Citizen Green: Homeownership and the anxiety of status

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

We live on a bluff above a fast-moving river of automobiles.

The river is that modern wonder of traffic engineering: Greensboro’s West Wendover Avenue. It supplies an omnipresent hum of rubber and steel on asphalt at virtually all hours of the day.

But behind the house, the kitchen and dining room look out onto a generous deck partially shaded by a gracious pergola. High above the street, the backyard affords excellent privacy. Adding to the sense of seclusion is a wooden fence enclosing the backyard and towering hardwoods lining the perimeter. The dead leaves and rotting wood are only part of what makes the place feel like a magnificent ruin.

That is the paradox that encapsulates what we love so much about the place; in essence, it’s the peaceful retreat in the middle of the bustling city. It may as well be a courtyard in the French Quarter or a rooftop in the Lower East Side.

As of May 14, 2015, my wife and I are officially homeowners. It’s exhilarating to hold a patch of land that we can call our own, of course. And certainly it’s terrifying to be lashed to a monthly mortgage, no matter what vicissitudes of employment and health may visit on our family finances.

Buying this house — with generous gap financing from my mother, I should mention — was absolutely the right thing to do. But on some level, I retain a sense of ambivalence about the development. Staking everything on a piece of property is a loaded proposition, no way around it.

Over the course of 10 years of reporting in the Piedmont Triad, I’ve accumulated layers of skepticism about real estate and how it shapes our relationships with our fellow citizens. As an investigative reporter, I took deep dives into the foreclosure crisis — first in 2007, before it slammed into mainstream America, and then in 2011, as the crisis laid waste to families on a massive scale and depleted public coffers. For anyone who was awake to witness the derailment, the question has to be raised: Has homeownership at some level become a fraud perpetrated on a hollowed-out middle class always one step away from financial ruin, while the banks are largely insulated from risk and positioned to profit handsomely no matter what they do?

I’ve also sat through more Greensboro City Council meetings than I care to remember in which I witnessed homeowners mobilize to oppose one rezoning or another — usually against what’s known in the jargon of urban planning as “multifamily housing.” Rarely articulated, but almost always implicit, was the desire to keep out students, the poor and other undesirables. Sometimes parents pleaded that they “invested” their livelihoods in a home in a particular neighborhood or subdivision because they wanted their children to be able to attend a good school. Implicit in the appeal is the unspoken couplet: If you let those people in the neighborhood, the schools will go downhill. Sometimes, the burden of increased traffic loads would be invoked, other times the racial dog-whistle of crime. Almost always I heard a faint echo of arguments lodged 50 or 60 years ago about maintaining de jure racial segregation to prevent Jim Crow’s second-class citizens from moving into white neighborhoods and driving down property values.

I always strongly resisted the notion that property owners, as taxpayers, are the citizens who count, as if tenants’ rent money doesn’t provide landlords the income to pay their tax bills.

I’m keenly aware that in our highly stratified society, the black and Latino poor are still segregated into neighborhoods oppressed by a vicious cycle of divestment reinforced by poor performing schools, chronic unemployment, dangerous housing, high crime and tense relationships with the police, and lack of green space and recreational facilities. Absolutely I feel a twinge of guilt about the fact that our family is playing into the pattern by our decision about where to purchase a home.

Identity and status seem to be inextricably bound up in the decisions around homeownership. Long before my wife and I closed the deal, Nicole Crews uncannily pegged us in her column two months ago, describing our new neighborhood Lindley Park as a place “where cool dads and crafty moms choose to hang their hats, ride their bikes and drink their IPAs.”

We’re more aspirational than actual in our conformation to that definition, but that’s also a marker of our status: We bought in at the low end of the neighborhood’s spectrum of real-estate values, accepting our realtor’s caveat that our house’s proximity to the highway will likely depress its resale value. In a way we’re getting a sweet deal in being able to take in the neighborhood’s many amenities without paying a premium price.

We love the neighborhood’s restaurants, parks and Saturday farmers market. We’ve already met lots of cool people. On the whole, they’re engaged, open-minded, forward thinking and community spirited — values we totally share. We feel right at home.

Finding a place where you belong is wonderful. But there can be a dark side, too, if you allow yourself to define community by who doesn’t belong.

  • From the article: “I’m keenly aware that in our highly stratified society, the black and Latino poor are still segregated into neighborhoods oppressed by a vicious cycle of divestment reinforced by poor performing schools, chronic unemployment, dangerous housing, high crime and tense relationships with the police, and lack of green space and recreational facilities.”

    Happy to see you pointed this out.