The Dream of Owning a Home

The most corrosive issue today affecting the American Dream is that so many families have had to give up on the idea of ever owning their own home. Affordable housing has all but disappeared in too many places.

Yesterday, I got my semi-annual haircut and listened as my middle-aged haircutter, punctuated by scissor snips, told me of her family and the rental place they finally found through friends, far from her place of work. She and her husband must both commute and share care for their young daughter with a local in-home child-care provider. She spoke wistfully of their having abandoned in middle age their former dream of owning their own home.

My stepfather was not rich and when it came time in 1947 to build a home for his new family, he bought an acre of pasture from a nearby farm, hired a local builder and immediately signed on as a framing carpenter to lower the cost. As a ski instructor in nearby Stowe, he could work off-season on his new home.

The agreed-upon cost of the house was $8,000. My wealthy New York grandfather deemed the cost outrageous and refused to lend his stepson any money to build it. My stepfather’s considerably less well-off mother lent him what money she had saved and bought him a new fridge to boot for his new family.

The news is rife with homes throughout Vermont selling sight-unseen at well above their asking price, and of young Vermont families or retiring couples unable to find any modest-size housing they can afford. The inverse of this phenomenon is, of course, appreciation of homestead value. Renters can’t capture this appreciation.

The influx of out-of-staters either migrating to Vermont, buying an investment property, or wanting to ensure a safe haven should their home cities deteriorate has fed the steep rise in residential properties across the entire state. A very rural house I bought in 1976 for $42,000 is today listed for $650,000 and might well bring more.

When I was young, it was understood that a hardworking head-of-household would be able to provide a warm home and food for his or her family with a middle-class income, as was the precept that primary health care was available to all regardless of ability to pay.

When I started a family in 1965, the mortgage benchmark required that your home financing cost be less than 25% of  your expendable income. Today that number is 50% and still disqualifies most would-be home buyers.

We’ve created a wealth-polarized economy in which the bottom half can only hope for a home if both household members work at least one full-time job, forego having children, or can call on relatives for childcare or for financial aid.

According to the Champlain Housing Trust, the largest community land trust in the country, more than half of renters pay more than 30% of their income for housing. At $73,600, household income  in Chittenden County is, on average, $20,000 short of the minimum needed to buy a home there. Average market price is $340,000 and the minimum household income to buy such a home would be $93,000.

The American dream has dissolved in the insomnia of financial anxiety.

Add to the cost of housing, access to healthcare, nutrition, childcare, public transportation and education and it becomes clear why we’ve become a country divided.

Many years ago, I was asked to testify against the construction of a trailer park in Washington County. When I asked what the opposition was to its construction, I was told that it would be “unsightly.” “For whom?” I asked. “Those of us who live nearby,” was the answer. I was stunned.

I then remembered Glenn, a friend from school in Morrisville, who showed me with great pride the mobile home they could finally afford after living in a collapsing wood-frame house surrounded by hay bales, supported by rotting sills, and heated by a kerosene stove. For them, the trailer was a dream come true – a clean, heatable space with working appliances, plumbing and electricity. I shared his pride and excitement.

I demurred on the request to testify and was asked what I would be willing to support. I said I would be happy to testify for a requirement that each trailer-owner in the park be required to plant a tree next to their trailer. That notion was rebuffed.

Not long after that experience, I first heard the term “NIMBY” (Not-in-my-backyard) and came to understand its meaning and consequences. It gave those of us with privilege the opportunity to speak passionately about the need for “affordable housing” but to demur when it came to building it in our neighborhood.

The NIMBY phenomenon is poisoning our country and must be understood to be another form of caste supremacy, even as the color of the occupants of affordable housing may be white – “trailer-trash,” as I recently heard someone say. So much for President Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

If we acknowledge two basic truths, we might get this right and be a more prosperous country to boot.

First, we must rebuild an economy that values the working class and awards them wages adequate to own a home, raise a family, and ensure the rudiments of well-being.

Second, we must understand that having a safe home is a predicate to good mental and physical health.

The concept of “population health” is aimed at achieving a wholesome community, both economically and physically. It focuses on prevention as a way to ensure the well-being of families by addressing the fundamentals of community wellness: a safe home, adequate nutrition, access to healthcare when needed, to education and to racial and gender equity.

For a healthy, prosperous nation, we will need to reassess dignity in the workplace, and provide adequate compensation, benefits, and working conditions. And we will need to continue to build an affordable housing infrastructure in Vermont.

Yes, maybe in your backyard.

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