8 reasons we need renters (©  Hemera Technologies/Jupiterimages)

It may be time to give a renter a hug. Or at least a place to live.

Long the nation's neglected stepchild, the renter has been overlooked by politicians and scorned by homeowners for decades.

The bias against renters has been growing ever since homeowners crossed into the majority in the 1950s. And where has it gotten us? We have a mortgage/financial crisis, clogged highways, abandoned houses, tax-strapped cities and working families now homeless and in need of affordable rental housing.

In fact, many of the country's current crises can be linked in some way to the desire to own a house with a yard and a white picket fence.

"It gives us a good reason to take a fresh look at stereotypes of ownership versus renting, and when you look at that you realize that we really haven't been good to renters," says Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy, a research arm of the National Housing Conference, an organization that advocates for national policies that promote affordable housing.

For instance:

  • Many land-use regulations and zoning laws discourage high-density housing, resulting in sprawl and high commuting costs.
  • The U.S. tax code heavily favors homeowners, excluding many profits from home sales and returning $112 billion in property-tax deductions to homeowners from 2008-2012, according to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. An additional $90 billion will be returned to homeowners in 2009 through the mortgage-interest deduction alone. By contrast, less than one-third of that is appropriated to assist renters in the 2009 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget.
  • People assume that renters — as a class of people — are irresponsible. "Renters are renters for a reason," a former landlord with the user name "linicx" wrote on a city-data forum, expressing a common sentiment.
  • Entire neighborhoods even ban renters from their midst, forcing homes that no one will buy to sit empty.  (See "Many towns tightening ‘no rental’ rules.")

In the end, current times may shine a new light on what housing wonks have been saying for years: that we need renters as much as they need us.

"Pretty much everybody at one point in their life rents, and that should give everyone pause that this is critical to the functioning of our communities," says Debra Schwartz, director of program-related investments at the MacArthur Foundation, which has launched a $150 million initiative to help revive affordable rental housing.

Here are eight ways that renters help our towns and why we need them:

1. So businesses can attract workers
Need to hire workers? Those workers — particularly the young, the mobile and the low-income earners — need housing. This should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately it's not.

"This is a real concern," says Peter Tatian, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a research organization that focuses on social and economic problems and issues. "They are seeing a problem attracting workers for particular kinds of jobs because of the housing costs."

When towns don't build rental housing, particularly affordable rental housing, near industrial and business centers, everyone pays: Businesses pay higher wages to offset employees' added transportation costs and residents pay higher taxes to beef up the roads, public transit systems and parking areas.

2. To let critical workers live in every community
"The reality is we need people of all income levels for our society to function," says Lubell. "In high-priced communities there are teachers and nurses and firefighters who cannot afford to live in the communities they serve. They have a long commute, or they're not there when we need them.

"Ultimately, if you want to attract the best firefighters, the best teachers, the best police officers, they need to have a place to live."

3. Because a mobile economy is a thriving economy
What if you had a job to offer, but no one could come? Millions of Americans now find themselves tied to their homes due to a weak sales market or the high transaction costs associated with selling and buying a home.

In an interesting study of European nations in the 1990s, British economist Andrew Oswald found that countries with high rates of homeownership also had high rates of unemployment, and vice versa.

"There's been a presumption that it's really good for a country to have a high rate of homeownership," Oswald told The Boston Globe. "But that homeownership equates with inflexibility."

4. To reduce sprawl
The well-worn saying in real estate is to drive out to where you can afford to buy.

"The ideal of homeownership, which is a single family with a yard, drives sprawl," says Tom Davis, manager of strategic operations for Preservation of Affordable Housing, a Boston nonprofit.

And it's hard to find anyone willing to talk up sprawl. Among its deleterious effects: traffic congestion, pollution, long commutes, less open space, less clean air and water, fewer small business districts and walking areas, more big-box stores.

Workers who cannot find viable rental options close to work — in either the city or the suburbs — drive and drive and drive.

Americans spend more than 540 million hours commuting in their cars every year, a pleasure which we all pay for with billions of dollars in highway construction, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The environment coughs up a donation, too, by remitting some of its oxygen.

"If families have to drive an hour to work in your community, there are going to be environmental problems and there's going to be congestion," Lubell says. "We are all tethered together, and I think the sooner we realize that, the better we'll all be."

Lubell attributes much of the apprehension around higher-density housing to fear of the unknown. "There is a myth about density that if we have too many people in one place that it will lead to problems," he says. Yet, "when you show people pictures of dense places - Greenwich Village, Paris — they love it. They say, 'Oh, I'd love to live there.'

"The reality is that a dense environment can offer a very high quality of life," he says. "But when you're living in a place where everyone has a car, you tend to think a lot more negatively about density."

(For more on high-density development, see this .PDF file from the Urban Land Institute.)