Inequality in both income and wealth has grown rapidly in the United States since the 1970s. Over the same period, homeownership rates increased in step with expansionist government policies and the development of subprime and other exotic loan products, and housing affordability challenges emerged as the most prevalent housing problem for owners and renters alike. The subprime lending and foreclosure crises of the 2000s stretched households financially, threatening the traditional economic benefits of homeownership, bringing into stark relief the ways in which housing and inequality mutually influence one another, and implicating homeownership, housing affordability, and subprime lending in the widening gap between the rich and the poor. This article examines the changing roles of homeownership, housing affordability, and subprime lending in contemporary U.S. inequality by, first, describing trends in county inequality and housing characteristics and, second, modeling inequality as a function of the previous decade’s housing characteristics over the period of 1980–2010. We build upon past models of county inequality by more explicitly considering causal order, place characteristics, and state and regional fixed effects. The results confirm that homeownership, affordability, and subprime lending not only reflect existing inequalities but also perpetuate those inequalities over time. Homeownership promotes equality, affordability problems undermine it, and subprime lending has the potential to ameliorate inequality in certain contexts, but these effects shift significantly over time, particularly as a result of widespread foreclosures and economic recession. Our analysis establishes the importance of housing in explaining contemporary inequality, highlights how place characteristics and causal ordering may improve county inequality models, and provides a foundation for future studies examining inequality in light of the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis.
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