Buying a home is a deeply personal decision—assuming you are in a financial position to have such a choice. But that individual decision is influenced by larger ideas: Homeownership has, for the past century at least, come to be equated with the American dream. It means finding a space to call your own and a place to belong. It’s about being part of a community and a neighborhood. It’s having shelter and stability.
Today, 10 years removed from the recession, the nation’s worsening affordability problem has made purchasing a home too pricey for many. Homebuyers also face predatory lending, mortgage discrimination, a speculative land market, and most recently, novel coronavirus. If you find a home you can afford, your worries don’t stop there—are you displacing longtime residents and contributing to gentrification?
Below, we’ve compiled excerpts from previous Curbed stories about how people have wrestled with the choice to buy a home—and the things they find out about their homes after purchase.
In “The Homeownership Obsession,” writer Katy Kelleher explores the complicated dream of owning a home and the personal journey that led her and her husband to buy a house in rural Maine.
Homeownership, according to conventional wisdom, was a path to a more stable, equitable future. It was emblematic of the American dream, the idea that, with enough hard work and honest labor, anyone could rise to the top. Anyone could own a four-bedroom brick house on a suburban backstreet with a tidy front lawn and a big yellow dog. Anyone could be successful. Anyone could be a CEO, a rock star, a president.
Of course, most of this equation was, from the beginning, a fantasy—as much a metaphor as the uncanny ghost that traps unsuspecting buyers in its cycles of suffering.
I’ve spoken with dozens of millennials about the topic of homebuying—both as research for my work, and out of curiosity. I am a millennial who owns a house; I’m also a 32-year-old who watched my parents lose control of their finances in the market crash. For me, like many other adults my age, the idea of owning a house is both a dream and a nightmare.
For Joyce Hadley, homeownership was about being part of a community, which provided her with a deep sense of community and belonging. In our podcast Nice Try!, she spoke about the significance of living in Concord Park, a suburb outside of Philadelphia that was built in the 1950s as a model for integration. She now lives in the house she grew up in.
“It was a utopia. ... We thought this was the most wonderful thing, we had everything at our fingertips,” she said. “I call it the bubble because when we moved outside of this community, that was when we were hit with racism. Outside, we were known as ‘Checkerboard Square,’ black and white. Well that was fine because we knew that what we were doing was wonderful. We were proud of who we were.”
There are often unexpected—and scary—circumstances involved with buying a house, as Alissa Walker, Curbed’s urbanism editor, experienced when she discovered lead paint in her Los Angeles home.
We moved into our first house when our daughter turned one. It’s a low-slung, deep-eaved Craftsman that’s 103 years older than she is. And almost as charming. One of the things we loved most about the house were the built-ins—a signature design element of the period.
When we had been in our new home a year, I took our daughter to her two-year checkup. After drawing blood for a few routine tests, the doctor came back into the room. The level at which doctors consider kids to have “elevated” exposure to lead is 5 micrograms per deciliter. My daughter’s blood lead level was 5.5.
We didn’t have any of the visible signs of lead risk, like cracking or peeling paint. A few days later I figured it out—the built-ins. The next week, while I awaited the test results from the lead inspector, I found out I was pregnant with our son. Now the lead paint really had to go.
In “To Buy or To Rent: The Great Homeownership Debate,” Curbed’s senior reporter Patrick Sisson and data reporter Jeff Andrews stated their cases for and against buying a house. Andrews argued for owning a home.
The debate over the benefits of homeownership is often discussed in terms of return on investment. That’s not the right way to think about it. Shelter is a basic human need. It won’t make financial sense for everyone or in every city to buy a home, but for many, it will. And if it does, you should do it because you need shelter.
Anyone who has followed current events over the last two years likely has heightened awareness of the fragility of the institutions and organizing principles that afford us a level of societal stability to debate homeownership in terms of investment instead of need. Should a tectonic shift occur in our government or alliances, I’d, personally, rather own where I live than be subject to a landlord. This might sound like paranoid thinking, but do you really want to find out if it is paranoid thinking when you have the choice now to buy a home?
Sisson, arguing for renting versus owning offered a counterpoint (he and his wife ended up buying a house, however).
It’s an article of financial faith that renting is akin to setting your money on fire the first of every month. Owning property builds wealth and equity. Renters just waste their potential without seeing any return. One simple statistic says it all: the average homeowner has a net worth of $195,400, 36 times that of the average renter’s net worth of $5,400.
But, like many such beliefs in the U.S., these opinions are often warped by an assumption that the past is a perfect analogy to the present. And in the present, buying a home anywhere close to where jobs and economic opportunities are clustered is a huge investment in time, resources, and opportunity.
Single-family homes—the most common type of housing in America—have come under fire recently because of their cultural connotations, as Curbed columnist Kate Wagner explored in “Should We Still Be Building Single-Family Homes?” But the debates over land use involved with single-family homes, the NIMBYism that often defines their neighborhoods, and the issues with racial exclusion miss some of the larger stories about housing policy in the country.
Single-family homes have long been equated with homeownership, despite the fact that a large number of them are used as rentals. By conflating single-family houses with the problems of homeownership as a means of investment and wealth accumulation (or, conversely, seeing the single-family house as one of the only forms of generational stability and a safeguard against rising housing costs), we gloss over the problems of our system of wealth accumulation as a whole.
While the subsidization of the suburbs and the practices of slum clearance under urban renewal were racist policies at all scales, single-family homes themselves are not necessarily to blame, either for those policies or for the pressing present-day issues of gentrification and climate change. The single-family house is both an agent of gentrification (through flipping and real estate speculation) and a site of neighborhood resistance for those who own their homes but are still at risk of being economically displaced. That many existing single-family homes could be densified by adding accessory dwelling units or by breaking them up into apartments makes it impossible to see single-family homes as either purely good or purely bad—or to ignore their potential to address some of the problems we face.
Owning a home outright isn’t the only form of ownership to consider. Alternative structures, like community land trusts, might be more ethical options than the speculative land market, which fuels displacement and gentrification. Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland/San Francisco Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, told Curbed the following when we interviewed her for a story on upzoning.
The land trust, as a nonprofit, permanently stewards the land in a trust so that it’s affordable. It’s not impacted by the market in the same way that for-profit [land is].
It’s important because it gives people the opportunity to engage in a housing market at their price point. The land trust buys homes and buys properties and can offer the buildings, the vertical construction, for the cost of the home, not the cost of the land. They use the equity from their portfolio and purchase neighborhoods, depending on how much equity they have and how financially strong they are, they can buy up neighborhoods and make them permanently affordable.
A couple of years ago [my organization] had several undocumented folks come to us saying that they received a 100 percent increase in their rent. The speculator that bought up [their] place in East Oakland was raising their rent from $1,200 to $2,400 [a month] and they couldn’t afford it. Some of them were considering going back to Guatemala or Mexico. They had to pay these increases and they decided to organize and fight back. Eventually, the land trust was able to purchase their homes and they were able to stay there.
Because homeownership is out of reach in areas where jobs are located, some people are choosing to buy in more affordable cities and renting their properties out on services like Airbnb. Curbed senior reporter Patrick Sisson interviewed Alissa Hessler on the phenomenon for the story “Millennials, Priced Out of Homes Locally, Shop for Investment Properties Online”.
“It’s not as easy as people think,” says Alissa Hessler, the owner of a creative services agency who bought an investment property in rural Maine and eventually moved into it full time. “I’ve had friends in this scenario dip their toes in the Airbnb market. While 85 percent of guests are amazing, 15 percent are awful. And that 15 percent can push people over the edge.”