Should We Buy Houses?

At the end of yesterday’s post, the editors called for a renewed attempt to distinguish between ordinary Christianity and capitulation to contemporary American norms. I think this will sometimes take us in counter-intuitive directions. Yesterday’s post made reference to “anti-suburban Christianity” and praised those Christians who have raised concerns about the effects of the suburbs on virtue and the life of faith. From this, it would not be a big leap to the pro-rental movement. When you think of the urban Christians who reject suburbia, many of these also believe that renting a house is a better financial choice than buying one. And there’s a also a cultural sense here of hipster or boheniman Christianity rejecting the bourgeois and individualistic “American dream” that includes, of course, home-buying. Finally, in the many exchanges between the suburbia Joel Kotkin and the urban Richard Florida, the former has supported homebuying, while the latter has opposed it.

The case against buying a house gets stronger when you dig into the actual economic data. As many have noted, there’s a high correspondance between low growth/ macroeconomic instability and widespread home ownership. Those countries that have the highest rate of home ownership are also the poorest and most crisis-prone. This map of Europe is extremely telling on this point.

Based on all this, one might think that young people shouldn’t buy houses. And indeed, many aren’t. But there’s more to the story than this. When you look into the reasons why countries with widespread home ownership preform poorly, here’s what you find, in the words of Richard Flordia:

Numerous studies have argued that home ownership stymies the flexibility of the labor market and the economy by tying home owners to their location and making it harder for them to pick and move to jobs and economic opportunity. Three-quarters of survey respondents believe that “moving to a new city or state for a job is more likely now than it was in the past,” the report finds.

In other words, renting countries do better because they allow people to move from place to place more easily. Renting, thy name is mobility. The problems with endless mobility, and the consequent liberation from place, have been noted again and again by very diverse sources. So here’s where the twist comes: despite what some of our initial intuitions about urbanism and renting, a truly radical Christianity worried about the corrosive effects of the American dream should promote home ownership. Home ownership seems just another part of the worrisome American Dream, when actually it can act as a brake on some of its most questionable features.

[Image of a houseboat from Wikipedia]

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  • Charlie Clark

    The next question: “Which kind of houses should we buy?” Granted that mobility is a bad influence, tying yourself down to living in one place is a good step. But we can still be consistently anti-suburban, because suburban life is in many respects reduces us to living nowhere, because it is difficult to build proper Nisbettian communities in a subdivision of commuter families. I think the hipster Christians moving to poor or rundown neighborhoods probably have the right idea, generally speaking. The big thing they should be aware of is the danger of gentrification. They don’t want to push their poor neighbors out to make room for the organic coffee roaster. There probably are ways of achieving balance, but it takes an awareness. Basically, form a homeowner’s association with the express purpose of keeping property values low.

  • Live, work, and worship in the same community wherever possible. Pick a poor enough community where a church committed to the neighborhood (especially indigenous empowerment!) is working, and gentrification will be a very minor worry. When you buy a house in such a neighborhood, you commit yourself to your neighbors in a way that will change you and change the place that you live.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thanks for this bit of reflection. I would add…

    Consider Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon: “Build houses…plant gardens… make families…seek the peace of the city, for its welfare is your welfare.”

    Consider the Benedictine vow/virtue of stability.

    When you commit to a place (by, say, buying a house or joining a monastery), you also commit to relating (or have to resist relating) to the other people who live in that place–for better or worse. It’s analogous to marriage. When you say “I do” you not only reject “all others” but also reject easy exit strategies from the relationship. The market, with its ever increasing opportunities elsewhere, provides exit strategies with no questions asked. Renting leaves your options open for seeking a greener pasture elsewhere–don’t like your neighbors or the neighborhood, you can exit as soon as the lease is up. In this way, renting is like co-habitating–if we don’t like it, we can always split up.

    Christians are not called to serve “the flexibility of the labor market.” We exist to proclaim the gospel of Christ to all nations and to build communities of peace in the name of Christ. The former requires making a commitment to Christ and the church. The latter requires making a commitment to a particular place and its people. And neither form of commitment is possible without putting down stakes and closing off the exits. While renting may at times be economically necessary for some and situationally appropriate for others, it doesn’t seem to me a long-term approach that is fitting to the Christian vocation.

    I would be interested to see other responses to this question.

    • Yes, let us consider the Benedictine virtue of stability, especially in light of Jesus and Paul’s dedication to ownership and steadfast commitment to remain in one place.

      Sorry, I could not resist.

  • imtheone

    Choosing a community on where to live is important for me. Getting a house ( ) with a good environment is healthy for kids.