The Anxiety of the Forever Renter
I keep reading about how homeownership is out in the new economy. It’s now a liability, not an ambition. It’s an anachronism in an age when nothing remains permanent anymore, when no one stays in the same job—let alone the same city, or even the same career—long enough to dent a 30-year mortgage. Homeownership represents the opposite of all the values that economists say will matter from now on—flexibility, mobility, adaptability—in a country where the Company Man will now work for himself, selling his portable ideas instead of his labor.
At the end of this last decade, the census captured an unexpected slowdown in the mass migration that’s been flowing south for a generation from the Northeast to the Sunbelt. Families had been picking up and moving by the tens of thousands to places like Tucson and Tampa. Then, suddenly, over the last couple of years, this great migration stalled. It stalled on such a scale that whole congressional seats stopped moving.
This didn’t happen because so many people changed their minds about uprooting, or because new industry sprang up in the Rust Belt. It happened because people couldn’t sell their homes. Maybe they did find jobs in other places. But they couldn’t take them. Their homes had become millstones, a story of this recession, but also of the reordered economy we’ll still be living in once the unemployment rate drifts back down.
I’ve also read that homeowners are no happier than renters. They're certainly more stressed out. High homeownership in industrialized countries has even been correlated with unemployment, suggesting that homeownership—long believed to be a central determinant in creating healthy and vibrant communities—may actually be preventing some of the people in those communities from achieving the other American dream: having a job.
Worst of all, homeownership fails to live up to one of its greatest selling points. Yale economist Robert Shiller has figured out that from 1890 to 1990, the rate of return on residential real estate in America, after counting for inflation, essentially amounted to nothing. In the long run, people don’t really make money off their homes as if they were guaranteed stock, long one of the promises of the American Dream (and a particular promise of the real estate bubble).
"I can’t help but wonder," Atlantic Cities colleague Richard Florida has written, "if this dream doesn’t belong to a bygone industrial era."
He sounds so convincing. All of this does.
Still, I can’t get over this feeling: I want one anyway.
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What no economist has measured is this: There’s something fundamentally demeaning about being a renter, about having to ask permission to change the showerhead, about having to mentally deduct future losses from deposit checks for each nail hammered into the wall to hang family photos. There’s something degrading about the annual rent increase that comes with this implied taunt to its captive audience: What are you going to do, move out?
I’m not worried about what it would mean for us to be a Nation of Renters, whether that would fray the social fabric or unravel homeownership’s side effects on civic participation or crime rates. Some people are worried about this. “FDR mentioned that 'a nation of homeowners is unconquerable,'” I heard the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors a few months ago tell a room full of policymakers suspicious of the mortgage home interest deduction. “We have to think,” he pleaded, “that maybe there is something more than numbers to a homeownership society” – as if we might devolve into some kind of chaos if enough of us didn’t care enough about our property to own it.
What I am worried about is the dill plant on my second-floor windowsill. I rotate it a little bit every day because it only gets sun from the western exposure. It has been dying since the day I brought it home. I want to put it in the ground, or at least outside. For several weeks over the summer, I tried furtively growing oregano in a small pot on the communal front stoop of our 20-unit red-brick apartment building. I carried cups of water out to it late at night when I thought no one was looking.
Eventually, it disappeared.
Earlier this year, my husband and I took a deep breath, purchased a power tool and did something permanent about our kitchen-storage problem: We drilled metal Ikea pot racks into the wall. Today the room is happily lined with saucepans. But every time I see the property manager coming or going from the building, I worry that she’ll ask to enter our unit, where she’ll spy what we’ve done to drywall that doesn’t belong to us.
More recently, my husband called our property manager to announce a long-awaited addition to our household that we thought would be welcome.
“I just got a job,” he told her, literally on the day that he had just gotten a job. “And my wife said when I get a job, I can have a dog. So I’m calling to tell you I’m getting a dog.”
As it turns out, we will not be getting a dog.
“You can have a cat,” she offered.
Previously we lived in an old apartment where the kitchen cupboard spent months slowly detaching itself from the wall above the stove. When this situation finally turned perilous, we called the super. She contracted a carpenter to replace the cabinet and asked us to empty it the night before he was due to arrive. The carpenter never showed, and no one called to explain why. We lived for a week with every plate and pot we own teetering on top of our dining table.
Before that apartment, we lived in a beautiful old house in Atlanta that had been converted into four rental units. When we moved out after a little more than a year, I scrubbed the place to excess, applying toothbrushes to tile grout and industrial-strength cleaner to the inner recesses of the oven. Months later, the absentee landlord mailed us our deposit, shy $100, according to the memo line, for a “cleaning fee.” We wrote back to ask him for a receipt or some accounting of what that fee had paid for.
We never heard from him again.
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Now we have each been at this – renting – for about a decade, and we’re reaching that point, married, starting our 30s, when it starts to feel like time to live in a more dignified way. We want to grow herbs outdoors and shop in the heavy-duty hardware store aisles and change the color of our living room. We want to make irreversible choices about wall fixtures and rash decisions at the animal shelter.
I've been thinking about all of these things a lot lately, while reading about the convincing reasons why homeownership no longer makes as much sense as it used to. Workers are no longer tied to factories – and the bedroom communities that surround them – because no one works in factories anymore. Now people telecommute. They get transferred to Japan indefinitely. Companies no longer offer the implicit contract of lifetime employment for hard workers, and so hard workers think nothing of updating their résumés every day.
And I think about my own transience: I’ve lived in eight apartments in six cities over the past nine years. My husband and I like to pick up and move (most recently, just eight blocks down the street from our previous place) as if we were selecting a new grocery store. We have a motto as a couple, which applies equally to weekend and life plans: “We’ll see how we feel,” we say.
We have trouble thinking beyond the nearest horizon, not because we don’t like the idea of commitment, but because we want to be free to theoretically commit to anything that may come up tomorrow. What if an incredible job offer wants to relocate us to Riyadh? What if we wake up Saturday morning and decide that we’ve tired of Washington, D.C.? What if – as many of our friends have experienced – one of us loses a job?
We’re both afflicted with a dangerous daydreaming ability to envision ourselves living anywhere we step off a plane. We never take a trip and think, “It’s wonderful to visit friends in Seattle,” or “Chicago is a great place for tourists in the summertime.” We always think: What if we lived here? Maybe we should live here? We could live in Key West! My husband has never even been to Portland, but we still nurse a sneaking suspicion that we should probably be living there.
In this way, we are the quintessential young professionals of the new economy – restless knowledge workers who deal in “projects,” not “careers,” who can no sooner commit to a mortgage than we can a lifetime of desk work. Our attitude is a national epidemic. It’s harder to get a mortgage today than it was 10 years ago. But a lot of people also just don’t want one any more. At the height of the housing boom, 69 percent of American households owned their homes. Housing researcher Arthur Nelson predicted to me that number would fall to 62 percent by 2020, meaning every residence built between now and then will need to be a rental.
I haven’t been able to figure out in my own household, however, how this aversion to permanence can coexist with our rising ire about renting. And I don’t know how whole cities will accommodate this new demographic: the middle-class forever renter.
Both Nelson and Florida have floated the idea that we need some kind of hybrid rental/homeownership model, some system that decouples “renter” status from income class, while allowing professionals who would have been homeowners 20 years ago to live in a comparable setting without the millstone. Maybe we allow renters to customize their homes as if they owned them, or we enable condo owners to quickly unload property to rental agents.
Short of putting us all in houseboats, I don’t know what these hybrid homes would look like, how they’d be paid for or if anyone will be willing to build them. But I suspect the trick lies outside of the architectural and financial details, that it lies in removing that fear of the approaching property manager, that lack of control over a dying dill plant. It lies in creating a feeling of ownership without the actual deed.
I know that what my husband and I feel now isn’t quite the same thing that our grandparents felt in the 1950s, when having a suburban homestead came to be the middle-class dream. For us, it’s not really that we want to own something. But we don’t want to live in a home that’s owned by someone else.
Should renters have more control of their homes? Are there new models for renter-owner hybrids? Leave your ideas in the comments below. We'll highlight the best submissions at the end of the week.
Photo credit: Jason Lee/Reuters