Taking time and making time: the lessons of Robert Biller

I have always known Robert Biller, who passed away Sunday, as a retired Dean. He’d stop by the school, and we’d chat about this and that. He always had time; I didn’t, not always. I’d have to run to class or some other obligation. Nonetheless, Bob was always kindly, always supportive, and always responded to any question I had.

He was the Dean of the School of Public Administration from 1976 To 1982, and then served the university in different roles, including the Vice President for External Affairs, Vice President for Undergraduate Affairs, and Executive Vice Provost.

He will be missed.

Renting, Rah Rah–the new housing fantasyland

Over at Richard Green’s blog, he asks the reasonable question: What is the right downpayment for a mortgage? As he notes, letting people borrow based on little to nothing is a stupid idea, though I disagree that borrowers are the major cause of “the nonsense of the past several years.” As he also notes, 25 percent is too high, creating a barrier to entry for people at the margin of home ownership and thus, the potential wealth-building opportunities it can provide.

Note, I said the wealth-building opportunities that home ownership can provide. I am not one of those people who believes that home ownership is a magical dream. Owning a home can tie you down and prevent you from finding better economic opportunities. Owning a pile can mean you are constantly cash-strapped, pouring money into poor-quality house–or, perhaps worse, leaving you with a house you can not maintain well enough for it to hold its value. It’s not clear that in terms of building wealth, home ownership is better than just saving your money.

However, it’s also quite clear that barriers to property acquisition among many ethnic minorities has reinforced the comparative poverty of these groups, and that that disparity has created intergenerational differences which will be very hard to overcome. In affluent white families, mumsy and dadsy hand you your college tuition, hand you their extensive professional networks, and then hand you the $60,000 you need to even put a foot in the door for a decent southern California home. Then they die and leave you their multi-million dollar home in Santa Monica, protected from the evil tax man by Proposition 13. You can then repeat the cycle for your kids. All this pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps is exhilarating, isn’t it? Now there’s nothing wrong with this, but it is plenty reinforcing.

With 25 percent down payments in California, in another 20 years, there will be a land-holding class of people in California, a landed gentry of people who get to own homes by virtue of the fact that their parents bought here years ago. That problem is already bad enough now. The rest of us? Forget it, unless you have rich uncles that write you big checks. This is not a California we want, necessarily; I’m getting to the point where living in my beloved southern California is not worth being unable to buy a home here. You get to a point in your life where you’d like to be able to have a back yard.

And it’s not necessarily a great idea to have too many people like me floating around rental markets. By raising the bar to owner-occupancy, you can push people into renting, and where supply is constrained, the people who bear the burden of that are not necessarily cash-wealthy renters like me.

In the aftermath of the bubble, I’ve seen a lot of thinking that strikes me as just as dangerous as home ownership bubble thinking: romanticizing renting. Note in the comments to Richard’s post that somebody asks whether renting is really that much worse than buying.

Many of the “Renting Rah-Rah” thinkers strike me as thinkers who are ensconced within the happy environs of fairly lively rental markets where renters enjoy quite a few protections from bad land lords. I have a friend who is a poverty lawyer in a rural state, however, and fully half her cases, I swear, are against slum lords who refuse to fix anything and, if you so much as even touch whatever is broken, you are fined up the wazoo and forego your damage deposit–even if you hired a qualified person out of your own pocket for the fix and the fix adds value.

Then there a slumlords who loll around and expect sex with you or one of your kids for a $500 break in a rent payment you can’t make. (Yes, this is a real case of hers, where the landlord approached a woman’s 16 year-old son and got him to “help his mother out.” This went on for months before the mother found out about it, as she thought the landlord had kindly slashed the rent because of the housing price collapse. Um, no.)

Then there are landlords who, if you make even the tiniest of scratches on the 10 year-old paint will seize every single cent of the the $5000 damage deposit they extorted out of you, or the landlords who feel entitled to raise your rent by at least $200 a year no matter what is going to on the rental market because they know they can screw you based on the transactions costs of moving.

If you, like me, love animals, forget it. If you, like me, love to garden, forget it. If you, like me, like to paint and fix things, forget it. If you’re going to be a renter outside of the NE US, you better love yourself some shitty carpet because you will never see a hardwood floor again—not until you visit your friends who actually own their homes.

In short, with your rental, everything around you is controlled by somebody else, and some landlords have great ways of helping you remember that. And there’s the little problem that if your landlord decides to sell the place out from under you, you don’t have as many protections as many policy people think you have. Landlords have all sorts of ways of making you miserable enough to move.

In the rush to “fix” home ownership after the bubble, people have largely forgotten that before people went house crazy, owning a home was a stable enough place to put your money and live your life. Nobody expected to become a millionaire from owner-occupied housing. Undergraduates didn’t expect their parents to buy them condos. People didn’t expect to “flip” anything unless they knew what they were doing. First-time buyers didn’t expect 7,000 square feet. People didn’t expect custom-built homes by the time they were 40. It was a place to live and secure, if not booming, investment that you had along with your savings account.

So before we pull the gate of home ownership behind those who indulged in bubble thinking and still benefit from it through foreclosure relief, how’s about we get real about renting for a bit? Real estate people and housing experts know remarkably little about renting.

Let’s study before we advocate for renting as the quick fix. It’s not. It wasn’t the quick fix before the bubble, and it isn’t now.