Rant: The War on Renters

Aspiring presidents vs. aspiring homeowners


One of the biggest obstacles to my dream of owning a home any time in the near future would be the election of Hillary Clinton.

Or Barack Obama.

Or John McCain.

All three senators hope to move into new digs come January, but they want the rest of us to sit tight and stay put. While you won't hear the Oval Office wannabes coming out explicitly in favor of the astronomically high home prices that stand between renters and ownership, each candidate seeks to prevent the housing bubble's post-boom correction from flooding the market with millions of relatively cheap properties.

In their concerted attempt to "keep Americans in their homes," Clinton, Obama, and McCain have called for the federal government to spend billions of dollars to curtail foreclosures and shield Americans from the consequences of their own risky investment decisions. Makes you think the candidates are on your side.

Not if you're a renter. Foreclosures boost the supply of housing at a faster than expected clip. With supply for potential buyers (i.e., renters) increasing, home prices stand to fall (albeit modestly) to less insane levels, particularly in overheated areas such as Southern California, the region I call home. That increasing supply of housing and those lower prices could be why a Zogby poll released in April showed that, despite the economy's tailspin, most Americans think now is a good time to buy a home.

And here, dear renters, is where our electoral triumvirate comes in to foil us.

Clinton's proposal is the most far-reaching. The junior senator from New York would stop foreclosures by fiat—a proposal that wins the "I Didn't Know a President Could Do That" award—and spend around $30 billion on restructuring troubled mortgages. Obama stops short of Clinton's 90-day "moratorium," but the Illinois pol also wants to inject $30 billion into the mortgage market.

Until the middle of April, McCain was alone among the major presidential aspirants in calling bullshit on this idea. The Arizona senator's line on the mortgage meltdown—that he would refuse to "play election-year politics with the housing crisis," as quoted in the Los Angeles Times—showed such deference to the free market, it was too good to last. So it didn't. By April the straight talker was peddling his own multibillion-dollar borrower assistance package—which, he insisted, would help only "deserving" borrowers, of course.

Lost in the rush to help troubled borrowers is an understanding of what this crisis isn't: a situation in which "Americans are losing their homes." More accurately, borrowers who can no longer afford their mortgage payments are becoming—gasp!—renters. "Americans are living in other people's homes" doesn't quite tug at the heartstrings the same way, which is part of the reason you're not hearing about it.

Also lost in the flood of campaign promises is the housing bubble's true crisis, which barely anyone in Washington cares to mention. In 2001 renters who wanted to buy a house in Los Angeles County could expect to spend about $200,000, roughly the area's median home price at the time. By the peak of the housing bubble in 2007, the median price had shot up to about $550,000, which the California Association of Realtors estimated would easily take more than $100,000 in annual pre-tax income for a family to afford.

Wrap your civic-minded intellect around that one: more than $100,000 a year to afford a modest home. Candidates, there's your crisis—and thankfully, the market is already taking care of it, through the correction of foreclosures and the resulting increase in the supply of available housing. All a President Clinton, Obama, or McCain would have to do is watch from the Oval Office as that great American dream of homeownership becomes more and more accessible to the likes of me. Unless, that is, the next president is against affordable housing.

Paul Thornton is an assistant articles editor at the Los Angeles Times editorial page.