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When a house is not a home: Falling home values continue to strain American families

Armstrong Williams | 10/5/2011, 3:49 p.m.
The legendary crooner Luther Vandross' silken voice once enraptured audiences with the song, "A House...
At Thanksgiving, embracing the winds of change and increasing our faith

The legendary crooner Luther Vandross' silken voice once enraptured audiences with the song, "A House is Not a Home." The core metaphor in the song is that while a chair is still a chair when no one's sitting there, a house is not a home when there's no one there (to kiss goodnight).

With the chilly headwinds of the financial collapse of 2008 still blowing strongly through the housing market, affecting employment, wages and retirement savings, more and more Americans are delaying important decisions around dating, marriage and retirement. For them, the house they live in is increasingly not the home they thought it would be.

In fact, since 2000, there has been a precipitous 10 percent decline in the marriage rate among 25 to 34 year olds. In 2009, the marriage rate among that age group dropped below 50 percent for the first time in our nation's history.

There are, of course, many factors that account for the falling marriage rate, which, after all, has trended down long before the housing debacle set in: increasing education, increase of non-married cohabitation, declining real wages and the declining moral fabric of America. However, such a large drop in recent years points to the effect that the run up in housing prices has had on first-time home buyers and the economic effects of the housing fallout on employment.

Even as housing prices decline, the average home price in America is still almost four times the average annual income, making financing a home the only option for many people. In the 1950s, when housing finance first took hold as the primary method by which Americans bought homes, the average house cost about one year's income. The run up in housing prices has made it such that even those who get into homes don't actually own them for most of their lives. They finance often a small fraction of the value of the home (holding less than 1 percent equity in many cases).

Today, with declining employment among young Americans-estimated at around 17 percent for those between 18 and 24-many have delayed long-term commitments because of their inability to support a household. They are often priced out of the houses near major employment centers and have had to resort to moving far out of metropolitan areas if they are to find an affordable home. In fact, the very term "affordable" has taken on almost Orwellian significance, as many people find that they will essentially be in debt for most of their lives if they buy.

Effects on neighborhoods have been even more pernicious, with an estimated $500 billion a year in home equity lost since 2008. In 2009 alone, an estimated 91.5 million families lost more than $2 trillion in nominal home value. With almost half of all home sales since 2008 being foreclosures and short sales, neighborhoods have been decimated.

Not only has the home value for neighbors who stay in their homes been decimated, but so have the neighborhoods themselves. Some neighborhoods in places like Riverside County in California and Louden County in northern Virginia look almost like ghost towns, with practically brand-new, vacant houses littering new developments. As Luther said, "A house is not a home if there's no one there." The same can be said of a neighborhood.