Discussions about, toward,
around, and alongside the
New England American Studies
Association's Fall 2011 Conference.
See the schedule at the bottom of
the page, and please add your voice
and perspective to the mix!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Home Sweet Home: The Role of Homeownership in American Popular Imagination and Public Policy

I will be blogging all this week about home/homeownership and its presence in public policy, politics, and popular culture. These are just a few of the issues and questions that I will address in November at the NEASA Conference…

Homeownership has long been ingrained in the mythology of what it means to be an American. As former CEO of the government-sponsored enterprise Fannie Mae James Johnson stated, “Property as an individual right has been fundamental to the American vision. Homeownership, from town house to farm, was the central image and reality that defined that right when the nation was born.”[i] The concept of the “American Dream” is grounded in the aspiration of citizens improving their own situations—living better than their parents—wherein democratic ideals promise prosperity. Homeownership (specifically the detached, single-family dwelling) is the cornerstone of this dream.

In her work Redesigning the American Dream (2002), architect and urban studies scholar Delores Hayden, states: 
During the last six decades, government subsidized programs have concentrated the bulk of capital resources for housing on the single-family detached house, and with two-thirds of 100 million occupied housing units are single-detached homes. These house encode Victorian stereotypes about “a woman’s place,” while single-family neighborhoods sustain the separation of the household form the world of jobs and public life. Together, houses and neighborhoods form an architecture of gender to twenty-first-century life.[ii]

In American society we understand homeownership as a fundamental desire, a right, and a sound financial investment. Yet, with the burst of the housing bubble we must begin look critically at the social value of ownership and to negotiate the 19th century ideologies of home with the socio-economic realities of 21st century families. Government subsidies for homeownership have created an imbalance in economic resources and demonstrate an inequality for citizens.

For an example of the social/economic inequalities of sub prime lending see: Natasha Lennard, “Community Stands Strong to Block an Eviction” New York Times, August 19, 2011

The housing crisis has impeded the simple notion of homeownership as benefiting the general public and the American home has become muddled in our desires to take a chance, to participate in consumer culture, to achieve social mobility, and to cultivate our family by the hearth simultaneously.

I leave you to ponder the following, and encourage you to comment below... 
  • Is it possible to update American housing to satisfy many different constituencies and imbue the mythology of the “American Dream” new meaning? What would this look like?

  • Is there a utilitarian distinction between renting and owning? Are the benefits associated with homeownership because of ownership itself or from other characteristics of the homeowners?

Written by Marieke Van Der Steenhoven
University of Southern Maine,  American and New England Studies 

[i] James A. Johnson, Showing America a New Way Home: Expanding Opportunities for Home Ownership (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996): 30.
[ii] Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002): 28-29.

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