In a recent news article, I was quoted as saying that Congress and the lay press don’t really understand the apartment industry. This was after I had spoken before a Congressional subcommittee in the Capitol. The quote continued to note my frustration that the Republicans on the committee wanted to ignore apartments and spend their time saluting the single family home; and the Democrats only wanted to discuss subsidized housing.
After that article appeared, several of my colleagues at The Bozzuto Group expressed both surprise and dismay at this observation and have asked me to elaborate. I will attempt to do so here.
For many of us who are active in the business of developing, building or maintaining apartments, and even for those of us at companies like mine where we also build and sell homes, it seems obvious that what we do not only fulfills an important need, it is of value to the American public. Whether we create and run high-end rental housing or apartments for people of more limited means, we know that what we do has great value. We know that there is demand for what we do. We know that we are providing the homes of Americans just as much as we are when we build homes for ownership. At our company, and in our industry, we are proud of what we do.
Furthermore, between 35 and 40 percent of Americans rent. Yet, in my experience and as my morning in the Capitol demonstrated, most of our public officials still think of these people as those who cannot afford homeownership. In this view, Americans are divided into two camps: those who own homes and those who want to. There seems to be a belief that if you rent, it is because you either lack the funds to buy a home or you are too young to do so. And in either case, the politicians seem to believe that you are unimportant if you rent because, they believe, if you rent, you don’t vote.
The historical reasons for this mindset would require a book to explain. So I won’t even try here. But the fallacy of this belief – this conviction that everyone should own a home – should have been demonstrated clearly by the recent housing collapse where public policy, excess liquidity in the marketplace and rampant greed (on the part of not just the lending and realty industries but also those who bought more home than they could afford) combined to put many Americans into serious, and in many cases, devastating financial trouble.
But many public officials, and certainly a lot of the public, still don’t understand. They still live under the old paradigm. Somebody needs to tell them: This is no longer the fifties. Many people rent in America as a matter of choice, not necessity. Many of these people love the flexibility renting provides. Many like that renting allows them to live in places where they couldn’t afford to buy. These people, these renters, are contributing members of the community who hold full-time jobs, spend money, volunteer in their community and vote.
Now, let there be no confusion about my personal perspective. I am not against homeownership. Far from it. I have owned a home for thirty-some years. My company builds beautiful homes for sale and I’m very proud of that. But I have always believed that the decision whether to buy or rent is not an economic choice, or at least not primarily so.
Lots of arguments and examples can be used to show that owning a home is either a better or worse economic investment over time than is renting and investing what would have been a down payment. I’m not going to get into that economic debate here. No, the decision to rent or buy should be a lifestyle choice. If you value your flexibility, you should rent. If you are at a point in your life where you have a level of social stability – you are not likely to change jobs, change communities, change mates – and you can afford the maintenance that comes with homeownership – then perhaps owning makes more sense. But the decision should be made, like every other, with a clear understanding of the trade-offs.
So yes, the public and public officials largely don’t know much about the apartment business and they clearly don’t understand who the renter of today is. Anything any of us who work in the rental industry can do to increase the awareness of who rents today and why, we should do. The National Multi Housing Council and the National Apartment Association, in an effort to address this issue, have created a new website that does a great job of this. I call your attention to www.weareapartments.org.
And through their political action efforts, these associations are working to inform our elected officials. But, this effort can’t be purely left to the associations. We each must use our contacts and influence to make the public aware that renters deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity as are those of us who own homes.