AMERICAN DREAMS

Could there ever be an American Dream of non-ownership of one’s house or apartment? Leaving aside the issue of who really owns them (for most, it is actually the ‘mortgage holder”—whoever that might be in today’s arcane and shaky financial webbing), it is interesting to consider the concept of home ownership itself, from the perspective of any idea of the cherished Dream of a Good Life and a Better Future.

The idea of owning your home has the sound of securing it, of making it a safe haven for you and your family. It is yours and, as long as you make the payments, and pay your taxes, and stay out of too much debt, will remain yours, and your children’s (if you have any) in perpetuity. Also, no one can violate your home, or the land it sits on (if it has any), by entering without your permission—a sanctity the law says you can enforce with a gun, if necessary. Another part of this American vision is that home owners are the most responsible citizens of their communities, for the practical reason that they have the most invested in them, not just in terms of money, but also of moral capital—they play by the rules of their communities, which is the basis for their being granted, and sustaining, ownership of a part of them. Or, that’s the way it used to be.

Increasingly, Americans buy their homes and condominiums as a financial investment. Far from seeing their homes as places to be handed down to their children, or, for that matter, to live out their lives in, they are viewed as instruments for getting a return on their money, primarily through selling them at a higher price than they paid. Whether they are living in Denver suburbs or Lower Manhattan, homeowners have an eye on the real estate market. If they can sell at a high price, they can afford to move upward, to a better and more expensive home. Leaving aside the issue of those who cannot keep up in this game (and there are many), and lose their homes (becoming effectively ‘homeless’), or who have to move because their jobs are lost, or they get transferred and have to sell at any price, it is clear that the character of the American Dream of home ownership has changed radically.

Is it time for a new Dream? Clearly it is, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (“I have a dream”) is hopeful as a model of what it might be. Architects, locked for so long in the ideal of home ownership—from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, where everyone would have their sovereign acre of prairie (and a Wright house planted squarely on it), to Frank Gehry’s twisty luxury condo tower in Lower Manhattan—have difficulty generating any comparable vision of the American home. It is telling that the most gifted designers today—American and not—can only come up with snappy new wrappers for prevailing, but finally fading, ideas. The current bursting of the “housing bubble,” and the coming  financial shakeout, which will be global in extent, and giga in scale, could leave them with more time to consider the reality of how most people live, and about the nature of home in the contemporary world.

The concept of non-ownership would be good a place to start. Or, at least, with the idea that money is not at the heart of it.

LW


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