International Max Planck Research School on the Social and Political Constitution of the Economy
Homeowner Nations or Nations of Tenants: How Historical Institutions in Urban Politics, Housing Finance and Construction Set Germany, France and the US on Different Housing Paths
Studies on the Social and Political Constitution of the Economy. IMPRS-SPCE, Cologne 2014.
The thesis gives an answer to the question of why different countries ended up with different rates of homeowners and tenants in the 20th-century. The literature identifies Germanspeaking countries of
low homeownership rates around 40% and English-speaking countries of high homeownership rates of more than 60%, with France falling in between the two groups. Moreover, most of these differences have persisted
through the second half of the 20th-century and can be shown to reach back to different urban homeownership rates around 1900.
The homeownership-question is of importance beyond the mere question of tenure as studies have associated homeownership questions with stability in financial crises, with embourgeoisement of the
working-class in life-style, attitudes and voting behavior or with different unemployment rates. Existing explanations have used post-1980 international, regional or individual data to explain
homeownership differences through socio-demographic, economic or urbanization differences, through a public-welfare/homeownership trade-off or else through cultural preferences. These explanations
fail to account, however, for the persistent country differences that existed already prior to the 1980s and prior to government intervention in housing.
The thesis, by contrast, goes back to 19th-century differences of urban organization, housing finance and the construction sector to claim that countries were historically set on different
housing trajectories establishing differences hard to reverse in later periods. The US and Germany are chosen for historic case studies of the often opposed country groups. France is included
to use the variables found for explaining why a country of similar welfare type as Germany kept a persistently higher urban homeownership rate. The thesis claims that different complementary
institutions in city organization, the housing finance and construction industry locked countries into inert physical and institutional structures of either the compact tenement city-form in
Germany or the suburbanized form of a city of homes like in the United States. More concretely, functional complementarities of public welfare cities, housing cooperatives, mortgage banks and
a raftsmanship production of solid single-unit homes led to the German tenant-dominance, whereas private cities, savings and loans (SLAs) and a Fordist mass production of single-family homes
created the American production regime in favor of more accessible homeownership. Though the thesis establishes the argument for Germany and the US in historic case studies, it tries to
make plausible that it can be extended to other German- and English-speaking countries.
The innovation of the thesis concerning the particular explanatory puzzle lies in its reference to relevant historical prior causes, its inclusion of the urban level of analysis and
the combination of three institutional factors – urban organization, housing finance, construction – that even singly have not been put forward yet in comparative explanations. The thesis
contributes to the literature on path dependencies that identifies distant occurrences as longterm causes for hard-to-reverse historical trajectories. On a theoretical level, the study
contributes to research in a yet little noticed type of market, i.e. markets for durable goods whose use stretches over time, and which therefore requires history-directed explanations.