To Have a House

'OH, to have a little house/To own the hearth and stool and all!' lamented Irish poet-playwright Padraic Column in "An Old Woman of the Roads."Owning a home confers a sense of stability, security, and identity, a feeling of belonging to a place. And, in practical terms, economists from Adam Smith on have seen it as a sound, almost foolproof, investment over a lifetime of ownership. That's why, for reasons of both head and heart, the current trends in home ownership in the United States are so disturbing. New Census Bureau reports show: * Some 91 percent of renters cannot qualify to buy a median-priced American house. * The percentage of Americans owning their own homes slipped in the 1980s from 64.4 percent to 64.2 percent. The '80s were the first decade since World War II when the percentage of Americans owning homes failed to rise. Surprisingly, the census survey found that high interest rates are not a major factor keeping renters from becoming buyers. Not enough cash saved for a down payment, monthly mortgage payments that would be too high, closing costs, and too much other debt remain the most difficult obstacles. There's more bad news: The closing costs for Federal Housing Administration mortgages are rising by about $1,000 on a $100,000 loan. The Mortgage Bankers Association estimates this increase will cut home sales by up to 200,000 annually. The National Association of Realtors' "Housing Affordability Index," based on housing prices and mortgage rates, shows the ability of a typical American family to buy an existing house slipped between February and April of this year. Add to these reports efforts by many hard-pressed cities and towns to raise real-estate taxes, and you're describing a hostile atmosphere for home buyers. The Bush administration seems all too silent on this subject. Yes, lack of adequate housing for the poor - whether built, bought, borrowed, or rented - remains an aching need and a national embarrassment. Seeking innovative approaches to increasing home ownership must not cause even a flicker of inattention to that pressing need. But maintaining a home-owning society is important, too. Pride of ownership is more than a cliche: It's a building block toward a family's self-esteem and financial well-being. It's a part of the American Dream that should be growing, not shrinking.

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