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The homeownership obsession

How buying homes became a part of the American dream—and also a nightmare

The story starts with a gothic mansion, all stone turrets and peaked windows, a fortress-like structure. The camera descends from a dark swirling sky to a full moon to finally frame the mansion. A male voice narrates Shirley Jackson’s famous opening lines from her 1959 gothic novel, The Haunting of Hill House: “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut,” he reads. We are told, from the moment we start the show, that this is a story about a house. And we are told that, while the house is sinister, it does have good bones.

As the seconds pass, we move indoors. Children sit awake in their beds, children wander the halls, and a father in respectable blue pajamas comes to comfort his crying, ghost-touched daughter. “How long do we have to live here, Daddy?” she asks. “Well, your mother and I have to finish fixing this house, and then someone has to buy it,” he replies. “Then we can go?” she asks. Then, he says, they can go.

The 2018 Netflix recreation of The Haunting of Hill House isn’t just a reinterpretation of Jackson’s novel; it’s also part of a long tradition of American homeownership horror stories. These stories begin with a place. The place is bad, uncanny in a Freudian sense (the Austrian psychoanalyst’s word for the uncanny was unheimlich, which literally translates to un-home-like), but the place is also beautiful. In Rosemary’s Baby, American Horror Story, Dream House, Sinister, a lovely old structure, built with care and architectural flourishes—not to mention good bones—turns out to be a living nightmare. Often, the movie centers around a young couple or a young family. They quickly become trapped. The price was a trick. People don’t own the house. The house owns them. Like mold, it gets inside the unwitting buyers. It seeps into their lungs, their dreams, their bodies and minds, permeating everything.

There are two different tales we tell ourselves about houses. The primary story is not about ghosts or demons or red rooms or ghouls, but rather about bright futures, long lives, children, grandchildren, and hard-earned success. The second story, the darker story, is about the horror of being trapped. Throughout American history, these stories have existed side by side. For people with the resources to buy in, one once felt more “real” than the other, but as we learned after the real estate crash of 2008, there’s truth to be found in both of them, especially for members of the cash-poor, dream-rich millennial generation.

Netflix’s iteration of The Haunting of Hill House is set in the 1990s. During this era, the primary power of homeownership was, in the words of then-President Bill Clinton, that it “strengthens families and stabilizes communities.” In a 1994 letter to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, Clinton emphasized his belief that homeownership was good for individuals, communities, the economy, and the nation. The following year, he released his National Homeownership Strategy, and at the ceremony announcing the plan, he called it a “big deal.” He said, “This is about more than money and sticks and boards and windows. This is about the way we live as a people and what kind of society we’re going to have.” Homeownership, according to conventional wisdom, was a path to a more stable, equitable future. It was emblematic of the American dream, the idea that, with enough hard work and honest labor, anyone could rise to the top. Anyone could own a four-bedroom brick house on a suburban backstreet with a tidy front lawn and a big yellow dog. Anyone could be successful. Anyone could be a CEO, a rock star, a president.

A black crow sitting on a dilapidated for sale sign in a yard. The sign is hanging off crookedly and the wooden posts that hold it are cracked. The sign reads “For sale: The American dream”. Illustration.

Of course, most of this equation was, from the beginning, a fantasy—as much a metaphor as the uncanny ghost that traps unsuspecting buyers in its cycles of suffering. But while ghost stories represent the unspoken things that we fear most (chaos, abuse, sex, death, love), the myth of the American dream represents what we say out loud, the version of ourselves that we project into the world. As Americans, we want to believe in a meritocracy, even though the educational achievement gap has been growing steadily since the 1970s. We want to believe that all citizens can access homeownership, even though we’ve seen a recent drop in homeownership rates exclusively among African Americans. We want to believe that successful people are successful because they are deserving or God-chosen, not because they inherited huge amounts of money, wealth that was often built from exploitation and oppression. Ghosts allow us to speak about unspoken truths; the American dream gives us a solid framework on which to hang flimsy lies.

While academics and journalists questioned the conventional wisdom, the dominant idea was that buying a house was a solid investment plan, a responsible decision that required commitment (30 years of mortgage payments) and a sturdy sense of hope. American culture has always been oriented toward the future rather than reckoning with the past, and homeownership, particularly in the suburbs, was no different. Yet this wasn’t always part of the American dream. The American dream was originally about “rags to riches, coming from nothing and ending up a robber baron,” says Rachel Heiman, associate professor of anthropology at the New School. It was about money. It was only during the McCarthy era that homeownership became a crucial part of the story.

“People rarely realize that the desire to be a homeowner isn’t a purely natural desire, though we tend to think about it as inherent,” Heiman says. When we think about the McCarthy hearings, we often remember the Hollywood aspect—the glamorous stars persecuted for their supposed leftist leanings. But before McCarthy gave his famous anti-communist speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, the senator had focused much of his career on opposing public housing and protecting corporate interests. Since the post-World War II period, the government had been providing housing to veterans and their families. “They did an extraordinary job of building affordable housing on a mass scale during the war,” explains Heiman. In the 1940s, McCarthy and other right-wing politicians became concerned that the housing projects had gone too far—McCarthy even called public housing “breeding ground[s] for communists.” In the late 1940s, he sided with William Levitt (and other private manufacturers) in their fight against public housing projects. Levitt was promoting his cookie-cutter housing communities, which McCarthy believed were more in line with America’s capitalist economic structure and ideals. (“No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do,” Levitt once famously said.) As the Cold War wore on, this sentiment grew, particularly among members of the Republican Party. From 1950 onward, Heiman says, “homeownership was packaged and sold.”

Suddenly, it became important for the U.S. government to shift its focus from providing housing for those in need to providing mortgage assistance. “The government helped people, but only white people, to get into the suburbs,” Heiman says. This was the legacy of redlining, a New Deal-era process of color-coding neighborhoods based on income, labeling some as good investments and others as “risky.” The government was more likely to help people refinance their homes or purchase homes in areas they deemed secure, which prevented generations of African Americans (who lived disproportionately in “risky,” i.e., low-income, areas) from being able to lift themselves out of poverty. Although redlining was outlawed in 1968 by the Fair Housing Act, the effects echoed through American culture for decades and continue to do so to this day. Popular culture also helped reinforce suburban segregation. Magazines and newspapers ran advertisements for Levittown and other similar housing developments, which nearly always showed white couples or children engaging in wholesome activities (one showed a young couple, man in uniform, drawing their dream house in the sand, while another showed a young white child jumping into a pool). Television advertisements were no better. The message was clear enough: The suburbs—and the American dream, by extension—weren’t for everyone.

As the old adage goes, a crucial part of purchasing real estate is recognizing the significance of “location, location, location,” and from the 1950s onward, that location was almost always the suburbs. But like the idea of homeownership in general, the concept of owning a suburban home was fed to Americans by people in power. Suburbia has always been good for industry. Big houses required big appliances and used lots of carbon, creating a “hydrocarbon middle-class family” that was buoyed by three industries: coal, steel, and automaking. “Suturing the growing metropolitan regions together were, of course, cars, which made the postwar American suburb possible,” writes Robert O. Self in his 2014 Salon article “Cataclysm in suburbia: The dark, twisted history of America’s oil-addicted middle class.” Self points to the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, which provided 90 cents for every dime the states invested in interstate highways, “effectively making sprawl as much a creature of government as of the market.”

Clinton knew this, to some extent. He didn’t entirely ignore American history. In the same letter cited above, Clinton talked about the importance of opening homeownership up to minority and low-income groups. His successor, George W. Bush, also embraced the idea that homeownership was a path to success, one that needed to be more accessible for the general public. (Unfortunately, we now know that his legislative efforts to encourage homeownership helped to fuel the housing bubble.) This idea of pulling oneself up by the mortgage was the dominant narrative of my childhood—not to mention my parents’ formative years. We understood that houses were bank accounts that you could also live in; a mortgage wasn’t something that trapped you in place, but something that freed you from having to pay rent.

A house in the suburbs is no longer quite so covetable. One reason is the climate crisis, which has led many potential homeowners to reconsider the effects of suburban sprawl, carbon dependency, and other industries that fueled those postwar suburbs. Another reason is millennial fear: First, there was the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, which left many feeling a sense of “collective trauma” and which may have resulted in heightened stress levels among young Americans (and perhaps contributed to millennials’ reputation as the “most anxious” generation). Then, there was the market crash of 2008, which left millennials in an even more precarious financial situation than members of Gen X. Both of these events sowed a sense of instability and stoked fears. They both hit close to home.

I’ve spoken with dozens of millennials about the topic of homebuying—both as research for my work, and out of curiosity. I am a millennial who owns a house; I’m also a 32-year-old who watched my parents lose control of their finances in the market crash. For me, like many other adults my age, the idea of owning a house is both a dream and a nightmare.

I visited my first open house during a sunny Sunday in June. It was a quintessential spring day in Portland, Maine. Lilacs and rhododendrons were blooming, the grass was finally bright green, and the maple and oak leaves had fully unfurled. It was the ideal backdrop for viewing a three-bedroom brick cape on the outskirts of the city, especially since one of the home’s selling points is the back patio and garden, hedged in by boxwoods, made private by small trees and big fences.

This is where I found Brody Van Geem and Brooke Brown-Saracino, 30-something transplants from California who moved to Maine three years ago after being priced out of the West Coast. Portland, they thought, would be an affordable city with a “slower pace of life.” Brown-Saracino said she “couldn’t imagine a future” in California, “given how expensive it is.” When we spoke, Brown-Saracino was cradling their 5-week-old newborn. They already owned a condo downtown (on the “peninsula,” as we call Portland’s densest and most expensive area), but were looking to buy somewhere where they could be closer to nature and have a bit more room to grow their family.

When they bought their condo, this millennial couple wasn’t thinking about acquiring their “dream home.” They knew that was out of the question. “We thought of it as a more financially viable choice than renting,” said Brown-Saracino. “It felt like a very practical and financially driven decision.” She had to “reconcile” this mindset with her “lifetime notion” that the first house she bought would be a home. A place where she would raise children and live until she grew old. Or, at least, until the kids were old enough to leave for college. “This is the narrative that I think was fed to past generations—and is still a component of my emotional relationship to homeownership—but most of me had shifted to a much more practical, financial narrative,” she said. “I think this is probably driven by how expensive homeownership is today.”

University of Michigan professor Karyn Lacy, who studies black American upper-middle-class and “elite” millennials, has noticed a widespread shift in how people view their first real estate purchase. Baby boomers, she says, “went to high school, college, got married right after, and bought homes as a couple.” Now, millennials are doing everything later. They’re buying houses as single people rather than waiting to get married and have their first kids. The properties they purchase aren’t “homes,” explains Lacy. “They’re places to live without paying rent.”

This is something upper-class adults learn from their parents. “The kids that I study understand that this is a way to accumulate wealth without having to do much else,” says Lacy. “You buy it, you live in it, you go about your daily life, and in five years you’ll have a nice nest egg to move up from your starter house to your dream home.” Kids who grow up in lower-income families don’t necessarily have that same ideal instilled in them.

The next open house I visited was much quieter—it was also more expensive. It crossed the half-million-dollar mark, a divide that seems to separate properties that attract millennial buyers from properties that attract a primarily boomer crowd. In the two hours I spent talking with realtor Jody Ryan, I didn’t meet any prospective homeowners under the age of 50. Millennials, she says, don’t really want a house this big (2,700 square feet) or with so many expensive fixtures and fittings. “A lot of them are buying little ranches,” she said as we waited for another buyer to wander in. “They want splits and ranches or houses that are good for easy living.” (The other trend Ryan noticed was that millennials often want houses with big tubs for their pets, so they can “stick ’em in and spray them. They’ve got lots of pets.”)

A handmade looking cross stitch design that reads “Home Sweet Trap”. Decorative elements of chains and dollar signs form a border around the lettering. Illustration.

Out of the millennial homeowners I spoke with, the majority of them had help from their parents. The amount ranged widely. My parents gave us $10,000 (money that they said I could have for a wedding or for a house—I chose to put it toward a house) but some millennials were able to put down 10 times that amount. Genya Shimkin, who lives in Seattle with her partner, purchased a home for $630,000 last year, putting $126,000 down. But the down payment didn’t entirely come from her savings. It was split four ways, with Shimkin’s father, her partner, and her in-laws all chipping in.

Homeownership in Seattle is a “solid investment,” Shimkin says, but it was also an emotional decision. “My childhood home was an anchor for my family; we gathered for meals, played sports in the backyard with neighborhood kids, planted and harvested vegetables from the gardens, and my mother died there,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to have a home like the one where I was raised, and I’m privileged enough that I have access to homeownership.” But Shimkin also pointed out that her home is slightly different, because in order to pay their “Seattle-sized mortgage,” Shimkin and her partner rent out two rooms. They’re trying to create a sense of communal living within their space—Shimkin calls herself a “steward” rather than a landlord. “So many queer and trans folk struggle to find safe, affordable, and welcoming homes,” she says. “We wanted to be able to offer that in our community.”

In some ways, Shimkin’s ideas about homeownership are traditional. She wants to create a space for herself and people she cares about; she wants to grow plants and have big dinners and fill a space with love. But like many millennials, she’s not buying in order to have kids. She’s buying because it makes sense, and because she can. Cory, another recent millennial homeowner, gave similar reasons for buying his $229,000 place in the New Jersey suburbs after years of thinking of homeownership as the “idealized life path that all Americans aspire to.” Cory and his wife put down $11,000, which they saved over the course of several years.

Owning a house doesn’t always feel like a solid investment to Cory; sometimes he worries about overspending at a restaurant because there’s always the possibility he could come home to a problem that needs $10,000 in repairs. He gets the feeling that things played out slightly differently for his boomer parents when they bought their suburban New Jersey dream home. “I’ve talked with my mom about it, and I get the sense that the two of them had a more romantic vision of homeownership than I do,” he says. “It was centered around raising a family.” Buying a house and having children were “linked” for Cory’s parents. Not so for Cory and his wife: The couple is currently childless, and while that may change in the future, they have no firm plans to grow their family anytime soon.

Homes, at their best, can provide a stable place for growth, expansion, and community building, whether that’s through a nuclear family unit or another form of bonding. But what happens when you’re not sure whether you want to be part of the greater community? This is the case for Erik, a first-generation Armenian American who feels deep, intense pressure from his parents to begin the house-hunting process. “Every time I go home, my mother and grandparents ask why I haven’t bought yet,” says Erik, who asked that his name be changed to protect his family’s privacy. It’s “unfathomable” to his parents that he has no plans to buy a place of his own in San Francisco. “I’m an American who didn’t grow up in America,” he explains. “I’m not certain that I want to, or can, live in a country where health care and keeping kids in cages are both up for debate and every loud noise makes people look around for escape routes.”

For people like Erik (who is, like Shimkin, part of the queer community), the idea of getting married, moving to the suburbs, and shopping in bulk seems not only out of reach but also undesirable. “I’m straight-passing, but I like that my life isn’t following a set pattern,” he says. All the things that go “part and parcel” with homeownership seem “mundane and boring” to 35-year-old Erik. “No wonder all those shows like Big Little Lies and Weeds take place in the literal suburban hell that begins with homeownership,” he concludes.

But even couples who want to buy often feel priced out. Meg Gatza lives in Boston with her fiancé of two years. Both of their parents have offered to help with a down payment or contribute to wedding costs. For the past several years, Gatza and her partner have debated what to do, and they still find themselves “no closer to either buying a house or planning a wedding.” They crave the financial stability, they want to build equity, and they really want space to plant a few literal roots. (Gatza’s fiancé has been growing small oak seedlings from acorns that he collected around her mother’s lawn. “We want a place where we’ll be for a long time to plant those trees and let them grow,” she says.) But still, they are reluctant to even look at real estate in the greater Boston area.

“We’ve been so paralyzed by costs that we still don’t know how to make a decision,” Gatza says. Even though she admits that buying a house might be a “very practical goal” for her future, Gatza says that, for her, “it’s not part of the American dream.”

Owning a house was never part of my American dream either. Nor, honestly, was becoming rich. My dream was to feel stable. I’m an adult child of an alcoholic parent, and a child of divorce. I moved around as a kid, from New York to New Mexico to Massachusetts. My parents owned houses in each state we lived in, but that didn’t change the basic fabric of our household. Wherever we lived, the family dynamics were tumultuous. Reality was tenuous. Fighting was commonplace, as were slammed doors and locked doors. I’ve never held any illusions about what happens behind the white picket fence.

And yet, I bought a house. It’s very different from the houses I grew up in. It’s much smaller, it has more land, and it’s located in a much more rural and poor area than any I’ve lived in before. There’s no reason to believe that the value of my house will increase significantly over the next few years, so it’s not the most practical decision. But it’s one I can live with; I have five acres of woods, two dogs, several gardens, and a very long commute. This cost $200,000, but our mortgage here is less than we paid in rent in Portland (and much, much less than my husband and I paid in rent in Boston).

Homeownership was part of my husband’s dream. He always wanted children, and he always wanted a yard he could mow, floors he could sand, walls he could paint, and a wood stove that he could feed with seasoned wood (gathered from his own personal forest). I’ve come to love living in our house. My emotional attachment to this place grows with each new plant I put in, each robin that nests on our roof.

Like most people, I like to think of my choices as entirely my own. I was drawn to a house in the woods because I grew up reading stories about plucky girls on the frontier. This is partially true, but like Heiman points out, most of our desires are culturally rooted, shaped by a set of factors beyond our control. They don’t spring into being organically. I own a house in the woods for reasons other than my husband’s dreams or my own vision of myself as a future radical homemaker. I own out here because I can’t own in Portland, because the market is rising too quickly in the city, because I couldn’t buy in Boston, because I watched the real estate crash decimate my mother’s savings, because I feel the same anxieties as my peers. I’m afraid that a more expensive house in a more convenient area would put me into debt should the market experience another massive failure. I’m afraid that I could become trapped in one place, unable to sell, unable to move, haunting my own home and dreaming of mobility.

One way of phrasing my fears is that I don’t want to be “mortgage poor.” It’s a phrase that realtor Tom Landry of Benchmark Real Estate in Portland keeps hearing from younger prospective buyers. “I don’t think that was in our vocabulary 20 years ago,” he says. “Back then, we knew that having a house was a way to get ahead, and people were willing to buy stretch houses.” Now, he’s noticed that both younger buyers and baby boomers want the same thing: smaller houses, located closer to cities, in walkable areas. The problem is that more baby boomers are downsizing and showing up with cash in hand, ready to purchase those desirable, small, urban properties. “It’s putting pressure on the market,” he explains. Millennial homebuyers are being “pushed out of Portland by economics.”

No one wants the 6,000-square-foot house because the house was never really worth that much—maybe a huge house in the middle of the suburbs isn’t that desirable to anyone anymore. Maybe it was never that great in the first place.

That’s the view writer Tom Scocca took at Hmm Daily. “This seems like funny comeuppance, and it is,” he writes. “But it’s also just the clown-shoed version of the problem that everyone has in one way or another, which is that homeownership is not a solution but a way of freezing a particular set of problems in place.” The homeowners profiled in a March Wall Street Journal piece about the disappearing market for large, custom-built suburban homes were just acting according to American “house-buying culture, which steers everyone to the outer limits of their budget.” This plays out disastrously in real life and in pop culture. Like many Americans, the young, attractive, ’90s DIY-ers that settled into Hill House were doing the supposedly “smart” thing. They bought a house that was at the edge of their budget, a house that was too big and too ornate, a house that they didn’t even like. But they bought it because it was supposed to make them money.

Scocca concludes that the dream of having a big house built just for you was “never a very good dream anyway,” and that might be true, and maybe it’s not even a revelation. Houses have always been a location where we can project our hopes, dreams, and fears. No matter how much we try to rationalize the process of owning a house, the relationship is always a bit foggy, tinted by human emotion. It doesn’t seem possible to live somewhere for any meaningful length of time without imbuing it with your own nebulous ego. Over the past few months, I kept returning to this quote from novelist Helen Oyeyemi: “I think that houses, or at least the home part of them, are so much constructed that they’re simultaneously magical and haunted anyway.” Houses are not homes, and homes are not necessarily houses. Perhaps the real American dream is to find a sense of stability, safety, and acceptance. Maybe this is a downsized version of our parents’ American dream, or perhaps it’s just more honest, taking into account all the different stories we’re fed from the outside, and all the private stories we tell ourselves behind closed doors.

Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Maine. She is currently working on a book about the ugly history of beautiful things.