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How Homes Structure The American Dream


All summer long, NPR is exploring the American Dream, what it means to people and why it matters. Homeownership has always been a cornerstone of that dream, whether it's a covered wagon and plot of land, or a picket fence on a cul-de-sac.

NPR's business correspondent Chris Arnold covers the housing market and he joins us now. Hi, Chris.


MARTIN: So, if we look over the past decade, Chris, housing was at the center of the bubble in the economy when things were going really great. But then it was also at the center of the collapse when that bubble burst. How has all of that turmoil, in the housing market, affected the popular conception of the American Dream?

ARNOLD: Well, in some ways you could say it's been a frontal assault on the American Dream. We saw millions of people who thought that they had achieved a big part of that dream which is, of course, owning their own houses, only then later to get foreclosed on and kicked out of their homes. And some of them bought houses that they couldn't afford and they never should have bought those houses.

Others though got cheated by crooked mortgage brokers. Or they really should have been able to stay in the house, but the banks made mistakes and denied them from federal programs that could have helped them save your house. So you might think that all this has tarnished the American Dream a little bit, and probably has for some people.

MARTIN: What has that meant for our country's overall perception or vision of the American Dream? How has that perception changed?

ARNOLD: Overall, no, I don't think it has. And right after the housing crash, we've saw all kinds of big, important sounding stories about how homeownership doesn't make any sense anymore, and it's a brave new world out there where renting is a new owning, and all this stuff. Twenty years ago, it made sense for most Americans to own a house. I think now it still makes sense for most Americans to own a house. And perhaps particularly right now, because homes have gotten a lot cheaper and interest rates are way low. And by many measures it's probably been 40 years since it's been this affordable to own a house.

MARTIN: And I understand we have some numbers that helped to gauge how Americans are thinking about homeownership these days?

ARNOLD: Yes, just a week or so ago, the Woodrow Wilson Center came out with a poll of likely voters. It found that 84 percent of the people said that homeownership is just as or more important than it was five years ago. Ninety percent of people said that they still think that homeownership is part of the American Dream. So, overall it doesn't seem to have shaken this almost innate desire to own a home that many people have.

MARTIN: And government in America, the government has also played a big part for generations in really promoting this idea of homeownership and its role in the American Dream ideal, right? What responsibility does government have in framing our perception of this dream?

ARNOLD: Well, that's a question we're going to be asking ourselves going forward, right? I mean the government is going to reassess and reshape Fannie Mae and looking at the mortgage interest tax deduction. These are all things that promote homeownership in this country and they're all up for review right now over the next few years.

And yes, we do have is longer tradition. You go back to the 1860s, there was the Homestead Act, you know, that let people buy farms. And even before that, people would come from Europe and they'd say, you know, there's a sort of anti-feudal impulse in America that people here aspire to live without some landlords sitting on their back demanding rents.

You know, these impulses have been here for a long time and I just think we're not going too far away from that anytime soon.

MARTIN: Economics correspondent Chris Arnold, thanks so much, Chris.

ARNOLD: Thanks a lot, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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