A few months ago, my partner and I were walking the dog in our neighborhood, which is of a recognizable type: between 40 and 50 years old, formerly suburban, now mostly within the city limits, and by my unscientific count, almost 100% white. When my partner bought the house 25 years ago (long before I joined him here), he had been looking for the “typical” things — a location near enough to where he worked, the right size yard, a smallish ranch-style, a neighborhood with a good track-record of appreciation. He’d taken his middle-class “lessons” in real estate seriously and understood that land was an important investment. Thus, he did his research, bought the house, and stayed in it.
Two and a half decades, three U.S. presidents, and a great deal of thought and discussion have brought him — and me — to where we are now: still living in the house in the neighborhood, but with a dizzyingly different view of the value and meaning of real estate. From the housing bubble of 2008 through the extremity of 2016’s response to Barak Obama’s eight years in office — which shows no signs yet of relenting — we found that we had to re-examine what we thought we knew about that old chestnut, the American Dream, especially as it concerned housing.
Probably at any time since we were adults, if you’d asked us whether housing is a human right, we would’ve said yes (the U.N. agrees). If you’d asked the question differently — does everyone have the right to own a house — we might’ve gotten hung up on it, because here, the ability to own something hinges on one’s ability to pay for it, to have earned it. The gap between “being housed” and “owning a house” is an almost unbridgeable chasm in the U.S., and we’ve collectively decided, over time, that if a person isn’t able (read: hasn’t earned and therefore doesn’t deserve) to own a house, then that person does not, in fact, have the right to be housed.
To succeed in owning a house, then, is to prove that you’re worthy of shelter. (To rent, I would suggest, means exactly what you’d think in relation to ownership: to rent means that you’re worthy until you’re not. It’s an overtly temporary stamp of worth.) Homeownership is the basic unit of value. With that established, there’s a vast array of add-ons that signify additional value. Some are obvious, like square-footage and number of bathrooms. Some are much more subtle. All of the attributes of owned real estate, though, combine to form a language of class and racial status which is, if not clear-cut and easily decoded, very well understood by people who wish to protect property ownership’s usefulness as an emblem of worth.
We had been watching houses go on and off the market for a while; most sold quickly at good prices, but one, nearly identical to the one next to it that had sold in a matter of days for more than its asking-price, still languished unsold after several months. We wondered what its problem was, what subtle cues potential buyers were responding to when they passed it by.
Meanwhile, on its other side, a smaller house went on the market and sold quickly. We noted with surprise that a crew of painters was starting work on the exterior, which had been repainted to the freshest realization of its long-time yellowish tan by the previous owners only months before. The current painters were applying a dark shade of blue, what I might call “blackberry,” not only to the siding, but to the trim, the shutters, and even the gutters. The house, it seemed, was to be reclothed in monochrome, breaking with the dominant style (light siding with darker trim) of the large and long-established neigborhood. If it weren’t set back among tall, full trees, it would loom and glower darkly at its prim, neutral neighbors.
Watching the transformation of this house from a respectable dirt-color to a single shade of deep blue that I’ve rarely-if-ever seen on a house in a neighborhood like this, I started to realize how well I understand, implicitly, what is “okay” to do to a house and what’s not. Without having noticed it happening, I’ve spent most of my life studying to be a functioning member of the white middle-class, and part of that, apparently, involves gaining knowledge of the range of colors that can responsibly be applied to a house’s exterior and of the colors that must further be deployed in contrast on trim and shutters. It feels like a such a ridiculous, unserious item when I describe it in writing. But somehow, these seemingly insignificant stylistic decisions come to be part of a matrix of evidence that will be used by those-who-care to calculate human worth.
Perhaps you’re thinking that I’m overstating it? I wouldn’t blame you. And yet.
One morning, as we were walking by the Blackberry House, which, fully repainted, was undergoing some as-yet-amorphous interior renovations, a white, blonde, middle-aged woman pulled a Volvo into the driveway across from the Blackberry House and commenced to chat with the woman who was out tending her plants. After a minute or two, she waved us over.
Gesturing at the Blackberry, she asked, “do you know anything about this house? Who lives there?” We told her what we knew, which was nothing to speak of. Her manner suggested that she might be a real-estate agent, but she could have just been a person wondering about the availability of houses in our neighborhood. We didn’t ask. “Well,” she huffed, “that blue paint! It ought to be a color from nature, you know?” I bit my tongue on the point that blue IS a color from nature. She went on, “I’ve seen hot pink and bright green on houses before!” (also, we might note, colors from nature…) Then, she sort of leaned toward us, and even though there really wasn’t any reason to, she stage-whispered, “are they poor?”
We said what we’d been thinking, which was that the people who were doing all the work on the house might be flippers. She looked somewhat mollified at that. My private thought was that if someone were really trying to flip a house, they would probably know better than to paint it a shade that elicited the sort of response I’d just witnessed, but again, I held my tongue.
Her attention shifted then to the house next-door, the one that was still sitting unsold. She appraised its exterior quickly: “that yellow and blue — it looks like a mobile home!” She laughed and looked at us knowingly, and we chuckled uneasily. “Well, thanks for chatting!” she chirped, and drove away.
That quickly, that superficially, she’d swept in, gauged the class and sophistication of the owners of two houses on the basis of paint-shades alone, and swept out. Furthermore, she’d had a conversation with us that consisted of few words but loads of shared understanding. It’s as dismaying to me that I understood the language she spoke to us, complete strangers, as it is that the language exists, except that I can do something with my awareness that I can’t do with the system itself.
It’s only by noticing what we assume about the world that we can question whether our assumptions are correct or merely convenient to us. When you zoom in on the fabric closely enough, you can see each of the individual threads that make it an indivisible piece of cloth. The more there are threads that are frayed or flawed, the flimsier the cloth; the less well it will wear. Our national notions about the value of homeownership are a flimsy fabric of sound strands interwoven with strands of bigotry and misbegotten notions of what humans are entitled to by natural right.
We ought to do better. Lives depend on our doing better. That people are homeless in America is a disgrace to us. We, as a nation, should ensure universal housing. But there is a chasm yawning between intentional — or even unwitting — gatekeeping of homeownership as a prize given only to the deserving, and intentional extension of the human right of shelter to every human being. Private acts of charity aren’t the solution to problems that should be solved by our government of the people. Change starts with awareness and becomes reality through political advocacy and voting for representatives who promise — and are held to account by all of us — to stand for everyone’s human rights.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.