You had better believe that home ownership is part of the American credo

By Alan S. Chartock | December 17, 2022

One of my local newspapers recently ran a story about the lack of affordable housing in our area. This comes as no surprise — we have known about this problem for quite some time. I’ve written about it at length. The American Dream stipulates that we will own our own homes. There is just something about home ownership that fits into our sense of self-empowerment. I remember my mother and father paying a monthly stipend to our mortgage lending bank.

The idea of having to get a mortgage from a bank to actually own where we live sticks in our craw. It raises the question of who actually owns our homes. We Americans have pride in our real estate. The older we get, the more personally invested we seem to be into owning what we live in. We may have fooled ourselves into thinking that homeownership empowers us. If you are reading this now do you think that owning your own home, maybe in counter distinction to your parents, gives you a leg up?

When we bought our first home in Alford, Massachusetts, we had all kinds of grief handed to us by the local bank but we prevailed. It wasn’t comfortable, but we got our money. We bought our home with what we now think of as a tiny mortgage of, if I remember it correctly, $13,000. And we didn’t get it easily. We really had to beg for that amount. In fact, if the banks refused to loan you the money to buy a house, you were done; you were not going to be a home owner. Without going any further I will advance the theory that the personal predilections of individual bankers meant a great deal.

When when we moved to the Berkshires more than fifty years ago, there were relatively few Jewish people in our area. That meant very few Jewish kids in our schools. It meant relatively small Jewish houses of worship. While there is nothing like an overwhelming majority of Jewish kids in our schools, it certainly is the case that there are a lot more Jewish students in our schools today than there used to be. Maybe that’s because people are leaving the big cities like New York and Boston to settle here.

On Fire Island, where my parents had a summer home, it was not uncommon to be denied mortgage money for one reason or another. That was the case here as well, but things changed substantially as more and more of us New York people bought second homes. This is not to imply that there has been religious bigotry in our towns. In fact, when we moved to our first home in Alford, it wasn’t all that long before the political chief of the town came to my house and asked me to run for selectman. I tried to beg off, telling him that I didn’t have much of a chance since I was Jewish. He waved that away and he turned out to be right. I ran and I won.

There are many aspects to all of this. Obviously at the top of the list are the lending institutions which are too often the real owners of our homes. The banks, for instance, lend us the money to buy our homes. Sometimes the interest the bank charges can seem to be what used to be called “usury.” There were times in history that people charged enormous fees to lend us money to buy homes. Of course, if we don’t buy, we can rent but if you think about it, people who rent out homes or places that they own are under their own kinds of tremendous pressure.

Nevertheless, you had better believe that home ownership is part of the American credo.

Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected].