Rethinking Homeownership

August 6, 2012—Assistant Sociology Professor Brian McCabe considers himself a public sociologist. He writes, researches, and talks about matters that affect everyone: our homes and our neighborhoods.

McCabe, an alumnus of Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, began this research before the recent recession and housing crisis, but he now sees the public looking at their homes differently. “We are seriously rethinking homeownership and the way it’s tied to our national identity—to what it means to be American and to what it means to be successful,” McCabe explained. Reevaluating homeownership as a part of the American Dream signals a significant shift in thinking for many generations. “A lot of these notions that we have about homeownership, it’s not clear that it’s going to be true going forward,” he said.

McCabe has investigated the history of homeownership in America and the accompanying rhetoric. “These ideas of homeownership come from the early 1900s, when the U.S. was becoming a rapidly more urban country,” he said. By the 1920s, half of Americans were living in cities, many of them tenants rather than homeowners. “It uprooted this very American, Jeffersonian notion of property, ownership, and citizenship,” he said. “There was the threat to community life in America for the first time.”

Calls to return to owning were compounded by political fears after WWII. McCabe has found advertisements stating, “The homeowner is the best patriot” and “Fight Bolshevism, buy a home.” Promoting homeownership has been a key policy for both political parties for decades. The policies are typically seen as better for neighborhoods and citizens, but McCabe is in the process of publishing the results of two projects that investigate how the discussion surrounding homeownership may not reflect the reality.

To test if homeowners are more engaged citizens, McCabe studied the likelihood of individuals to join five local communities: civic groups, sports groups, religious groups, school groups, and other groups. “Homeowners are slightly more likely to join civic and school groups, but not more likely to join any other kind of group,” he said. McCabe argues that homeowners engage in these two groups to protect their home as a financial investment rather than from the desire to connect to their community. “The reason is probably because people are concerned about their property taxes,” he explained.

In order to further understand and quantify the societal benefits of homeownership, McCabe started a project to measure social capital. “When we talk about social capital, we’re interested in the networks that we have and how they yield benefits,” he said. These can be material benefits, a cup of sugar or help moving, and the intangible, the feeling that a neighbor is watching out for you. McCabe believes that social trust is an essential element of social capital. Homeowners are more likely to trust their neighbors, but do not extend that trust to other community members such as police officers or shop keepers.

Although his data show that homeowners are slightly more engaged and more trusting with neighbors, he believes that “all of this should be weighed against how much we are investing,” primarily in the mortgage interest deduction, the third largest tax deduction in the U.S. “It’s an enormous sum of money that the government forgoes trying to promote homeownership,” he said. McCabe hopes his research will provide city officials and policymakers with a nuanced view of homeownership in America.

Now in his second year as a professor at Georgetown, McCabe wants to turn his research focus toward the dynamic cityscape of Washington, DC. He has already developed a community-based learning course DC: Neighborhoods, Poverty, and Inequality for the fall of 2012. He plans to take students out into the city and has invited leading city officials to speak to his class.

As part of the Georgetown’s Initiative to Reduce Health Disparities, McCabe was recently awarded a grant—along with fellow sociology professors Leslie Hinkson and Becky Hsu—to study religious groups in Washington, DC. The professors will combine their specialties in the field to investigate how congregations in Ward 7 play a role in reducing health problems.

After returning to the city where he spent his undergraduate years, McCabe is excited to do more research on Washington, DC, a unique city often ignored by sociologists. “There are different DCs. There are the people who come and go with the Obamas and the Bushes, but there’s another side of DC that’s not nearly as transient.”

—Elizabeth Wilson


Assistant Professor Brian McCabe’s 2012–13 Courses

In the fall of 2012, Professor McCabe will teach SOCI-203 Social Statistics and a community-based learning class, SOCI-221 CBL DC: Neighborhoods, Poverty, and Inequality. In the spring of 2013, he plans to teach SOCI-209 Urban Studies: The City.