What is Homeownership, and What Is It For?

June 20, 2013

Americans call themselves "homeowners" from the moment they receive the keys to the homes they purchase, but long before they finish paying for them.

But rising foreclosure rates and declining home values call into question just what mortgagors actually own.


The "Rethinking Mortgage-Based Homeownership" symposium was convened in May at the UA to debate such issues. The two-day event, sponsored by the UA Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, brought scholars from around the country into dialogue with housing experts in Tucson, also discussing how perceptions of ownership influence financial decisionmaking.

Because a positive social status is associated with being a homeowner, lumping titleholders with and without mortgages into the single category of "homeowners" makes mortgages more attractive. For the same reason, as UA James E. Rogers College of Law professor Brent White discussed, this makes it harder for underwater homeowners to let go, even when it is in their financial interest to do so.

Symposium attendees also debated the benefits of homeownership, which depend on financial security. Sociologist Kim Manturuk of the University of North Carolina presented evidence that the social and health benefits of homeownership disappear when home equity does. Others argued that homeownership is overrated as an investment.

The symposium also brought a vigorous debate over policies to promote low-income homeownership, which attendees said backfires when housing is unaffordable. Advocates recognized the risks, but noted that homeownership is the only realistic way to build wealth for very low-income people, who would have to pay rent in any case.

My interest in this topic was inspired by a decade of research on housing in a very different context: Russia.

In Russia, people are reluctant to take out mortgages, in part because they do not perceive a mortgaged home as truly owned. Ownership in Russia suggests security and permanence; paying a mortgage thus feels more like rent.

This finding led me to ask: When and how did Americans come to equate owing with owning? A century ago, Americans typically viewed mortgage payments as savings toward future ownership, unlike today, where mortgages are seen as a routine cost of instantaneous ownership.   

The symposium, which was open to the public, was featured in the Arizona Daily Star article, "Rethinking the Virtues of Owning your Home."

Jane Zavisca is a UA associate professor of sociology. Her book, "Housing the New Russia," explores Russia’s troubled attempt to set up an American-style mortgage system. She has just received a new grant from the Minerva Research Initiative to study the effects of homeownership on societal stability in Central Eurasia.