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Reaching Renters: Helping renters access the American Dream

It's time to treat renters like homeowners

Renters have different reasons for why they rent – they want to live in a good home, in a safe neighborhood, with strong schools for their kids, they want to be close to their job, or, they want the flexibility to move, often not offered by homeownership – but, perhaps most critically, they want and deserve the freedom to choose the housing option that is right for them. The NRHC is committed to a more inclusive vision of the American Dream, one that offers promise to all Americans, not just those who own their homes.

It is often assumed that renters only do so because they can’t afford to be homeowners, but more Americans are renting today for a variety of reasons, including demographic shifts such as an aging population and young adults delaying major life decisions like getting married and having children. Some can’t easily get a mortgage, and others, particularly many Baby Boomers and Millennials, enjoy the flexibility of not owning a home.

As researchers from the University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation found in research published earlier this year:

People often choose to rent because it offers flexibility and affordability. First, we found that many households made the decision to rent for reasons that had nothing to do with the housing stock itself. Instead, the surveys and interviews revealed the important role that renting plays in people’s housing trajectories, and especially in managing life transitions. […] Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents were already renters before moving into their current units — 35.8% rented single-family homes, while 30% had been living in multifamily buildings. Many also said that they chose to rent because of its positive attributes: 42.9% of respondents indicated that they were renting because it was more affordable, more convenient, provided more flexibility, and/or allowed them to access a better neighborhood. Almost one in five respondents said that they had no plans to own in the future.

In single-family rentals, we offer many of the amenities of homeownership to a population that consists primarily of working families. Some of our renters want the flexibility of being able to change neighborhoods or cities within a few years without having to buy and sell a house each time; others are saving up for the down payment required to buy their first home; others are single parents who want a yard for their kids and a garage for their car, plus the convenience of being able to quickly pay rent and make maintenance requests online. 

Those renters are all hard-working, productive members of society; they deserve just as much as anyone else to feel that they are part of the American Dream.

Our colleagues in the apartment industry offer a different type of dream, one that more often places an emphasis on urban, walkable lifestyles better suited for those without children, and shared amenities like gyms and rooftop pools. 

As a society, we should not pick winners and losers between the different types of housing options that Americans are inclined to choose. Instead, we should recognize that different types of people can and will make different choices about what housing option is right for them at a certain point in their life, and support those choices accordingly.

Single-family rental homes are not a bet against homeownership. Rather, they are an important piece of a vibrant housing market and, for many, are a stepping stone to homeownership. The NRHC firmly believes in the importance of fostering public policies that incentivize homeownership and offer Americans access and the opportunity to purchase a home. But we also recognize that homeownership is not the right option for everyone at every point in their lives. We believe that all Americans should be supported by policies that provide access to quality housing, no matter where they are on the continuum of renting or owning.

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Indeed, it is at the policy level where far more time is spent debating and passing key policies associated with homeownership, like the mortgage interest tax deduction. As the researchers from Berkeley wrote: 

U.S. housing policy has long privileged homeownership (including through the mortgage interest tax deduction as well as through institutions like the Federal Housing Administration), but rental housing provides important benefits, and the surveys and interviews revealed that the majority of respondents were happy with their decision to rent, at least for now.

One scholar from the Brookings Institution summed it up more concisely: “Under U.S. housing policies, homeowners mostly win, while renters mostly lose.”

Renters deserve the same commitment from policymakers that homeowners are afforded: improved access and choice, and the opportunity to reside in a high-quality home. At the federal, state and local levels, there are exciting new policy ideas, like renters tax credits and zoning changes, entering the bloodstream of policy discussion about how to build housing markets that work for everyone.

We believe it is critical to bring the single-family rental industry, and renters themselves, to the table to participate in these important discussions. We recognize and share concerns about housing affordability, and are glad to see non-traditional political coalitions forming that are focused on the only policy solution that will truly make housing available and affordable for all Americans: reducing barriers that hinder more affordable housing supply from coming to market.

Those of us within the single-family rental industry also have an important role to play in changing the perceptions of renters and renting. 

NRHC members have spent almost $4 billion rehabilitating homes in communities across the country. Our members are developing new technology that continues to make operating and maintaining thousands of disparate properties not only possible but operationally efficient. We are offering more housing choices for families and providing a best-in-class experience that upholds the reputation of the industry as a whole. Our members are active in the communities in which they operate, teaming up with nonprofits to fill backpacks for students in need and encouraging employees to give back to their community. We also encourage our residents to be good citizens and active, involved members of their community. Their presence in neighborhoods should never be marginalized.

Renting is ultimately about flexibility and choice: The choice to live in a single-family house, with a garage for your car, a yard for your kids, and enough space to make your house a home. And that, is the American Dream.

Many of the new technological solutions that have come on line to help the single-family rental industry mature are aimed at making this vision a reality. 

From self-showing for new rentals, allowing prospective renters to look at more homes and find the perfect fit, to 24/7 online maintenance requests, the SFR industry is focused on providing a superior rental experience that enables more Americans to access the housing solutions they desire. These amenities and benefits can range from the biggest things to the smallest: One of the surprising findings of the Terner Center’s study was that having access to private laundry was among the most important factors in respondents’ housing choices.

A vibrant housing market is one that provides all Americans with as many quality options as possible – renters are an important piece of this equation and deserve the same support and choice as homeowners, support that allows them to live a life of freedom, prosperity, and choice. 

A life, in other words, that fulfills the American Dream. 

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