The American dream of ownership has created, for all of us, an ethical and practical nightmare.

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash; my townhouse wasn’t this cute.

My one and only flirtation with the American dream of homeownership began and ended with a townhouse in a neighborhood that a more tuned-in-to-the-culture American would have recognized as “aspirational” but unlikely to appreciate. In truth, I was well-enough aware of the cynical nature of the real estate market by that point to know full well that I “shouldn’t” buy that property — not if I were actually in pursuit of the version of the American Dream that would have been appropriate to someone of my gender, race, and class (female, white, middle). But my rejection of this cornerstone of American culture was already underway, even as I succumbed to it for the first time in my late 30’s.

When I started to look for a house to buy, I suppose I had accepted the notion that I couldn’t really be considered an adult unless I did something adult-like. At that point, I had been in and out of graduate school since my early 20s, earning a few advanced degrees, teaching to make ends meet, and renting or subletting. Although there was no concrete reason I needed to prove to anyone that I was a “good adult,” I imagined that I needed to, and since it is impossible to convince imaginary people that one’s apparent failures are one’s actual choices, eventually, I bought in and bought real estate. Took out a mortgage on a little piece of the American Dream. While my actual income barely qualified me to take out a mortgage sufficient to buy much of anything in town, my combination of race and class (white, professional) suggested to me that this move was part of the portfolio. It was (I understood this implicitly, which is how these things work) my privilege — and my responsibility — to become a homeowner.

As I looked at available properties around town, I became acutely aware of the race-and-class segregation that dictated the price I would pay as well as who my neighbors would be. It rankled me that neighborhoods were so clearly demarcated, and that with higher prices and more desirable locations came a preponderance of white people. Eventually, out of both economic necessity and a feeling of defiance toward a culture that I felt was tacitly pushing me to select the “right” neighborhood for someone like me (not for my actual pocket, mind you, but for my skin and for the letters I could string behind my name), I chose a newly constructed unit in a new subdivision. Most of my neighbors were African-American. It was a nice place to live, and even then, it troubled me that my deciding to buy there or not was another branch in the history of American racism. It troubled me, but it wasn’t until recently that I was able to see the whole experience from a broader perspective.

I stayed there for eight or nine years, through the housing bubble’s bursting, but not long enough to recoup that loss. By then, I was pretty sure that the house would never appreciate enough for me to do better than break even, and there was a good chance it wouldn’t appreciate at all before the forces of decay eroded the neighborhood’s decent foundation. It was already showing the signs that those in real estate recognize: a drug-bust here and there, larger groups of people moving into units as they turned over, foreclosures, a gradual decline in the services provided by the HOA. Perhaps those signs were reliable, or perhaps I was looking for signs dictated by the (racist, classist) expectations I was taught by the culture to have of neighborhoods like mine. I don’t know how what’s happened to that neighborhood since I moved out; in five years, I haven’t been back.

In any case, at the time, those signs of decline, real or perceived, weren’t the reasons that I decided to sell at a loss and relinquish property ownership. I had originally bought in by convincing myself, aided and abetted by the real-estate industry and its multitude of true-believers, that it was smarter to take out a mortgage on property and “pay myself” monthly than to say a permanent goodbye to the money that went to rent. It seemed, at first, like such a simple equation. But add in the interest, the taxes, the insurance, the inevitable maintenance and repairs; add in the burden of responsibility, the inconvenience of being tied to the place, the difficulty of selling and leaving, and the very real possibility that the property won’t appreciate in the amount of time you have to stay there. As an investment, real estate of the variety that most people can afford is a crap-shoot now, at best. Take the money you think you’re going to put down on a house and invest it in a broad-market index fund, and you’ll almost certainly come out way ahead. Rent your living space instead of owning it, and someone else can fix the A/C, the plumbing, the leaky roof. Don’t like your neighbors or the neighborhood? Change jobs or your mind? It’s relatively easy to move, and you probably won’t have accumulated as much stuff to reckon with as you would have if you’d expanded to fill the near-2,500-square-foot average American house. When I decided to sell and not buy again, I did so mainly on the belief I’d come to, which was that owning a house was not the key to freedom at all; rather, I had started to think, it would turn out to be a millstone round my neck. I hadn’t yet thought through the more troubling side of what I had begun to notice about the state of real estate in America.

Five years later, I not only believe that real estate isn’t the best investment for most of the 99%, but I have also come to see that ownership of real estate is part of the overall structure that stands on the strength of racist and classist corruption. Per an article at Inequality.org, “African Americans, despite making up 13 percent of the population, own less than 1 percent of rural land in the country” (Moore, “Who Owns Almost All America’s Land?” 2/15/2016). The article is based on a 1999 report from the USDA that illustrates the racial disparity of land ownership; it notes, for example, that the five agricultural-land owners with the largest holdings (white people) owned more than all of the African-Americans in the nation combined. The amount of agricultural land owned by American Indians at the time of the survey was just four-tenths percent (at risk of belaboring my point, just four tenths of one percent of agricultural land was owned, in 1999, by descendents of the original inhabitants of all the land now held by the U. S.). When it comes to rates of homeownership, the disparity between African-Americans and whites is large and persistent; since the 2008 housing crisis, Black ownership rates have fallen in many cities (see more detail from the Urban Institute here). Hard as it is to accept that something as seemingly wholesome as home-ownership (Locke’s “pursuit of property” reimagined by Jefferson as the “pursuit of happiness”), something almost universally held out as an achievement to aspire to in service of building individual stability, prosperity, and freedom, it is time we (white people) owned up to the full reality of what our ownership has wrought.

Most of us aren’t the landlords, the moguls and magnates, but whether you rent or buy it, real estate is populated according to how people identify themselves — and are identified by, typed by, pigeonholed by, and legislated by others — as much as by what they can afford or where they work. Wherever you live, your neighbors are likely to share a similar skin-color, level of education and pay, and to eat the same sorts of foods and engage in the same types of after-work and weekend activities. The intersection of race and real estate in this country rooted in the violent contact between Europeans and the First Nations (to adopt Canada’s useful term), and branched terribly with chattel slavery, leaving us the little-acknowledged and unresolved problem of the corrosive power of ownership. Much has been made of the other side, the philosophical tenet that holds that ownership of property is a natural right and tantamount to freedom. But that is not the whole story. Given that we can see, if we’re looking at all, the seemingly limitless damage caused by abusive power derived from ownership, how can we countenance owning anything anymore? To buy property is to participate in a system of power that favors those who own the most, who turn whatever (and, as history shows, whoever) they can into property that can be owned.

On some level, I’ve been aware all along of the deeply ingrained racism of real estate; growing up in rural North Carolina not far from a mid-sized city, I could see patterns even as a child, because the lines are so clearly and explicity drawn in a place like this. The schools I attended, back when the public school systems were divided into “city” and “county,” were as segregated as they could be without actual legal segregation. In the city, the lines were drawn: the east and south sides were home to many more African-Americans than the west and north sides, which were predominately white, and in the middle, the schools might achieve some sort of balance. The edges — and the corresponding edges of the county — followed along.

The more I moved around as an adult (in a limited area still mainly contained within the southeastern U.S.), the more I could see the lines of demarcation in the way people lived: the south and east sides of towns and cities, it seemed to me, were nearly always where the minority population concentrated. That had been true in my mid-sized southern hometown and was equally true in places like Washington D.C. and Boston. A look at a color-coded map of U. S. demographic distribution by race supports this conjecture still (see here). That segregation still operates, that racism inheres in everything from the process of obtaining loans to the layout of our cities is inarguable. But the pressing question is, given all that, how can we undo what’s been done? And how can we move forward in a better direction?

Honestly, short of getting a complete do-over, it’s hard to imagine that America can mend the damage, let alone proceed without doing more harm. I’d like to say something optimistic about time and about small changes accumulating, but in 2019, I’m not feeling that hopeful. As a white person implicated in this system, I am at a loss for answers that feel like they mean anything, although I think that it’s preferable to try to do something than to throw up my hands in defeat. So, in the spirit of baby steps and paradigm-shifts, it seems better, ethically, to buy in as little as possible by buying and owning less, than to buy into, and help to reinforce, the racist, classist permanence promised — not to everyone, and with strings attached — by the old Dream of buying and owning ever more. If ownership is power, and power corrupts, better to own as little as possible and vote for people who are willing to enact more regulation on how everyone — but especially the 1%, who own most of what can be owned — owns anything.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.