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Home ownership; THE GRASS MIGHT BE GREENER IF IT'S SHARED

By Marshall IngwersonStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1981



Los Angeles

About half of Dan Freeman's friends own houses. About half -- like him -- don't. This is how neatly the line can fall. What seemed until recently to be a matter of timing to Mr. Freeman has become a chasm he can't get his family across.

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His town, Orange, Calif., is average: a suburb on an outside edge of the Los Angeles sprawl full of the white frame houses and modest stuccoed casas that people came from the Midwestern to live in half a century ago.

With he and his wife both working full time, his kids in junior high, and luxuries like vacation trips already shaved, Dan Freeman can't quite accept the idea that he can't buy a house here. But it's in the numbers, and the Freeman's frustration rises. They need close to $40,000 in combined annual income and some $20,000 down to qualify for a loan that will buy them a house in Orange.

It's not a private problem. Behind it, for many young families, is the sound of a symbol crashing.

Nor is it a California problem. According to Glen Crellin, an economist with the National Association of Realtors, California is a preview of what's to come, sooner or later, for the rest of the nation.

As American dreams go, owning a house is the most popular Americans have had since World War II, and it may have been the dream most people were able to realize. Until Now.

The lawn was a private paean to open space. The living room -- off limits to the kids -- waited shrinelike for the really nice occasion that almost never came. Now some say the grass may be greener if the lawn is shared.

"Home ownership," President Ronald Reagan declared in christening a special commission for affordable housing last month, "is a symbol of the family unit and neigborhood and is essential if we're to have social and economic stability in our land." The problem is that in California, and to an extent elsewhere, the good life seems to have run short. There are too few houses and too many households. And, of course, the houses cost too much for people who don't already have real estate sweeping them ahead of inflation -- or in- laws boosting their fortunes.

Most young families climb out of the back seat of the real estate broker's sedan disappointed, a sympathetic broker says.

For them, "The vision of the single-family house in the suburbs is simply not viable any more," says Rocky TArantello, assistant professor of business finance and economics at the University of Southern California.

"This is not a bump in the road," George sternlieb at Rutgers University warns. "It's a major turning point in a 50- year housing cycle." Dr. Sternlieb, director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers, predicted the present housing problems some 10 years ago in his book, "The Affluent Suburb."

The upshot, the residential landscape that will emerge from the current crunch, is already being built. The popular ideals are likely to change with the landscape.

"You don't have to create the future, it's already here," Dr. STernlieb insists. He points to the number of children per family, which has dropped as more women take up careers to make ends meet. (Housing has risen from 18.3 percent of monthly budgets in 1970 to between 35 and 40 percent.) Lives are changing already, in Dr. Sternlieb's view, and attitudes will follow a step behind.

Most condominium owners, for instance, see themselves in a temporary shelter on their way to a single-family house. If they are frustrated in their progress , their priorities may change. More of their money may go to eleborate vacations every year instead of toward the lawns, heavy mortgages, and big families associated with a single-family house.

The California landscape in 10 or 15 years may look more like the French Riviera, Fred Case, an economist at the University of California at Los Angeles, speculates.

This means, above all, density. Houses are being built smaller. Dr. Case foresees a standard 16 units to an acre, up from a current standard of about 5 per acre, and a Mediterranean-style orientation to the sun to cut the cost of heating. Some American builders are already building expensive new homes so well landscaped and designated, Dr. case says, that at 16 to an acre you hardly know how densely packed the units are.