too shift by age group. Sutch esti­mates that 30 to 36 percent of homes owned by people in their 30s and 40s in 1890 were mortgaged, whereas fewer than one in five homes owned by people aged 60 and older were still carrying that debt."



Sarah L. Quinn


American Bonds: How Credit Markets Shaped a Nation


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2019, Princeton University Press


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