My parents never owned any of the places they lived in. From the time they came to this country they lived in tenements in New York City. When they married, a favored migration route of the day brought them from the Lower East Side to the newly developing residential neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Real Estate developers are masters of branding so the neighborhood they landed in was called East Flatbush, when in fact it was an extension of Brownsville, a name long associated — tainted, some might say – by immigrant life. Many decades later when my wife and infant daughter landed in Brooklyn after three years in Mississippi, we were witnesses to the same naming wizardry. Our new neighborhood, Boerum Hill, had been South Brooklyn in my growing- up years, a name with rough and tumble connotations. The new name brought higher rental costs and sale prices, just as it did for the newly invented enclaves of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens.
Until I left for graduate school at age 21, my parents, my older sister and I lived in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment. I’ve written before about the arrangement which didn’t seem odd then but often raises eyebrows now, where my sister and I shared the bedroom while my parents slept on the pullout bed in the living room. The rent control was a carry over from the war years when the Roosevelt administration created the Office of Price Administration (OPA) to protect consumers from price gouging resulting from the imbalance between supply and demand in all areas from housing to food purchases. The price controls and other regulations imposed by the OPA, e.g. how often tenants were entitled to paintings, created uninterrupted warfare between tenants and landlords in our little four- (with family building on a scale I rarely experienced in my many subsequent dealings with future landlords.
Beginning with our marriage in 1963 and extending through the next 35 years, we lived as nomads of a sort, pitching our tents on land owned by others. Some of the owners were wealthy, and that wealth in effect subsidized our ability to live in more sumptuous dwellings than we could otherwise afford, like the 18th century New England farm house (with its four fireplaces and four staircases) that was our home in New Hampshire for 8 years or in districts we did not have the means to buy into, like the Houston house in an arts district too exclusive for our means. The rent on our house and those in several surrounding streets was was subsidized by a wealthy patron of the arts. My wife says that we had good housing karma.
All through those years people lectured us on the advantages of ownership. “Why are you putting money in someone else’s pocket every month when you could be growing equity in your own home?” The wisdom of this advice has been spotlighted in all the recent studies of the wealth gap between Black people and white people, much of which is based on the lower rate of home ownership by Blacks.
What we bought in return for our fiscal irresponsibility was a sense, whether real or imagined, of freedom. Being untethered to property, we had the feeling that we could pull up stakes more easily when we saw new opportunities or adventure elsewhere. We were also spared the headaches that came from obsessive monitoring of the housing market. So many homeowners watched with a sense of doom as their homes went “underwater” in 2008, when the value of their homes dipped below the size of their mortgages.
On occasion the price of freedom was the loss of control over key decisions in our lives. We were forced to leave an absolute fairy tale of a house in New Hampshire when the owner’s wife decided she wanted to live there, a whim that lasted only a year when she discovered after moving in that she could hear the trucks changing gears on a hill almost half a mile away. That same owner also forbade us from keeping cats for fear that they would disturb the population of woodcocks on the property that he occasionally enjoyed using for target practice. (We defied him on that prohibition and he never was the wiser.) In some rentals you were so not the master of your fate that you had to adhere to restrictions on where to drive nails into the walls for picture hanging. Like just about everything else in your life, there were tradeoffs that came with whatever decision you made on owning or renting.
We were amused to realize some time in our mid-fifties that both our daughters had preceded us into the ownership class. In D.C., Elana was given the opportunity to buy the apartment she was living in on terms so reasonable that she couldn’t refuse them. Adina and her husband Peter have “owned” the Jerusalem apartment they have lived in for many years. You may have noticed the quotation marks around “owned” because the property falls under the jurisdiction of antiquated Ottoman law which protects their right to live in the apartment for life, although it is actually owned by a family that lives in Cyprus. Don’t ask.
We finally lost our virginity at age 58 when the owner of the apartment we were renting in Chicago while she was away decided she would not be returning and offered to sell it to us. From the first time we entered this space as potential renters, we realized that we never wanted to live anywhere but in this quirky building with only one apartment on each of its seventeen floors. From our sixteenth-floor perch we can see the sun rise over Lake Michigan each morning and set far beyond the western boundaries of Hyde Park. It was love at first sight and for the first time in our lives we are in full control of decisions about staying and leaving.
Since crossing over into the ownership class, I’ve been thinking about Native Americans’ rejection of Western concepts of ownership. Individual ownership of land was unknown. It was understood to be available for use by the larger community. The idea of buying and selling property was anathema. Oddly, after more than 25 years in our apartment, I’ve come to think about our stay here in similar ways. We’ve watched so many families come and go over the years, each using their space as long as they needed it before handing it off to others with similar needs. Of course, all of this has happened within the Western framework of ownership and sales, capitalistic transactions involving profit and loss. But in truth each of us is only camped here for a time in spaces that will soon accommodate others. It’s likely that our time here will be up in a few years. Although I shudder to think of all the deferred maintenance our successors will confront, I also enjoy thinking about the pleasures of all those sunrises they will witness. At this time no one has claimed ownership of the sun.