html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: We should all be so lucky.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

We should all be so lucky.

Honestly, writing about this feels transgressive. It is about money, and sounds a little like gloating. It is a topic I never bring up in conversation with people. But I want to talk about what owning a house has meant to me. I read everything I come across about the sub-prime mortgage market collapsing and I read about revisions to the mortgage income tax deduction and I always read Surreal Estate. I hate very many manifestations of the American Dream; I think the yearn for a single family detached home has caused terrible environmental and societal outcomes. And yet.

I always knew I would own a house. I grew up on a suburban acre; we are upper-middle class. My parents promised us down payments for our houses as wedding presents. When our permanent settling preceded marriages, they offered again. When I told my parents I’d be in second grad school for several years, my Dad said I might want to buy a house rather than rent. When we hung up the phone I walked straight out the door to go get a book on homebuying. I read the whole book that night. Counting dorm rooms and summer locations, I moved twenty-five times in four cities in the ‘90’s. I desperately wanted a permanent home. I wanted my house my way; I wanted my place to look like me. I did not want to negotiate another single thing about how I lived at house meeting.

With the down from my parents, we bought my house in the late 90’s. We bought a beautiful two bedroom Craftsmen bungalow for cheap. Sacramento was more underrated then and the housing bubble hadn't started at the time. My monthly mortgage payments are low. If you’re Californian, you would cry to hear what I pay per month. When I have a roommate, my mortgage payments are embarrassingly low. And that is what my house has come to mean to me. I bought it for permanence and domesticity and beauty and autonomy. But now, my cheap housing means freedom.

I own a cheap and beautiful house in a place where I love to live. From now on, that will always be my default. Being able to afford that means that I can choose things. I could choose a do-gooder career that doesn’t pay me much. If I had talent, I could be an artist. When a partner comes along, he could choose to do childcare instead of working. (I don’t think I am likely to do that, but maybe he’ll want to.) We can afford to live in my little house on one salary. I can afford for my friends to live with me for free when they are between work; I can offer my young friends more ease and comfort than they could elsewise afford. I am not trapped in a job. I can rent my house for twice the mortgage and use the difference to live in Oakland. My cheap secure housing means I am safe and free. I am grateful all the time that we bought that house.

I watch people in the Bay Area whose houses are exactly the opposite. Their houses are so expensive that they must work in high paying jobs just to live where they do (and these are not extravagant mansions, folks). They work long hours and give up recreation to own that house. Their expensive houses eat all their slack; a home disaster could tip them over into financial ruin. It is backwards from me, whose house gives me wealth and choice.

There are lots of mechanisms to grant people enough financial security that they can find works that fulfill them and help society. You could do school loan forgiveness or offer higher education for free. You could make sure their salaried work pays enough and has enough work-life balance that they can do good stuff on the side. You can give everyone health care, to de-link jobs and health care and fear. You could do fancy tax things or social safety net things. There are mechanisms and policies that would lift people out of the state where their lives are forced choices into drudgery. But the one that worked for me was cheap housing that I bought for other reasons. I don’t know if that is the best way to arrange that for a lot of people. But I treasure that security and freedom and I wish it for everyone.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous D said...

an arts and crafts bungalow? you're my hero, lady...

I just wish people freedom, because it does take SO MANY forms.

The house can be a burden or not, just like any other possession. A lot of it seems to pirouette on how many options you have in addition to the house. I know so many that are focused on "the house" as an ideal, to the exclusion of other things. Strange as it seems I can't think of any other single object that we can do that for... cars, could be, but they are a different class.

As you mentioned, many people tie "the house" in some way to a family, it's good for you that you were able to renegotiate that need. Perhaps it was that renegotiation that led to freedom. The house becoming a good idea rather than a symbol of family stability.
House as rock to stand upon, rather than boulder to be carried... yes that's a symbolism I like.

When it has become a boulder laid across your shoulders like atlas... that is when putting it down feels like freedom.

For you, it is your house, and you had no need of negotiation with another. You had no one give you specifications, or lay demands on you for what it was they looked for. You have strongly hinted that if you find a mate, he will have to accept your house. In the long run, he'll be happy with that. He won't ever labor under the illusion that it's partly his.

Not for the first, nor the last time do I wonder if the interest in houses splits along gender lines... I guess I will know more as people comment to this. Most unmated guys I know, buy houses as a source of income, but they don't seem to form an attachment beyond that. Unmated women seem to look at it a bit differently. For mated people it is a third kettle of fish, because each partner takes a different tack on what the purpose of the house is, and why it's good to own one... so I'm very curious as to other thoughts on this...

It's a great question Megan ;)







for the sake of full disclosure, I used to have a house that I had most of eight years of life, building skill, and every extra penny tied up in... and now it belongs to my Ex... and all I got was to stop carrying that boulder around. and a few trinkets that I had from before I met her, like my bike. So that's sumpin', I suppose.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

You have strongly hinted that if you find a mate, he will have to accept your house. In the long run, he'll be happy with that. He won't ever labor under the illusion that it's partly his.

I am very aware of that danger. When the time comes, if that is something that concerns him, I know that I'll have to change. My partner is a higher priority than my house.

9:15 PM  
Anonymous D said...

"My partner is a higher priority than my house." - M

good answer, and the crowd goes wild...

9:33 PM  
Blogger txako said...

I don't know how it works in the USA but in England the problem has been the but-to-let and get 30% interest every year by exploiting your tenants that made it all worse.
And in Spain anybody who can afford can bu dozens (!) of houses and rent them all off.
It makes me sick. I see houses as places where people live, not objects of trade to be bought and sold and made a profit with.
I think that beyond a second or third property the tax on them should be ridiculously high so that all that money gets back into the system instead od hidden in some financial paradise.
Keep up the good work, and good luck.

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

"You could do school loan forgiveness or offer higher education for free. You could make sure their salaried work pays enough and has enough work-life balance that they can do good stuff on the side. You can give everyone health care, to de-link jobs and health care and fear. You could do fancy tax things or social safety net things. There are mechanisms and policies that would lift people out of the state where their lives are forced choices into drudgery."

You could revise/revoke/reduce many of the laws and processes in the Bay Area, especially San Francisco, that make building new housing an exceedingly onerous task even for developers with deep pockets and connections. San Francisco has, what, 800,000 people? It could easily hold twice that many, and the demand is certainly there. Considering that the mild climate and extensive mass transit make SF residents among the most energy-efficient Americans, it is almost criminal that the existing residents have so effectively locked out those who wish to move there.

6:51 AM  
Anonymous ptm said...

I've never understood the house-as-identity sentiment. Your place is absolutely wonderful, and I quite like my own house (bland house, lovely tree-shaded yard, comfortable blue-collar neighborhood). But when the time comes to move, I will, and that'll be fine. I bought the house because my professional and financial situation made it a good call, that's it.

I think (without deep understanding) that encouraging home-ownership has generally had a lot of good stabilizing effects on the middle-class. People care about their neighborhoods, they have multigenerational capital, etc. I'm not sure I understand the distributional effects, though, and I think you always have to consider coastal California to be it's own beast.

12:35 PM  
Blogger JRoth said...

My partner is a higher priority than my house.

And the architect in the crowd is the lone BOO, like Snoopy in Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.

Stand by your home, Megan!

12:36 PM  
Blogger JRoth said...

Actually, the architect is also booing ptm's apathy towards house-as-identity. Although I suppose I should be entrepreneurial and note that an architect-designed house really can reflect and amplify your identity....

On a separate note, thelonius_nick's anti-zoning, anti-regulation response is to be expected, but doesn't actually help. To double SF's population, you're talking about rebuilding the city as a denser place. And once you've rebuilt SF, you've stripped away half its desirability. If you replace the Painted Ladies with an apartment block, I don't think the postcards will still show that view....

I'm not, of course, saying that the city should be frozen in amber, nor that the status quo is optimal (I know nothing about the details of SF codes), but this kind of anti-regulatory approach is all-too-often blind to the actual structures that have created market demand (concrete example: historic districts are regularly derided for a variety of reasons, most implicit in _nick's comment; but historic districts regularly outperform neighboring, unregulated districts in terms of private investment - people with money, as opposed to online libertarians, recognize the value of regulated cities).

12:46 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

Txako,

Rental housing serves an important function by giving people a housing option that is inexpensive in the short term. This helps keep the prices of homes lower by competition. If taxes make it unprofitable to buy a house and rent it out, everyone will be forced to buy a home, or live on the street. That increased demand will drive prices high enough that many would be stuck with the latter without government intervention, which means still more taxes. Construction companies and coops might come out well in this scenario, but few others.

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

jroth,

Just so I can keep the argument straight in my own mind: 1) Part of Megan's post implied that housing costs in the Bay Area were too high, and what could be done about that? 2) Partly this is due to the great desirability of the Bay Area creating a lot of demand. But my attestation is that it is due mostly to a thicket of regulations that prevents housing from being built, especially in the core city of San Francisco, which could easily support twice its current population. 3) You say that cutting regulation is exactly the wrong response because it will eliminate all the things that make San Francisco attractive in the first place.

I don't think even the most rabid of we online libertarians would suggest tearing down the Painted Ladies and replacing them with an apartment block. Such destruction is actually far likelier in an environment where government has more power, not less. After all, the severe and unprecedented leveling of entire historic neighborhoods in numerous US cities in the 1960s took place under the direction of government planning departments.

Doubling or even quintupling SF's population need not mean razing various historic landmarks or neighborhoods. Nor does increased density in and of itself translate into a less desirable place. The example I know best is Northern Virginia, where Arlington and Alexandria have done quite a good job of preserving historical areas while redeveloping run-down areas around Metro stops with attractive high-density housing and commercial space, so I know it is possible.

As for historic districts drawing more investment than neighboring unregulated districts, that doesn't mean that it's the regulation itself that causes the difference. Imposing the regulations of say, Greenwich Village on the Lower East Side won't suddently turn the Lower East Side into an investment magnet.

"I'm not, of course, saying that the city should be frozen in amber, nor that the status quo is optimal"

When I see that San Francisco's population now is about what it was in 1950, and that housing prices there are the highest in the country, and that there is a severe housing shortage and a notoriously large homeless population, then it appears tome that San Francisco is stuck in amber, and the existing situation is far from optimal. And that is due mainly to an excess of regulation--zoning, rent controls, historic/environmental reviews, etc. Each regulation put in place with good intentions, but with the cumulative effect of stultifying what should be a growing city.

We online libertarians may be predictable, but in this case, I don't think you've made the case that I'm wrong.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

t_n: Thanks for a thoughtful and non-snarky response. I'm not getting into this debate, but I really want it to be a friendly one.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>> I think the yearn for a single family detached home has caused terrible environmental and societal outcomes.

You lost me right there. I quit reading. You're one of those.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

A proud one of those.

9:42 AM  

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