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Scholar: Homeowners Not Necessarily Better Citizens Than Renters

Brian McCabe

Brian McCabe, assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown, says that homeowners are slightly more engaged and more trusting with neighbors, but he believes that “all of this should be weighed against how much we spend promoting homeownership.”

January 31, 2013 – Georgetown sociologist Brian McCabe thinks the federal government should consider more closely how it balances the costs and benefits of promoting homeownership.

“On one hand, we provide massive subsidies to homeowners,” notes McCabe, a 2002 graduate of the School of Foreign Service. “The mortgage interest deduction alone will cost the federal government more than $100 billion in revenue this year – that’s more than double the entire budget of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.”

And while McCabe says homeowners are typically thought of as better citizens than tenants, that theory “has only rarely been tested or reconsidered.”

Testing a Theory

Intrigued by the question, McCabe, who also holds a master’s degree in geography from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University, set out to test the theory in a study recently published in the journal Social Forces.

“Homeowners are slightly more likely to join civic and school groups, but not more likely to join any other kind of group,” he says.

Homeownership, Social Capital

To further understand and quantify potential societal benefits of homeownership, McCabe published a second article in the journal City & Community that examined the relationship between homeownership and social capital.

“When we talk about social capital, we’re interested in the networks that we have and how they yield benefits,” he says.

These can include things as simple as borrowing a cup of sugar or helping someone to move or the feeling that a neighbor is watching out for you, the professor explains.

Weighing Benefits

Although his data show that homeowners are slightly more engaged and more trusting with neighbors, he believes that “all of this should be weighed against how much we spend promoting homeownership.”

He believes this is particularly true about the mortgage interest deduction, which is one of the largest tax deductions in the U.S.

“It’s an enormous sum of revenue that the government forgoes trying to promote homeownership,” he says.

The professor also has begun to focus on communities and neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.

In his community-based learning course, D.C.: Neighborhoods, Poverty and Inequality, McCabe encouraged his students to think about the different types of investments citizens make in their communities.

Tale of One City

“There are the people who come and go with the Obamas and the Bushes,” he says, “Some neighborhoods are very transient and gentrifying quickly. Others are much more stable, reflecting a side of the city that doesn’t change with each presidential administration.”

McCabe says most of the beliefs about American homeownership in the beginning of the 20th century originate from the idea that property ownership was an important component of citizenship, investing people in the well-being of the nation.

World War I-era advertisements included slogans such as “The homeowner is the best patriot” and “Fight Bolshevism, buy a home.”

“A lot of these notions that we have about homeownership, it’s not clear that it’s going to be true going forward,” he says.

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