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Rent or own? Increasingly Americans opt for rental homes.

Homeownership is supposed to be better for neighborhoods and children than renting a home. But the rent or own debate is not so clear-cut?

In this Sept. 24, 2007 file photo, a rental sign stands sentry outside a home in the Country Club area southeast of downtown Denver. Given a choice to rent or own a home, a rising number of Americans are choosing to rent.

David Zalubowski/AP/File

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Homeownership – a central part of the American dream – is on the decline.

The bursting of the housing bubble is pushing current owners out of homes. Potential home buyers are putting off a purchase, evidence suggests, and renters are choosing to rent for longer periods of time. After reaching a high in 2004, the share of Americans who own their home has fallen to the lowest level in 13 years – and it's likely to slide more.

"Renting used to be the thing you did until you could afford to buy a house, but this has definitely changed," writes Peggy Alford, president of Internet rental-listing site, in an e-mail. "While home-ownership will always be part of some people's American Dream, it's no longer taboo to rent."

This shift toward rentership is certainly a reversal of the "ownership society" articulated by President Bush in 2003, where a rising tide of citizens with homes, stocks, and other assets were supposed to lead to a more responsible society. For decades, homeownership especially was touted as leading to everything from more stable neighborhoods to better-educated children. So is the shift bad for America?

The rent or own debate is not so clear-cut, many experts agree. The tilt toward renting signals instead a return to more normal levels of homeownership. New research suggests that it isn't quite the driver of social good that it was once thought to be.


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