For more people, the American Dream doesn’t include a home of their own

For Nina Brown, moving into her second home in an Atlanta suburb a decade ago was an act full of symbolism.Homeownership was a way for Brown to prove she could strike out on her own after a divorce. It showed she had the finances — a good job and good credit — to provide a stable environment for her son, Jaylen. Moreover, with housing prices soaring, her purchase of a new townhouse in a gated community was a big step toward building a real estate investment portfolio and nest egg.That was before tenants in two of the other three properties she owned lost their jobs and the grand plans she had for her life unraveled. ¶ At the age of 26, Brown found herself among the more than 5 million Americans who have lost their houses to foreclosure in the era of the Great Recession. And like many of them, Brown says she is not in a rush to jump back into the housing market.

“I don’t have any intention of buying anytime soon. The economy is still unstable, and it could end up being a financial burden,” said Brown, now 33. She rents a three-bedroom townhouse in another Atlanta suburb, where she lives with Jaylen on weekends, and a small apartment in the District near Howard University, where she works during the week as an executive producer at WHUR-FM radio.

Homeownership, once a cornerstone of the American Dream, has taken a big hit in public esteem, according to a poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. In the past three decades, the number saying owning a home is “very much” how they define the dream has fallen to 61 percent, down from 78 percent in a 1986 Wall Street Journal poll. That year, owning a home was as emblematic of the American Dream as being free to live any way one chooses.

The change in making homeownership a priority has opened up fissures that did not previously exist. In the new poll, there are apparent differences between men and women, young and old, and renters and homeowners, with the former in each example less concerned about ownership than the latter. Just 54 percent of African Americans, who suffered disproportionately heavy losses during the foreclosure crisis, now say homeownership is very much a part of the American Dream, among the lowest of any demographic group, according to the Post-Miller poll.

But of all of these groups, renters — some of whom, like Brown, endured foreclosures — have become the most ambivalent. In 1986, three out of four said it was a big part of the American Dream. But the number plummeted in 2013 to 52 percent of renters, who are now 15 percentage points less apt than owners to put homeownership on a pedestal.

By last year, the accumulation of foreclosures and short sales had pushed the homeownership rate down to 65.2 percent from its all-time high of 69.2 percent in 2005. Some experts are forecasting that this year it will drop to 64 percent, a 20-year low.

“There are roughly 35 to 40 million renters, which includes millions who lost their homes in the crisis. They have to be viewing homeownership a different way,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “If you go back a generation ago, homeownership was essential to the American Dream. Now it’s tangential.”

A presidential push

America was largely a nation of renters until Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt made homeownership a top priority.

“No greater contribution could be made to the stability of the nation and the advancement of its ideals than to make it a nation of homeowning families,” Coolidge said.

Roosevelt put Coolidge’s vision into motion by establishing two agencies that were the forerunners of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in providing federal backing for mortgages. The move allowed financial institutions to significantly reduce down payments, interest rates and monthly payments to the point that, in many cases, owning was cheaper than renting. Then Roosevelt introduced the GI Bill, which paved the way for a dramatic expansion of roads, highways and sub-
divisions in the suburbs to accommodate some 16 million World War II veterans with government-backed mortgages.

As a result, the nation’s homeownership rate — the percentage of owner-occupied houses — soared from 43.6 percent in 1940 to 61.9 percent in 1960, according to the Census Bureau. Further government efforts to ease qualification standards boosted the rate to its peak by 2005.

Then came the foreclosure crisis with which Brown is so intimately familiar.

Standing at the black granite counter in the kitchen of the two-bedroom, two-bathroom basement unit she shares in Northeast Washington with three roommates, Brown sipped coffee and studied her rent bill. She picked up her iPhone and tapped on it with her thumbs. Every month, she divvies up the $2,300 bill and sends her roommates reminder texts to ensure it is paid on time.

Brown had also been scrupulous about paying her bills prior to acquiring her four houses. But that didn’t stop her from losing them.

Brown qualified for the mortgage on the Atlanta area townhouse based on her 750 credit score and $60,000 salary from her job as manager of a collection agency. It was her second house — a move-up property that was a step above the split-level starter home she and her husband had shared before the marriage dissolved. After getting the split-
level in the divorce settlement, she made it a rental. She acquired two other income properties, one of which already had a tenant who received a Section 8 federal rent subsidy.

Brown, who had dropped out of Georgia State University when she became pregnant with Jaylen, decided to leave the collection agency to go to broadcasting school to pursue a career in radio. The rental income and a $12,000 withdrawal from her 401(k) retirement account, she thought, would be her cushion during the transition.

“I was not put on this Earth to manage [other people’s] bad debt,” she said. “When I got divorced, I figured I’m already doing something so drastic I might as well hit the reset button on everything.”

But then tenants in two houses she owned lost their jobs and couldn’t pay the rent, leaving Brown to cover the mortgages. That left her no money to fund repairs at her third income property, which were required to continue the federal rent subsidy for her low-income tenant. Without the subsidy, she lost the tenant, resulting in the loss of three of her four properties.

“For the first time in my life, I had anxiety attacks,” Brown said. “I had been a collections manager, and I never knew what it was like to be late on a bill.”

By this time, she had landed an unpaid internship in Atlanta with radio personality Frank Ski. She loved the fun environment in the studio and saw radio as a powerful tool to entertain and inspire. Although she was inexperienced, Ski believed in her. He told her she had charisma and would go far.

“I was so happy” working there, she said. But “as soon as I’d leave the station, the drama of these houses would be playing out.”

One day in church, when she was seeking answers, she realized that there was nothing she could do to save the houses. With no income, her money would be running out soon. She moved into an apartment, stopped paying the mortgages and let three houses go. She eventually sold the fourth one at a loss.

“I decided to focus on what I could control — my career,” she said.

Renting is no stigma

In the past decade, Brown has worked her way up from an unpaid intern to executive producer of the “Frank Ski Show,” overseeing every aspect of the show’s production and occasionally appearing on the air.

Ski and a partner had the No. 1 morning show in Atlanta for 14 years before a disagreement with the station over the direction of the show took him off the air in 2012. Last year, WHUR invited Ski to fill the afternoon slot vacated when popular host Michael Baisden departed after a contract dispute with his syndicator. Listeners liked Ski, and last fall he persuaded Brown to come along. Now the team is laying the groundwork for a lucrative deal that would get the show picked up in numerous markets across the country.

As they worked out gags in their small office at Howard University on a weekday this winter, Brown, comedian Joe Clair and DJ/engineer Herb Hawkins seemed a little like fictional comedy writers Rob, Sally and Buddy on the old “Dick Van Dyke Show” — three witty people quipping about what they observe in their daily lives, only more urbane and sometimes a little profane.

Later, Brown said that living in the District has helped her get over any stigma she felt about no longer owning property. “In D.C., everybody rents,” Brown said. “I’ve got a lot of friends who make more than me who rent.”

Brown said she’d like to buy a house if she ever gets married again. For now, the only problem she has with her two-city rental life is having to leave Jaylen, now 13, who is growing up too fast.

As Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” played on the show, Brown called her son to make sure he got home safely from school. Since it was a Friday, she told him she couldn’t wait to see him that night.

Asked later about her priorities, she called up her Instagram page.

“Never would I have thought this would be my life . . . in & out of airports, on & off of metro trains,” Brown said in the posting. “But then I reflect on my son’s face when he sees me on Friday night when I walk in from the airport & that hug he gives me that immediately gives me life.”

With homeownership on the back burner, Brown’s American Dream is simply to be the best mother.

Scott Clement is a survey research analyst for The Washington Post. Scott specializes in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.

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