For most Americans, until the recent past, home ownership was a dream and the pile of rent receipts was the reality. From 1900, when the census first started gathering data on home ownership, through 1940, fewer than half of all Americans owned their own homes. Home ownership rates actually fell in three of the first four decades of the 20th century. But from that point on forward (with the exception of the 1980s, when interest rates were staggeringly high), the percentage of Americans living in owner-occupied homes marched steadily upward. Today more than two-thirds of Americans own their own homes. Among whites, more than 75% are homeowners today.
Yet the story of how the dream 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.
It wasn't until government stepped into the housing market, during that extraordinary moment of the Great Depression, that tenancy began its long downward spiral. Before the Crash, government played a minuscule role in housing Americans, other than building barracks and constructing temporary housing during wartime and, in a little noticed provision in the 1913 federal tax code, allowing for the deduction of home mortgage interest payments.
Until the early 20th century, holding a mortgage came with a stigma. You were a debtor, and chronic indebtedness was a problem to be avoided like too much drinking or gambling. The four words "keep out of debt" or "pay as you go" appeared in countless advice books. As the YMCA told its young charges, "If you can't pay, don't buy. Go without. Keep on going without." Because of that, many middle-class Americans—even those with a taste for single-family houses—rented. Home Sweet Home didn't lose its sweetness because someone else held the title.
In any case, mortgages were hard to come by. Lenders typically required 50% or more of the purchase price as a down payment. Interest rates were high and terms were short, usually just three to five years. In 1920, John Taylor Boyd Jr., an expert on real-estate finance, lamented that "increasing numbers of our people are finding home ownership too burdensome to attempt." As a result, there were two kinds of homeowners in the
And that brings us back to those desperate homeowners who gathered at