Noted urban historian Thomas J. Sugrue of UPenn wrote in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks ago a brief history of the various ways the federal government has subsidized middle class home ownership since the Great Depression. The government has been getting its hands in the housing market long before Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Community Reinvestment Act. Sugrue writes, “[T]he story of how the dream [of home ownership] became a reality is not one of independence, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurial pluck. It’s not the story of the inexorable march of the free market. It’s a different kind of American story, of government, financial regulation, and taxation. We are a nation of homeowners and home-speculators because of Uncle Sam.”
Home ownership is regarded as important because it creates stable rather than transitory communities and encourages owner involvement in civic life. It tends to have a “conservatizing” effect as well — “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist,” said William Levitt. But the government’s involvement in home ownership is as omnipresent as it is invisible. Has this been for good or ill? I’m not sure anymore.