The lobby of the Bayport Post Office was abuzz with complaints about Islip's property taxes recently when a young postal clerk stopped the conversation cold. "I know taxes are high," she said, "but when I pull into the driveway and see my house and know it's mine, I own it and my kids have a home of their own, I don't worry so much about taxes."
That kind of pride in home ownership has largely gone out of fashion since the mortgage meltdown. Lenders gave risky mortgages for overpriced homes to unqualified households, and when the bubble burst, the nation's economy reeled. Now many of these lenders will not give construction loans for anything but rentals and won't give home mortgage loans to any but well-heeled households.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama took note. "Too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected," he said. That, along with the difficulty of some homeowners to refinance, is "holding our entire economy back."
The postal clerk instinctively knew that home ownership is good for families. Countless studies have shown that it builds self esteem, and children who live in homes their parents own have higher test scores. It also builds net worth. While it is true that those who purchased homes at the peak of the housing market saw values plummet, it's certainly not true over the long haul. Ask Long Islanders who bought homes in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s about the gap between their current values and the original prices they paid.
Owner-occupied homes build neighborhood stability, especially in lower-income communities. Homeowners vote at higher percentages than do renters, and are more likely to belong to civic organizations. As a consequence, elected officials are more responsive to them.
Yet the number of Long Islanders receiving home mortgages fell by nearly two-thirds since 2005, according to federal housing data. Lower-income minority neighborhoods were especially hard hit. New mortgages for blacks and Hispanics on Long Island sank 86 percent from 2005 to 2011, compared with a 56 percent drop for whites in the same period.
Economists watch housing statistics closely because few things stimulate the economy as much as home purchases. It's no wonder when you consider the ripple effect of the purchase price, closing fees, taxes on the sale, and the furnishings and equipment home ownership requires.
Unfortunately, housing downturns take a long time to recover. It takes time to sell a home in a down market and to reduce the inventory of foreclosed homes. But, at least nationally -- because of record low interest rates -- things are improving.
Yet Long Island is lagging behind the rest of the country. Our housing prices during the boom rose faster and higher than in most of the country, and they dropped further during the bust. We have a relatively high percentage of foreclosed homes. And another, counterintuitive, reason for our lag is that less than 20 percent of Long Island's housing consists of rentals -- way below the percentage of neighboring suburbs.
Because business and some political leaders, most notably Mayor Paul Pontieri of Patchogue, have championed the ability of rentals to transform moribund downtowns, more rentals are being approved -- in downtown Patchogue and Riverhead, and in Coram, to name a few. Banks realize loans to build rentals are good business -- but they are reluctant to lend for home mortgages and for-sale construction.
Mitchell Pally, chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute, said that at a recent bankers forum the institute sponsored, "Lenders frequently expressed a willingness to lend for rental construction but a wariness for home ownership construction loans."
Lending to create legal rentals on Long Island is smart, but it shouldn't come at the expense of lending for home ownership. A full spectrum of housing options is needed -- from below-market-rate rentals to market-rate rentals; from affordable houses to luxurious ones -- if Long Island is to attract and retain entry-level workers, high-income executives and all those in between.
It's shortsighted and destructive to abandon home ownership, the sector that once drove Long Island's economy. It can again.
Jim Morgo, former chief executive of the Long Island Housing Partnership, is an economic development consultant to the Long Island Association.