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Froma Harrop: The housing bust and the American psyche

 

Froma Harrop

 

Real estate mania lives on at the HGTV cable channel, where house shoppers still holler for granite on their kitchen islands and his-and-her sinks in their en suite bathrooms. But in the non-TV reality of middle-class America, the bloom is definitely off the real estate rose. 

 

The rose isn't dead, mind you. Surveys show an enduring desire to own one's home, despite the trauma left by the real estate meltdown and recession. But the love is not what it was. 

 

So customer demand continues, Jane Zavisca, a University of Arizona sociologist, told me, "but not homeownership at all costs." 

 

Young people who've seen others' lives ruined by the pain of foreclosure seem especially wary of taking on a mortgage, according to Zavisca, who studies attitudes toward homeowning. 

 

More on the psychology later. 

 

Economists worry that the depressed housing sector is hampering a robust recovery. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen recently testified before Congress that housing remains a cloud on an otherwise promising economic horizon of stronger hiring and amped-up consumer spending. 

 

True, some formerly shattered markets -- in Phoenix, Las Vegas and parts of California, for example -- have much improved. But nationally, the sign of a housing recovery seen a year ago now appears to have been a blip. And the problems in the sector aren't going away. 

 

What's wrong is this: At the end of March, 19 percent of "homeowners" with mortgages -- nearly 10 million households -- were "underwater." That means they owed more on their house than they could sell their house for. These numbers come from the real estate website Zillow. 

 

That sounds a lot better than the 31 percent owing more than their house was worth near the height of the misery in 2012. But it doesn't count the legions of homeowners barely above water. Many lack the financial breathing room to sell; they'd have to first find some extra cash. 

 

Thus, the middle-class housing market remains fairly frozen as owners decline to trade their homes for something better. Note: About 30 percent of homes in the bottom third price range are underwater. (As usual, things are much better at the top.) 

 

Furthermore, many members of the middle class with jobs and savings no longer believe in a future of plenty. They're seeing their neighbors slide down the economic chute. 

 

So taking on a mortgage seems a scarier prospect than before. Zavisca cites studies confirming that holding a mortgage weighs heavier on psychological well-being than it used to. 

 

"Even for people with a lot of equity, just having a mortgage makes them feel more insecure than they did five or 10 years ago," Zavisca said. With a mortgage now comes heightened anxiety. 

 

Though Americans clearly do want to own homes, they are much less optimistic about the potential for large gains in equity. 

 

That said, the idea of a home as a means of saving for retirement -- as something one could sell in hard times -- persists. It is a financial asset, Zavisca said, "but not in the sense that the average individual should be making a living buying and selling real estate." 

 

What amazes me is that more Americans aren't seething over one of the biggest con jobs ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. The housing bubble was a product of public policy. 

 

The Fed under Alan Greenspan kept interest rates low to keep the speculative frenzy going. Financial deregulation let lenders push snake-infested mortgage contracts onto the shoulders of ordinary people. 

 

When the bubble splattered, ordinary people were left bankrupt, foreclosed upon and devastated both financially and psychologically. If Americans are less than enthusiastic about real estate, who can blame them? 

 

 

 

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