In praise of renting

July 15, 2008, 6:08 PM UTC

Having staked out some ground on the insanity of the mortgage market and regulatory attempts to fix it, I’ve been reading the coverage about Fannie (FNM) and Freddie (FRE) with great interest. Yes, I’ve been spending most of my time writing about the tech biz, especially the Great Google (GOOG) and the Prestigious Kleiner Perkins. But the economy factors into the tech story. And besides, this drama is tough to beat.

Anyway, one theme I keep coming back to in my discussions about this mess is what a disservice we the people did to the we the people by making folks feel guilty for not owning a home. In explaining how many opportunities legislators and regulators had to get it right on Fannie and Freddie, my former Fortune colleague Julie Creswell nailed what I’ve been trying to express in this page one article (go Julie!) in The New York Times over the weekend:

Even after accounting scandals arose at the two companies a few years ago, attempts to push through stronger oversight were stymied because few politicians, particularly Democrats, wanted to be perceived as hindering the American dream of homeownership for the masses.

That’s pitch perfect. Politicians were so enamored with the positives of the American dream — and there are many — that they didn’t have the guts or the intelligence to realize that as a society we’ve been encouraging people who can’t afford the dream to pursue it anyway.

Yes, I own my home. I love that. I like being able to drill holes in the walls, plant perennials in the garden and buy furniture that fits my space. I also hope like hell the property is worth more than I paid for it when it comes time to sell. (And importantly, I can afford my mortgage. I’m grateful for that, but it’s also not an accident.) But I’ve never confused my home with my investment portfolio, and I’ve always known that renting might have made just as much economic sense, depending on my situation.

Think about it. Politicians didn’t want, in Julie’s words, to be perceived as hindering the dream of home ownership. Funny that. By their actions, they’ve hindered the dream far more than had they exercised their oversight responsibilities in the first place.