SCOTT SIMON, host:
President Obama's $75 billion effort to help homeowners avoid foreclosures is in line with longstanding government policy to try to promote homeownership. But Richard Florida says that expanding homeownership may actually be a bad idea. Mr. Florida is the author of the best-selling book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," and founder of the Creative Class Group, an advisory services firm. He also has an article in this month's Atlantic magazine.
And he joins us from the studios of WLRN in - where else but Miami, Florida. Mr. Florida, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. RICHARD FLORIDA (Creative Class Group): Oh, it's great to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: Motherhood, apple pie, baseball, and a chance to own your own home. That's considered to be the essence of what it is to be an American. So, what do you see as the problem with homeownership?
Mr. FLORIDA: Well, I actually think we have a kind of crisis of two colliding American dreams, and I was clued into this by one of my students. He was from Latin America. He asked me this question. He said, well, Professor Florida, I've read on Wikipedia the American Dream is about homeownership, but I also read that it's about having economic opportunity.
And we had this conversation, and it's pretty clear to me that those two things are now a bit in contradiction, that for most of the post-war era, owning a home was a fine thing to do, and because people like my parents - my dad had one job for life in a factory, my parents owned one home - it made perfect sense. But today, where people are having multiple jobs, as many as six or seven - young people change jobs about once every year - homeownership is very inflexible for many people.
So one of the things we're trying to promote a national conversation about is that renting may make sense not just for people who can't afford to buy a house, but for people's whose careers require them to move around and require flexibility. And for an economy, frankly, that's built on our flexibility, single-family owned housing may be a bit inflexible for that kind of economy.
SIMON: There are better ways of planning, in your mind? There are better ways of spending the billions of dollars the administration now hopes - used to secure homeownership?
Mr. FLORIDA: I think we're trapped into old thinking. Obviously, we want to help out people in foreclosure. And obviously, we want to give them a hand up and not just a hand out. But I think one of the things we could do, because we know that about 50 percent of these mortgages that go into default ultimately fail, we could actually facilitate them renting the house back. That's one of the things I point to in the Atlantic piece.
Why not have a situation where we make a deal with the bank, have them take on the house, but rent it back at a very affordable term to those homeowners, former homeowners? Then if they have to move, say, from Detroit or Buffalo or Cleveland, to a part of the country that has more economic opportunity, they can do that as well.
One of the things I'm really thinking about, Scott, is, what if we had a system where rental housing wasn't this kind of individual thing where you find a landlord? What if we could roll up lots of these homes and these condo projects that are going belly up? What if we could roll them up and have them organized by larger companies that would facilitate moves for you and make you able to be able change your home, your rental home, when you change your job with a great deal more efficiency?
I think that's something our housing system has to evolve, begin to evolve towards.
SIMON: Let me ask you, though, about what has been considered for a couple of generations now - the great philosophical desirability of owning a home, that owning a home connects people to their communities, makes them feel more responsible for not only that home but for the health of their neighborhood?
Mr. FLORIDA: Well, there's a great study by an economist named Grace Wong, who looked at this in some detail, and it - really an eye-opener for me, including someone who wrote a dissertation on housing many years ago. She actually looked at the effects of homeownership on all manner of well-being, from social cohesion to whether a person is happy or depressed.
And she found that while owning a home does lead to a slightly higher level of kind of community cohesion, in terms of happiness versus depression and all other social outcomes - stress, self-esteem, do I feel good about myself -homeownership either didn't do much or actually, renters felt a little better about themselves, probably because they didn't feel so tied down to that house, and they're spending a little bit less money to do so.
So I think a lot of that may have been true at a certain point in time. But I think today, a lot of that is a myth.
SIMON: Your Atlantic article also talks about what you see as opportunities that can come about in a recession. What are some of those?
Mr. FLORIDA: Well, you know, the way I think about this, I've really gotten to hate the term Depression because, frankly, it's depressing. And, you know, I went back and looked at the, you know, the so-called Long Depression that ran from the - 1873 and then, with ups and downs, to about 1896. And then my dad, who was a child of the Great - he always told me was a child of the Great Depression - what they really are is, I like the word reset.
I think they really reset our economy. And the dialogue we're having today, which is, I think, very productive, is about how to reset our companies, how to reset our industries. People know that these recessionary times, these crisis times, are eras where new technologies come about and restructure industries. This great economist, Joseph Schumpeter, called it the time of creative destruction.
But these resets are particularly geographic and they're really fundamental changes in how and why we live the way we do. The Long Depression really gave us the great giant industrial cities, transformed us from a farming country to this country organized around the Pittsburghs and Buffalos and Clevelands and Chicagos and New Yorks, and so on.
Now, the Great Depression gave us mass suburbanization and this whole spreading of our population. And I think what particularly the Obama administration and public policy makers need to think about is what will be this new way of living, this new geography of capitalism after the current crisis?
And I speculate that it's going to be even larger regions, like the whole Boston, New York, Washington corridor, becoming much denser, and new forms of much more flexible housing tenure which enable people to move closer to where they work when they need to.
SIMON: Richard Florida, who runs the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto.
Mr. Florida, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. FLORIDA: It's been great being with you.