The Living Nightmare of Homeownership

House obscured by fog
Toomas Tuul/FOCUS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Katy Kelleher, whose work readers will recognize from her popular Longreads series on the ugly history of beautiful things, has a new piece in Curbed on the ugly history of homeownership — and why the manmade dream of owning a home haunts so many prospective homebuyers.

A 30-year time horizon seems almost impossible to imagine anywhere now, but I did once live out the anachronism of coming home to the same house for more than a quarter of a century. The specter of security that I associate with my since-demolished childhood home follows me from apartment to apartment, dangling the emotional logic of future homeownership over most of the choices I make. I ask myself daily, almost unconsciously, what it might take to reconstruct that feeling, whether any home can fill the role that house played in comforting me as a child. A decade after the housing crisis, the idea of accessing emotional stability through homeownership still sounds like so much marketing copy.

Despite years of setbacks and disappointments, my husband and I haven’t wholly abandoned our mission to escape the rental market, but we’re still millennials. We’re both self-employed in precarious industries that do not look good on paper. The size of the downpayment we’d need continues to rise while ballooning rents and healthcare costs erode our ability to save. And like so many of our peers, our vision of homeownership has permanently shifted to accommodate the warnings from the scientific community. Over time, regional housing markets are destined to undergo painful, unpredictable adjustments to climate-driven migration. That beachfront property actually isn’t going to appreciate, no matter what Miami real estate agents may say.

Emotionally, I still imagine living out the length of another mortgage with my family. But I can also read the writing on the proverbial seawall. My generation’s housing choices are necessarily limited; we all need to take far more into account than just our own private emotions, means, and finances. We can hardly afford to let the built environment stand, as it is. Most homes weren’t constructed to weather ahistorical climate conditions. The majority of our buildings were not constructed to support nature; to protect the health, safety, or welfare of people; to generate energy; or to sustain life. Until the construction of ecological housing is put within reach of everyone, previous generations’ outsized monuments to privacy will continue to threaten global health, haunting would-be buyers who can’t even afford to set foot inside them.

If the filmic nightmare of homeownership has looked, so far, like the claustrophobic fear of being trapped, the living nightmare of homeownership is shapeshifting to confirm the childhood terror of being forever locked out.

There are two different tales we tell ourselves about houses. The primary story is not about ghosts or demons or red rooms or ghouls, but rather about bright futures, long lives, children, grandchildren, and hard-earned success. The second story, the darker story, is about the horror of being trapped. Throughout American history, these stories have existed side by side. For people with the resources to buy in, one once felt more “real” than the other, but as we learned after the real estate crash of 2008, there’s truth to be found in both of them, especially for members of the cash-poor, dream-rich millennial generation.

…most of our desires are culturally rooted, shaped by a set of factors beyond our control. They don’t spring into being organically. I own a house in the woods for reasons other than my husband’s dreams or my own vision of myself as a future radical homemaker. I own out here because I can’t own in Portland, because the market is rising too quickly in the city, because I couldn’t buy in Boston, because I watched the real estate crash decimate my mother’s savings, because I feel the same anxieties as my peers. I’m afraid that a more expensive house in a more convenient area would put me into debt should the market experience another massive failure. I’m afraid that I could become trapped in one place, unable to sell, unable to move, haunting my own home and dreaming of mobility.

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