''Real estate is the working man's only path to financial security.''
—My friend Sam
No bank in their right mind would give us the loan. But it was 2005, top of the Florida housing bubble, and banks were freely handing out dice to commoners. The historic West Palm Beach home had a plaster relief sculpture above the fireplace, high ceilings, built-in cabinets, a secret room and, outside, two massive mango trees. ''Great bones,'' the appraiser declared. Never mind the electrical, plumbing and structural problems. Never mind the 56 crumbling windows, many of them boarded-up, or the squatter scurrying out of the carriage house.
We figured that if we didn't snap up the near-downtown house near the water, someone else would. And the whole neighborhood would be whitewashed away by gentrification. Just like my mother's previous West Palm Beach neighborhood. Just like the black folks on the nearby island of Palm Beach.
My family pooled our resources and—bought the house.
Four years later, the Florida housing market fell off a cliff. The house next door was selling at auction for $170,000 less than we paid—before repairs (by the way—still not done). By then, banks had located their right minds, so no more renovation loans for us. Like one in four Americans, we were ''underwater,'' which means we owed more than the house was worth. Can't sell. Can't rent. Can't afford to stay.
In other words, we were trapped.
In two new books, The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity and My Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, give two different, but highly illuminating takes on how our homes have ''gone from being our shelter to being our burden,'' according to author Richard Florida.
In The Great Reset, Florida, the Toronto urbanist often called the heir to economist Jane Jacobs, argues that many people who own their homes are effectively ''enslaved'' to them; it is critical to the economic recovery that we break free. Meghan Daum, a novelist and Los Angeles Times columnist, is the heart to Florida's head. In her hilarious and achingly honest memoir, My Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, she explores the tangle of insecurities, neuroses and fantasies wrapped up in where we live—insecurities, neuroses and fantasies that fueled America's drunken real-estate binge.
As this country sobers up from its real estate-induced stupor, both books signal that something fundamental is changing about the American Dream, a dream that doesn't necessarily include home ownership. But of course, the relationship between enslavement, property and the American Dream has always been more complicated when it comes to black folks.
Florida thinks it's a mistake for the Obama administration to devote scarce government resources to bail out private mortgages and Big Auto, two industries of the past that powered an outdated suburban lifestyle. As he sees it, the new American Dream is economic freedom: moving into dense, urban areas with lots of jobs and opportunities, giving up your car for bikes and public transportation—and, most importantly, renting. ''Owning your own home made sense when people could hope to hold a job for most or all of their lives,'' Florida writes. ''But in an economy that revolves around mobility and flexibility, a house that can't be sold becomes an economic trap, preventing people from moving freely to economic opportunity.''
Instead of propping up the zombie industries that make cars and white picket fences, Florida thinks the government should support the economy of the future, propelled by innovation in technology, the arts, the service and idea-driven knowledge economy. And as Florida noted in his previous best-seller, the fantastic The Rise of the Creative Class, the most effective incubators for innovation and creativity are cities.
So it was for Daum, who inherited her bohemian parents' fetish for New York, a city her family coveted from their suburban New Jersey home like so many noses fogging the department store display window. ''If the road to becoming a professional writer felt like the main artery of my life, my preoccupation with housing functioned as the blood itself.'' Indeed, her first book, My Misspent Youth, touched on the hunt for the perfect Manhattan address. Her next, The Quality of Life Report, was a fictional account of her real-life experience of saying goodbye to all of that and finding the perfect home in Lincoln, Neb.
In My Life Would Be Perfect, Daum explores her lifelong search for her authentic self via real estate. In the process, she deconstructs the psychology behind the mid-2000s now-or-never frenzy that led her down the rabbit hole of being a 34-year-old single woman buying a half a million dollar, 900-square-foot ''starter home'' in Los Angeles that needed work. Lots of work. ''I believed buying a falling-apart house was sexier than buying a turnkey one,'' she wrote. ''No ordinary house for me! An intrepid, sporting girl such as myself demanded (which is to say ''could handle'') some place rustic, maybe even someplace on the verge of decay.''
As she threw herself into repairs and decorating, she lost interest in work, friends and, weirdly, even sex. ''I sometimes thought I wanted a lover so I could share this bliss with someone, the truth was that I just wanted a witness. I wanted someone to see my home, admire it, admire me, and then leave.'' Later she writes: ''As far as I was concerned, I was saving myself for homeownership.''
By the end of the book, Daum shakes her obsession with her home and resolves to sell the house, as she finds it unable to physically and emotionally accommodate her new, grown-up life. (Spoiler alert: It involves a boy.)
Florida and Daum make valid points. For my family members that live in and manage the West Palm Beach house full-time, home ownership does feel like a trap. Luckily, thanks to the mortgage program introduced by the Obama administration (yep, the same one Richard Florida criticized) we were able to refinance to do one last small push for repairs. We formed a nonprofit and are working on creating a historical cultural tourism district in the neighborhood. (If you are going to be enslaved by a piece of property, it's nice for it to be historically meaningful.) We still need windows, a roof and central A/C, but we managed to snag tenants in a saturated rental market. Each month still feels like a miracle, but we are working it out.
Even as America experiences an economic ''reset,'' the reality is that the much-discussed wealth gap between black people and white people is still tied up in real estate passed down from generation to generation. For many black homeowners, the emotional attachment to our homes goes beyond providing shelter or bragging rights (although that is part of it). In the black community, our homes and neighborhoods are a critical link to the unique adversities of the past, which can be used as a bridge to our future.
Holding on to real estate isn't easy these days. But if we manage to hand our homes off—fully paid—to the next generation, we can only hope it won't feel like a burden to them. In a society of renters, someone has to be the landlord—why not us?
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root's media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.