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Harlan: Stop focusing on boosting homeownership

April 13, 2013|By Jeffrey Harlan

There are visible signs in Costa Mesa that the housing market is recovering.

After a few years of virtually no new residential construction (between 2009 and 2012, Costa Mesa added only 56 new housing units, with zero in 2011), it's heartening to see construction crews busy and the Planning Commission agendas getting longer.

And while the real estate industry seems to gain some positive momentum, our elected and appointed officials continue to complain about an odd statistic. They are just not satisfied with Costa Mesa's homeownership rate.

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Officials seem to think it's the city's job to improve the perceived imbalance between the percentage of homeowners and renters.

I'd be surprised if your average Costa Mesan (homeowner or renter) really knew the city's owner-renter ratio. It's about 40-60 for about 40,000 housing units, based on 2010 U.S. Census figures. That's the lowest rate in the county and among our neighboring communities: Newport Beach (55-45), Santa Ana (48-52), Irvine (50-50) and Huntington Beach (60-40). In every local city, though, there is a significant population of renters.

So why is a higher percentage of renters in Costa Mesa necessarily a bad thing?

The commonly held belief is that homeowners have a bigger stake in the community: They've made a significant financial commitment, and they have a longer-term interest in making sure their city of choice offers a solid return on their investment.

Homeowners, the theory goes, are also more likely to involve themselves in civic affairs, participate in youth athletic programs and school activities, and contribute to the local economy (through consumption of home improvement goods and services, as well as paying property taxes). Homeowners are rooted, and renters are merely transient.

At best these claims are anecdotal, and at worst they are ingrained in a historically discriminatory perspective. The subtext is that homeowners are simply a better class of people than renters.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking.

First, it paints all renters with the same broad brush. It lumps seniors, students, singles, couples and families together as if they are one monolithic community, defined by how they choose to pay for their shelter. These groups have different needs and personal preferences for housing.

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