One of my favorite movies is the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Many folks think it’s a movie about one man’s life making a difference in this world, but I saw it a different way. I saw it as a movie that explained why homeownership is so important.
In the first years of the 20th Century, magazines and newspapers of the day declared that Americans had a patriotic duty to be homeowners. It was well-understood that home ownership was a boon to individuals and their families, but the “patriotic” angle made the point that homeownership also benefited neighborhoods and communities, and by extension, it benefited cities and even the country, as a whole.
To put a contemporary spin on this, what better modern-day model do we have than Detroit? How much of Detroit is now rental (non-owner occupied)? Despite 30 minutes of searching, I wasn’t able to find an answer, but I’d guess it’s a lot. (Heck, how much of Detroit’s housing is just not occupied by anyone?)
The early Sears Modern Homes catalogs made this point in a variety of ways, but in short it said this: Homeowners have a vested interest in their community and communities with a large percentage of homeowners will enjoy a greater proportion of prosperity, stability and peace.
In the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey sees what Bedford Falls, would have looked like if he’d never been born. Without George’s positive influence and his ever-fledgling Building and Loan, the modern subdivision of Bailey Park would never have been developed and many residents would have remained renters, rather than homeowners.
Without the Bailey Building and Loan, George finds that Bedford Falls is full of substandard rental properties.
And because there are so many rental properties, there is less stability in the family, and in a broader context, there is less stability in the community as well.
Look at Bert (the cop) and Ernie (the cab driver).
In this alternate “George-less” world, Ernie does not live with his family in their own “nice little home in Bailey Park,” but instead, he lives is a decrepit shack in Pottersville and it’s implied that this hardship is largely to blame for the fact that Ernie’s wife “ran off three years ago and took the kid.”
The streets of this alternate-Bedford Falls (now named Pottersville) are lined with liquor stores, night clubs, pawnbrokers, striptease shows and pool halls. Gaudy neon signs flash “girls, girls, girls” and illumine the night-time corridors of Main Street. Citizens are neither calm nor law-abiding and brusque policemen struggle to keep peace and order.
George’s revelation that he really had a “wonderful life” stemmed in part from the realization that his meager efforts to give people the chance to become homeowners gave them a feeling of accomplishment, prosperity, security and pride. By extension, the whole community benefited in important, significant and enduring ways.
I’m of the opinion that Sears was, to small communities in the Midwest, what George Bailey was to Bedford Falls.
Sears empowered and enabled tens of thousands of working-class and immigrant families to build their own home. What would countless Midwestern towns have become without Sears homes?
How many towns in the Midwest were spared the fate of becoming a Pottersville, thanks to these little kit homes? Probably many.
Sears Modern Homes made a significant difference in many communities throughout the Midwest.
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Although there were apartment buildings, Detroit once had the nation’s highest percentage of owner occupied homes.
Even as recently as 1984, when I moved to the Detroit area, the city had a strong base of single family residences, but as the population aged and moved outward most of these homes became rentals.
At this time I’d say there is an even split between owner occupied homes and rentals in Detroit, which is still pretty good percentage compared to most cities. Sadly the past ten years plunged Detroit into its current situation where public services failed to keep up with deterioration. Many good houses sit vacant for lack of owners and renters.