Homeowners who bought before the 1980s had it made. Tax law under president Ronald Reagan secured deductions for homeowners, and his congress passed favorable reforms that benefited those using their homes to build equity.
Those seeking to enter the housing market for the first time weren’t so lucky as mortgage rates surpassed 18 percent in 1981. A decade after second-wave feminism and legislation created more professional opportunities for women, prospective homebuyers encountered a brand-new phenomenon: most families needed two incomes to even consider purchasing their first home, a death knell of the old model of a working father and stay-at-home mother.
As young people tried to follow their parents’ path toward home ownership, they found prices to be a nearly insurmountable barrier and, in fact, could often only reach this traditional marker of adulthood with financial assistance from their families. According to one Harvard housing study, by 1988, there were 2 million households led by those ages 24 to 39 who would have been able to afford a house in 1980 but could not as the decade neared its end.
The Rich Get Richer. The Poor Get Poorer
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 didn’t help. It slashed the tax rate nearly in half for top earners and increased the rate for the lowest earners by nearly 50 percent. It was the first time in history that a U.S. law had simultaneously lowered taxes for the rich and raised them for the poor. Although the stated goal of the act was to stimulate the economy and increase earning for all people across the spectrum, there is little evidence that it achieved this objective.
In fact, elements of the act effectively rewarded the wealthy, including existing homeowners, while quashing economic opportunities for lower- and middle-class families. It increased the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction, making interest fully deductible on any person’s first or second home regardless of cost. This was certainly an incentive for homeowners to purchase larger homes in nicer neighborhoods, but it didn’t do much for those who wished to become homeowners but lacked the means.
Tax policies under Reagan left a generation of Americans unable to buy into the American dream of homeownership. Hundreds of thousands of veterans experienced chronic homelessness, including many who had been drafted to Vietnam. Policies disproportionately affected communities of color, and housing seemed like an intractable source of class division in which the upper classes were able to continue building wealth while middle- and lower-income families were locked out of the market.
A Wealth of Information
The Housing Affordability Index, introduced by the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) in 1981 and released monthly since, helped shine light on the disparities between housing costs and the average income. It was the first time such information was publicly available to policy-makers and consumers alike, and it served as a guide to areas where reform could make an impact for the both the market and potential buyers looking for safe and affordable housing. Included in this category were the outsize impact that race, gender, and physical disability had on who could become a homeowner and who could not.
In 1985, as part of its work to increase access to homeownership, NAR advocated for government funding to review housing complaints and, in 1988, it supported the expansion of the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination based on familial status and disability. But even as the FHA grew and strengthened, housing policy continued to disadvantage families and communities of color as redlining practices persisted in less overt ways and homeownership remained inaccessible to those without equity or familial wealth.
In addition, increased gun violence and police brutality created chaos in many less affluent communities. This, combined with continued discrimination against black families attempting to move into majority-white neighborhoods, allowed segregation to persist throughout the decade. In New York City, there was virtually no change to geographic segregation between 1980 and 1990.
“I’ve had incidents where when you get there you’re told it’s rented already, said Alan Eley in a 1992 New York Times article. “When it happens two or three times and you see the area is somewhat more populated with whites than with minorities, you feel maybe it’s not the right place to live.”
Other minority groups had better luck. As Asian immigrant communities established new wealth and purchased homes either on their own or as large family systems, they began populating suburbs designed with white residents in mind. This shift further highlighted persistent discrimination against black families, who were effectively excluded from the suburbs.
The Not-So-Nuclear Family
At the same time and across all groups, the understanding of “family” was in flux. The 1981 Supreme Court victory of Joan Feenstra in Kirchberg v. Feenstra, which struck down the Head and Master law that gave the male spouse final say over any decisions related to jointly owned property, set the tone for women’s growing power over their own economic destinies. At the same time, the divorce rate was rising, hitting a historic high of 50 percent in 1980. LGBTQ visibility increased in part due to the scourge of the AIDS epidemic. Under Reagan, these shifts troubled the consciousnesses of some Americans who benefitted from the status quo. Still, equality made its slow march forward.
The world was starting to look a little more like the one we know today, with both diversity and technology front and center. This extended to home-buying, which increasingly began to rely on cell phones to speed up transactions and digital technology to create more sophisticated marketing.
Learning From the Past
Housing advocates would be smart to look back to the ‘80s to see what has changed—and what hasn’t. Most states still allow housing discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity, and de facto redlining persists in many U.S. cities. A combination of rising home prices and high student-debt loads have locked many millenials out of the housing market, with only 37 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 taking the leap into homeownership, compared to 45 percent in 1990. Much like in the ’80s, economic conditions, including last year’s tax reform, don’t favor those buying homes for the first time, but they do provide benefits for those who already have mortgages.
If the parallels seem eerie, it’s only because most housing reform has attacked issues at the surface rather than dismantling structural racism and a tax system that maintains wealth in the hands of a privileged minority. Until that changes, homeownership, which remains a crucial part of the American dream, will fail to be available to people of all backgrounds.