Milk is bad for you. Eggs are bad for you.

On a humid summer day, fresh air and sunshine are bad for you. Unless you don’t get enough Vitamin D, that is, and then staying out of the sun is bad for you.

I’ve gotten used to learning that so many things I was brought up to believe were good could actually be pretty bad that I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about this one: Homeownership is bad for you. Or at least, it’s not as nearly as good for you as everyone thought, even just a few years back.

With millions of homes in foreclosure and millions more empty after their owners walked away because they owed more than the house was worth, we all know what this crisis looks like. But depressed values, tight credit and a glut on the market will be with us for a while, and this looks like more than just a dip in the business cycle, raising doubts that homeownership is still the pathway to financial security — if it ever was.

Homeowners are starting to see their houses as just houses and not a source of wealth, either in the short term or as a retirement nest egg. Houses are like cars: expensive and durable, but not something that is going to make us rich.

And combined with the other undesirable aspects of mass homeownership, more people are questioning whether this aspect of the American Dream is really that desirable, and whether it should be subsidized by the federal government to the tune of more than $100 billion a year (about the cost of the war in Afghanistan).

Homeownership’s slide from grace showed up last week when Time Magazine devoted its cover to a story by Barbara Kiviat titled “Rethinking homeownership: Why owning a home may no longer make economic sense.”

In her piece, Kiviat goes after one of the most cherished items in the federal tax code: the deduction of mortgage interest, which is seen as a middle-class birthright.

But Kiviat is a detractor. For one thing, she point out, it’s unfair. There is no similar tax break for renters when they pay their housing costs. And the mortgage deduction doesn’t even treat all homeowners equally, giving disproportionate tax breaks to the wealthy.

One-third of homeowners don’t even take the advantage of the benefit because they don’t itemize deductions on their federal tax returns.

About 19 million families with incomes between $40,000 and $75,000 a year save about $10 billion.

But the 2.8 million families with incomes of more than $250,000 get $15 billion back from the government, making this federal subsidy a much sweeter deal the wealthier you are. The average middle class benefit is $542 a year, which is certainly nice, but doesn’t seem like a major behavior changer.

Rather than a leg up for those aspiring to enter the middle class, owning a home can be a millstone, holding them back. When there is a mill closure in a rural Maine town, who is better off: the renter, who can move where there’s a job, or the homeowner, who can’t sell and has to sit around hoping that the industry comes back?

Kivet also goes after some of the research that provides the social engineering rationale for such programs. Homeownership is supposed to create stable neighborhoods, stronger families and more involved citizens. But there is a difference between causation and correlation.

A 2009 study in the journal Real Estate Economics found that kids living in owned homes are more likely to graduate from high school. But Kiviat reported that’s even more true for families that owned cars.

“Should we give cars the credit?” she asks. “Or should we instead realize that both the home and the car are markers of something else, like a stable family life or living in a nice neighborhood?”

So if it’s not a good investment, it robs people of their flexibility and its social benefits are hard to pin down, why do we still pay people to borrow and buy a home?

The answer may just be that we won’t.

Federal housing subsidies could be better used to provide affordable rental options for people who want them, instead of helping the wealthiest buy their dream homes.

That would require all of us to fundamentally rethink the way we look at housing, which shouldn’t be too hard. The last two years have showed us how unrealistic it was to bank on ever-growing home values to live beyond our means.

Because as this crisis has shown, when things go wrong, owning a home can be very bad for your health.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]