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The Housing Bust Has a Good Side

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Anyone who has seen a friend kick an addiction -- be it to alcohol, drugs or cigarettes -- knows the extreme discomfort and force of will required. America has long suffered repeated bouts of binging on real estate. The booms inevitably trigger busts, one of which we're now in deep.

But there is some bright side here. As they say, with pain comes gain. The collapse in house prices could help the environment, stabilize family finances and strengthen our economic base over the long term.

True, the housing crash continues to drag down today's economy. Prices have fallen nearly 32 percent from their 2005 high, according to the Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller 20-city index. One in five Americans with a mortgage is "underwater." That means these owners owe more on their home than the home can sell for. Economists expect house prices to rise only about 1 percent between now and 2015, leading some to call this a "lost decade" for homeowning.

What we really have is a return to certain realities obscured by the housing bubble. Ten years ago, soaring house prices created a "wealth effect." This was an illusion of newfound prosperity, which prompted homeowners to borrow heavily off their rising equity and spend the money, much of it at the mall. They didn't save much for retirement, figuring that they could live off the proceeds from selling their home. Shabby lending practices exploded, snaring many Americans who could not afford what they were buying into paycheck-to-paycheck existences or foreclosure.

When the music stopped, the wealth effect geared into reverse. Families pulled back on spending. They began to "de-leverage" their finances -- that is, start paying off their debt. Construction workers, landscapers, salespeople and others living off the bubble lost their jobs.

The resulting unemployment is troublesome, but won't the American economy become stronger when families start carefully investing for their future, rather than relying on the magic-mushroom "high" of ever-rising home prices? Isn't it better for the environment that prospective homebuyers now value smaller houses that use less energy, take up less space and are often located closer to work, schools and shopping?

And isn't it good for American towns and cities where these smaller and older houses are located? Once rejected by status-conscious house hunters as "starter homes," bungalows and capes are becoming the permanent and beloved family residences that they were a couple of generations ago. Neighborhoods populated mainly by older folks and unmarried hipsters now draw families with children, bringing new life to formerly struggling commercial centers.

Speaking of which, the so-called lost decade for homeowners has become a "found decade" for homebuyers. Young people can easily find far more affordable housing, although getting a mortgage has become tougher. They don't have start off their working lives drowning in debt.

One must feel for the homeowners who now owe more on their mortgages than their homes' value. Some borrowed recklessly, but many just got caught up in a frenzy whipped by powerful interests. The real-estate industry peddled homes as no-lose investments. Deregulated lenders became debt pushers (while passing the risks onto others). The Federal Reserve sustained the market's boil by keeping interest rates very low, with the Fed chairman himself dismissing the manic speculation as "froth."

The boom-bust cycle in real estate has repeated itself so often in our history that it would be foolish to declare the housing addiction "cured." We are, after all, a land of bounteous acreage and a certain grandiosity when it comes to the material. But since this latest excess had to come to an ugly end, let's at least get something good out of it.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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