If there is a story of the 20th century in American housing, it is probably the country's turnaround from a nation of renters 100 years ago to a nation of homeowners at the end of 1999.
The latest statistics from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found 67 percent of Americans owning a home at the end of the third quarter, an all-time high that was fueled largely by homeownership gains among minorities. The percentages mean 70.5 million families in this country own their homes.
One hundred years ago, it was just the opposite, with only about one-third of Americans owning a home. But all that changed following World War II, when government-backed mortgages and more liberal tax and lending policies combined to make it far easier for average people to buy houses.
Why have we felt compelled to create a nation of homeowners? The long-espoused belief is that homeowners make better citizens. If you own a home, the thinking goes, you have a stake in the community--you are more willing to put down roots in that spot, more likely to be involved in your neighborhood, more inclined to vote and, in general, more active in the welfare of society as a whole.
Apartment industry trade groups have challenged that logic in the past, and just recently the National Multi Housing Council produced a new research study that it says refutes those homeowning myths.
The study, conducted for the council by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, found that renters really are more socially engaged, equally involved in community groups and similarly attached to their communities and religious institutions when compared with their homeowning counterparts.
"Apartment residents should get much more credit for being good neighbors and active participants in their local communities," said Jonathan Kempner, president of the National Multi Housing Council. "The differences between house owners and apartment residents have clearly been overstated."
Among the study's findings:
* Nearly 33 percent of apartment dwellers report spending a social evening at least once a week with someone who lives in their neighborhood, compared with just less than 17 percent of house owners.
* Equal percentages of homeowners and renters are members of sports groups (21.8 percent), while 10.3 percent of apartment dwellers and 10.8 percent of house owners are members of a literary, art, discussion or study group.
* Almost half of apartment residents, 44 percent, attend religious services at least once a month, compared with 54.7 percent of homeowners.
* Slightly more than 60 percent of renters say they feel "close" or "very close" to their town or city, with 66 percent saying they are "interested" or "very interested" in politics and national affairs, both of which put them at about the overall national average for people reporting such levels of interest.
Still, there is probably no stopping the march toward increased homeownership in the coming century.
Even though minorities are catching up with whites in terms of their percentage of homeownership, they still have a long way to go: Blacks own at a 47 percent rate, Hispanics at 45.5 percent and whites at 73.5 percent. As minority outreach programs in both the home-sale and mortgage businesses continue to grow, we can expect additional gains for minorities in the coming years, which in turn should drive the homeownership rate even higher.
One thing that you can't argue with is that homeownership has created enormous wealth for many Americans who invested in a house since World War II. By some estimates, Americans hold more than $1 trillion in equity in our homes. For most older Americans, that means their house is their single biggest asset.
A disciplined renter certainly could sock away plenty of cash and make a tidy return. But one of the greatest advantages of homeownership has been its role as a forced savings plan--even if it sometimes feels more like a forced spending plan.