Do You Have to Buy a House to Love Where You Live?
Science says homeowners are more civically engaged—but renters hold their own.
Posted Oct 28, 2016
I almost bought a house this weekend.
My husband, Quinn, and I have been zealously monitoring the Blacksburg real estate market for months. We’ve toured a lot of crappy houses (the ones that fit into our budget) in that time, and this particular house was no different. The main attraction: It was priced low enough that we could afford to do some renovations. Cue the Pinterest kitchen vision board with quartz countertops and whisper-close cabinet drawers.
In the end we chickened out, afraid that even our renovation budget couldn’t make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. As of right now, we’re still looking. But sometimes I wonder why we’re looking at all. In 17 years of marriage, we’ve owned three houses for two years a pop each, and we've rented the rest of the time. I can confidently say that our 11 cumulative years as renters have been the happier ones, marked as they were by helpful landlords and the absence of crushing debt.
Yet something still drives me to consider buying a house the final sign of settledness. It's as if I can never be truly place attached until I have a mortgage. Lately, in fact, I cite my house-hunting as a sign of my success in fostering place attachment. “We really love it here,” I’ll say. “We’re looking to buy a house right now!”
In the scientific literature, homeowners and renters are often pitted against each other in feats of civic virtue. Homeownership is associated with stable neighborhoods, better schools, declining crime rates and civic-minded neighborhoods. Rentals, it is assume, must be linked with the opposite. In one 2013 study, Brian J. McCabe, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University, found that homeowners were more likely than renters to participate in local elections and join civic or neighborhood groups. Two reasons explain why:
- Homeowners have cash on the line. Because they’re inclined to preserve their financial investment of many tens of thousands of dollars, they’re well motivated to monitor their community’s development and get involved to preserve their property values.
- Homeowners tend to be more geographically stable, which allows them to develop the long-term social networks that lead to community participation.
Those differences in investment, stability, and local engagement have created something of a “second-class citizen” status for renters. If you’re any kind of responsible human, you shouldn't rent, people assume. They’ll do their level best to get you into a home of your own.
I don’t see it like that. I’ve spent several years now increasing my commitment to my town despite my housing situation. Am I too naïve to expect that other renters too will want to contribute to their community, regardless of their homeownership status? That altriuism might trump financial investment some of the time?
It’s not property values that motivate my behavior. It’s my current happiness and my desire to make Blacksburg a better place. As I point out in my book This Is Where You Belong, when we invest in our communities, we feel invested. But that investment can be non-monetary. Putting time and energy into your town is worth just as much emotionally.
Eventually, I imagine that my family will snare our own 70s-era kitchen in Blacksburg. But I don’t think it will make us any more committed to our town than we already are.
Brian J. McCabe, "Are Homeowners Better Citizens? Homeownership and Community Participation in the United States," Social Forces 91, no. 3 (March 2013): 929–54.