Note: Yes, I’m cheating on Girldrive with another road trip. For the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging on and off at Pop + Politics, the site for our series on the midterm elections.
Housing has been on this journalist’s mind lately. I just moved back to New York City after being gone for a while, and the reality of real estate here has hit me like a punch in the gut. Shiny condos that sit half empty have replaced warehouses and greasy spoons I used to know. Subsidized middle-class housing complexes have 20-year waiting lists. New Yorkers like me are priced out of their childhood neighborhoods.
Thoughts of my gentrified hometown reverberated through my head a few weeks ago when we visited Miami, a city still knee-deep in the housing crisis. This metropolitan area was one of the epicenters of the housing boom, where new constructions and sub-prime mortgages abounded a few years ago. Here we met Ruby, a Miami native whose house was at risk of foreclosure after going through a bankruptcy and several rounds of refinancing. To her, a house is everything–a place to make your mark on the world. It is a place to lay down roots and engage in a community, a place to make beautiful, to make yours.
“The American dream is now a nightmare,” she told us listlessly. A little later: “Capitalism should not mean greed, but that’s what we’ve had.” Ruby didn’t expect elected officials to do much about her situation. She waxed poetic about her house, but she was disappointed–not only by the government, but by the direction of our country. She felt alone and in limbo.
A few hours before we talked with Ruby, we met up with Max Rameau, founder of the national grassroots group Take Back the Land. Max doesn’t expect the government to do anything about the housing crisis either–so he takes matters into his own hands. Take Back the Land moves homeless people into government-owned, foreclosed homes that are standing empty.
Of course, what Max is doing is illegal. But in the vein of the sit-ins during the civil rights movement, Max believes he is challenging unjust laws. “Corporations don’t need housing to stay alive,” he told us. “They’re just pieces of paper. People need housing to stay alive.”
So is a home–a house, a place to call your own–still the American Dream? Is that even possible anymore? Max thinks that’s too narrow. “A safe, clean and stable place is more than the American dream, it’s the human dream,” he said. Not everyone can own a house, he explained, but one should at least be able to count on a roof over one’s head.
Buying a house is a classic act of American individualism. It’s saying, “I’ve made it. This plot of land is mine.” But there’s a lot of pain at stake if that dream is snatched away, or if my generation’s hope of buying a house falls by the wayside as foreclosures and unemployment rise. Should we be depending more on our communities for support rather than turning inward? Or should we learn to embrace the market rollercoaster and divorce emotion from home ownership, like Condo Vultures owner Peter Zalewski advises? Ruby, Max, and Peter all seem to agree on one thing: our culture is shifting, that we’ve reached a turning point in the way we think about homes and neighborhoods–and that something’s gotta give soon.