The Need for More Renters in our Representers

May 10, 2021

It’s no secret that homeowners are dramatically overrepresented at all levels of elected government, with profound consequences for political culture and public policy. A recent paper from Boston University investigates the contours of this problem in greater detail.

Key takeaways:

  1. Across all levels of American government, the homeownership rate among elected officials surveyed was over 30% higher than their constituencies.
  2. Public officials are likely to own more valuable single-family homes than their constituents.
  3. Renters may be less likely to run for political office, but do not appear less likely to win.

There is already strong evidence that homeownership increases political participation and shapes incentives for policies that voters demand of their elected officials—but the data also shows those officials themselves are more likely to be wealthier homeowners relative to their constituents.

Katherine Einstein, Joseph Ornstein, and Maxwell Palmer of Boston University’s Political Science Department built and analyzed a new dataset of over 10,000 elected officials in federal, state, and local government to quantify the overrepresentation of homeowners in the political sphere. The researchers also analyze homeownership rates of political candidates (not just the winners) from a database of California races spanning from 1996 to 2018.

Out of 1,800 mayors and city council members surveyed, 89% were property owners, while the aggregate homeownership rate in the cities surveyed was just 51%. That’s a 38% difference in homeownership between constituents and politicians. While the disparity only increased the higher-ranking the office was, the data showed only slightly higher homeownership rates for white politicians, and no gender gap. 36% of the cities surveyed had either one or zero renters on the entire city council.

The details reveal even greater disparities among the types of properties elected officials own. 79% of elected officials owned single-family homes, compared to just 67% of single-family homes comprising the overall housing stock in the 2017 American Community Survey. These properties also tend to be the more expensive homes in their respective zip codes. For example, out of nearly 2,000 state representatives surveyed, the ratio of the officeholders’ property values to the median home price in their zip code was 1.43:1.

Finally, the data on candidates in California elections suggests that the problem lies in candidate recruitment: renters are simply less likely to run for office — but do not appear to face worse odds in their races. “There is only a modest difference between the homeownership rate of candidates and elected city council members, which suggests that renters are no less likely to be elected to office, conditional on running,” the researchers observe. “The largest gap is at the candidate recruitment stage; renters are significantly less likely to run for city council than homeowners.”

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