Rick BissonThis week we celebrate the Independence of the United States of America. Festivities, parades, fireworks and more will commemorate our nation’s 242nd year of independence and freedom.

One of the inalienable rights granted in the United States’ Declaration of Independence was the right of all citizens to buy, sell and own property. Often referred to as the American Dream, owning a home in many ways has defined our nation throughout its history.

The belief in opportunity and hope for prosperity attracted early settlers to America. The Popham Colony, settled in 1607 and located in present-day Phippsburg, ties the Midcoast region to the early explorers, colonists and settlers who came to the New World in search of land and resources.

Given the vast, open and unknown territory of the New World, the process of allocating unsettled land was unorganized, contentious and competitive. Boundaries were established by stepping off plots from geographical landmarks. Many landowners became embroiled in ownership disputes because their property lines were defined in terms of rocks, streams and trees – any of which could disappear or be moved.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 finally implemented a standardized system of Federal land surveys that eased boundary conflicts. Using astronomical starting points, territory was divided into a 6-mile square called a township prior to settlement. The township was divided into 36 sections, each measuring 1 square mile or 640 acres each. Initially, an individual was required to purchase a full section of land at the cost of $1 per acre.

By 1800, the minimum lot was halved to 320 acres, and settlers were allowed to pay in four installments, but prices remained fixed at $1.25 an acre until 1854. That year, federal legislation was enacted, establishing a graduated scale that adjusted land prices to reflect the desirability of the lot. Lots that had been on the market for 30 years, for example, were reduced to 12.5 cents per acre.

In the mid 1800s, popular pressure to change policy arose from the evolving economy, new demographics, and shifting social climate of early 19th-century America. In the 1830s and 1840s, well-financed farms, particularly the plantations of the South, forced out smaller farmers. These displaced farmers looked westward to unforested country that offered more affordable development.

With the secession of Southern states from the Union, the Homestead Act was passed. The new law established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: Filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title.

Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed government land. For the next five years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops.

After five years, the homesteader could file for his patent or deed of title by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office. In all, some 270 million acres were distributed under the 1862 Homestead Act. The act remained in effect for more than a century.

Seventy years later after the Homestead Act was enacted, the Great Depression occurred. Many banks failed, causing a drastic decrease in home loans and ownership. In 1934, as a part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal banking system was restructured and the National Housing Act of 1934 created the Federal Housing Administration.

The goals of the FHA were to improve housing standards and conditions, provide an adequate home financing system through insurance of mortgage loans, and to stabilize the mortgage market.

FDR strongly believed in home ownership, stating, “A nation of home owners is unconquerable.” In 1965, the Federal Housing Administration became part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is a cabinet department in the executive branch of the United States federal government.

While the housing market has experienced many ups and downs in the past 80 years, the most notable downfall being in 2008, the right to own a home has been a cornerstone of the American Dream since colonial times. Tested and true, the dream of ownership has played a vital role in our nation’s history and it will play an essential part in building our nation’s future.

As we gather on the Fourth of July to celebrate our nation’s birthday, take time to appreciate the freedom to own a home in a nation built on a belief that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
What a reason to celebrate.

From our family to yours, have a happy and safe Fourth of July.

filed under: