Homeownership has always been a strong component of housing and housing policy in the United States. Owning a home is considered an important social and economic indicator, as well as a symbol of having a stake in society and contributing to the stability to the community. The system for producing housing units suitable for homeownership, and for financing home mortgages, has changed dramatically in recent decades. Technology and innovations have increased speed, efficiency and volume, resulting in more families finding mortgage financing than ever before and new homes being produced in record numbers. While homeownership rates are near all-time highs, particular demographic and economic populations, as well as distressed areas, lag behind. Despite greater access to mortgage credit for most families and communities, increased risks, and higher costs of credit, are being shouldered by consumers.
This paper attempts to provide an overview of U.S. housing policies related to homeownership, an analysis of the barriers to homeownership, and background on pressing federal policies, programs, and regulations that could be refined to better support homeownership. As the Millennial Housing Commission considers recommendations regarding federal homeownership policy, several issues are paramount:
1. What more can the federal government do to encourage and support homeownership?
2. What can the federal government do to encourage innovations in the mortgage market, while adequately protecting consumers?
3. What can the federal government do to help ensure that mortgage borrowers understand the rights and responsibilities of homeownership and are prepared to assume them?
4. What can the federal government do to encourage the production and preservation of homes affordable to those with lower-incomes?
Buying a home is typically the largest and most complicated financial commitment most households ever make. Would-be first-time buyers face many barriers to qualify for a conventionally-priced mortgage, including an inability to afford monthly payments, lacking sufficient savings for a downpayment and closing costs, having high debts or an unstable income. Even if they qualify, potential buyers may be hampered by a lack of affordable homes in a desirable area, or even information on how to buy a home or negotiate the best deal. Veiled or overt discriminatory practices still employed by some in the real estate and financial industries also conspire against some potential homebuyers. In combination, these hurdles, especially among low-income and minority populations, keep homeownership, and its ancillary social and economic benefits, out of reach.
Policy makers and practitioners should understand the risks and implications of expanding homeownership to lower-income families. Unlike in the rental housing market, individual families must be able to successfully maintain their homes and their mortgages. Individual households need to have the capacity to stay current on their loans and to undertake needed repairs and upkeep. When families fail at homeownership, entire neighborhoods can be affected in addition to the substantial losses individual households must endure. To the extent that expanding homeownership to low- and very-low income people is a priority, correlated issues of access banking services, personal financial management and education policy must be considered.
Based on interviews with leading practitioners, focus groups and other research, a series of policy changes are explored. Generally, policy prescriptions can be grouped into three categories:
1.) Expanding the reach of mortgage markets for sustainable homeownership;
2.) Educating and protecting consumers engaged in mortgage and home equity markets; and
3.) Producing and preserving units suitable for affordable homeownership.