Unreal Estates Buying a Starter Home at the End of the World
I knew there was nothing natural about my homeownership. I had merely found a lucky loophole in the midst of tremendous misfortune.
This is Unreal Estates , a column by Beth Boyle Machlan on American mythologies of home and housing.
I recognized it as soon as I walked through the slightly warped front door: This was my house. A graceful oak staircase soared up to the second floor, splashed with colored squares of light from three stained-glass windows. Pocket doors opened into one of two living rooms on my right, and four more doors, all with original knobs and hardware, hung at invitingly odd angles down the crooked hallway. The fireplace, built-in cupboards, and big bay window sealed the deal, in my mind at least. I called the mortgage broker from the back porch, which sloped strangely down onto an uneven deck. (I said it was mine; I didn’t say it was perfect.)
“Can we do this?” I asked, expecting a no. The sellers wanted more than we’d planned to spend—not ludicrously, impossibly more, but definitely over the line.
“I think you can,” he said. “I’ll get you the numbers this afternoon.”
He got me the numbers, and due to a strangely American confluence of tragedy, privilege, and time, we could.
For years, I had been cruising houses on Trulia as if it were a dating app, bookmarking “Saved Homes” with tiny hearts in the corners. Unlike a dating app, however, it didn’t matter who or what I “matched,” because I had no money. In fact, thanks to credit card and student loan debt that ate up almost 50 percent of my paycheck every month, I had considerably less than none. I was a financial black hole, with a mailbox full of important-looking missives from collection agencies and payday-loan companies. My husband’s situation was much less grim, but still, no one in their right mind would give us a mortgage, and even if I found someone in their wrong mind, we still couldn’t afford the payments.
The real irony is that everything I owed could have been paid off in an instant had I been allowed to access the retirement fund provided by the university where I have taught since 2004. However, since I couldn’t afford to make any deposits beyond what was contributed by my employer, that money was untouchable, according to rules so complex that the fund administrators often had to look them up when I called with questions. (Actually, it was mostly just one question—“Can I have my money?”—and, until the spring of 2020, it mostly had one answer: “No.”) Until I turned fifty-nine, quit, or got fired, whichever came first, that money was off-limits. It was nice to have a nest egg, on paper at least, but what I wanted more than a nest egg was a nest.
Then Covid eased the withdrawal restrictions, and suddenly that money was real. I could have paid off my loans and been free of debt for the first time since 1992. But after four years of the Trump presidency and four months of a global pandemic, having somewhere to hide from the future seemed more important than paying off the past. “Never mind that a house is an investment, a belief that things, on the whole, will get better,” Jocelyn Nicole Johnson writes in her haunting short story “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse.” So, at age fifty, I bought my first house, an 1897 Victorian in midcoast Maine.
A starter home at the end of the world.
The “starter home” is, unsurprisingly, an American invention. Like the eponymous Dream, it’s an ideal that became a marketing ploy. The oldest reference to the term listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1926 article in the Fitchburg Sentinel , which described it as “for the man and wife who wants [sic] a home with comfort, but small expense.” After World War II, however, starter home connoted far more than affordability. According to Dianne Harris, author of Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America , “it represented the ownership not just of real property but of a crucial piece of the American Dream.”
The “starter home” is, unsurprisingly, an American invention.
The first in their families to own anything bigger than a car, my parents surely saw their starter home that way: as the point of origin for lives that would get bigger, better, richer. It was 1975, and they were young and beautiful, the grandchildren of immigrants, and the first in their families to graduate from college—my mom from a Catholic women’s college and my dad from a Jesuit university, the campuses situated just minutes apart because, while the church had educated them for their entire lives, what it really wanted was for them to marry and make more Catholics. My father squeaked out of Vietnam because he knew someone who could get him an exemption; my mother earned a degree in speech therapy but quit teaching to make babies. When they had 2.5 children (literally—my youngest brother was in the womb when they started looking), they decided to buy a house.
They had grown up in the city, in sight of the Hudson (her) and New York Harbor (him), but they wanted something different for their children: a yard; a town; a small, strong public school system. Unlike me, they owed nothing to anyone except themselves and their promise. The starter home they purchased in their midtwenties was a 1910 three-bedroom folk Victorian, framed by the proverbial white picket fence, in a suburb so close to the Bronx that we could walk to the top of a hill nearby and see the seam between the suburbs and the city. My parents could stand in the world they’d chosen and look down, literally, on what they’d left behind.
Forty-five years later, I was back in that city. I didn’t look down on it; I loved it. But I’d lived in nineteen rental houses and apartments, packed and unpacked everything I owned nineteen times. My adult life felt like a series of personal and professional compromises stemming from some essential, unforgivable mistake that I could neither pinpoint nor escape. It was too late for a starter home. I just wanted to stop.
My parents were just beginning. Their new house must have felt like a fairy tale, at least at first, until life deepened into a darker sort of story, in which happiness is paid for with poison or imprisonment. Still, I loved that house, and I knew it deeply and truly, in the way you only know a place you think you’ll never leave—a way I have not known any other place I have lived since. The original front door, painted a deep, dead black, had a bell you twisted like a handle instead of pushing a button, producing a metallic screech. Carpenter bees my parents named Bee and Son of Bee droned in the backyard, just beyond the screen door we couldn’t stop slamming. The staircase from the front hallway to the second floor creaked so loudly and predictably that after almost forty years I can still hear the singsong of step and lift when my father came upstairs to sing me to sleep.
I also knew its shadows, the way the streetlights folded strangely through the eaves of the attic windows. The summer before sixth grade, my parents surprised me with a “new” bedroom suite on the third floor: two small bedrooms, a weird L-shaped alcove of bookshelves, and a tiny triangle of half bath, packed with products that promised to cure my pimples but never did. I had the whole floor to myself, which was wonderful for slumber parties but less so when I had nightmares and no one heard me screaming—at least I think I was screaming, stuck in the sleep paralysis that sometimes immobilized me, terrifying and inexplicable as a witch’s spell. My father stopped singing to me when I moved up to the third floor, because I was too old, or he got home too late, or maybe it was just too far to climb after a long day.
Some nights, though, the third floor wasn’t far enough. Its staircase was directly across the hall from my parents’ bedroom, and sometimes, when they fought, my mother would come up to my room, climb into the mahogany four-poster that had belonged to her grandmother, next to me, slurring a litany of wrongs and recriminations as I stayed still and silent, feigning sleep.
My parents, it turned out, had their own secrets, secrets that had already started eating away at the structure of their story, their success. And then in the morning, everything seemed safe again.
So many accounts of the suburbs depict them as lush, serene, insulated. But the lines between our town and the city were near and clear, ribboned by Robert Moses’s racist parkways. Standing at Split Rock, where history class had taught us that a group of Siwanoy killed Anne Hutchinson and her followers (but left out the next chapter, in which the Siwanoys were slaughtered by the Dutch), we could see the banal modernist rectangles of Co-Op City rising from the marshlands of Pelham Bay. Those marshes made the border of the Bronx seem both impassable and organic, especially since white families like mine saw our increasing privilege as a natural process, an evolution that led us, ironically, back to gardens, back to Paradise.
We were meant to see it that way; it worked for us, and it worked for the governments and corporations that were literally invested in building white homeownership in segregated suburbs while making Black people in the cities pay for the same “privilege” with none of the structural support. In Race For Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Home Ownership , Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “The American housing market was an expression of the prevailing racial consciousness of the society in which it operated.” And that “consciousness” relied on recycled narratives of nature, land, and dreams, such as the belief that, as Taylor describes, “the difference in the suburban and urban housing markets was a ‘natural’ phenomenon; in the former, value organically appreciated, while in the latter, it just as spontaneously declined.”
I knew there was nothing natural about my homeownership; I had merely found a lucky loophole in the midst of tremendous misfortune. And unlike the smiling families profiled in the New York Times real estate section throughout the pandemic (“Tori keeps bees and Tim has taken up blacksmithing, while their children, Rhubarb and Farro, frolic underfoot”), my husband and I hadn’t relocated; we needed our New York jobs, and those jobs needed us to be in person pretty much all the time. So I drove the 800-mile round trip at least once a month, up to an almost-empty house, just to remind myself that it was there, waiting, trying to learn it in the way I’d known that first house, almost fifty years earlier.
In the relentlessly positive story of progress told and sold to white families by the American real estate industry, even paradise is just a stop on the path to somewhere better. In 1983, when I was in eighth grade, my parents announced that we were going to move to a bigger house. I rebelled at first because I loved our house. Or rather, I rebelled until I saw the sort of houses my parents were considering. Our small town didn’t have many mansions, but if they were for sale, we looked at them. Sprawling shingle-style Victorians with fireplaces in every bedroom; stone neo-Gothics abandoned by the families of jailed mafiosi (proximity to the Bronx has its privileges); the Tudor that had belonged to the benefactor of our spectacularly ugly Vatican II church, which had its own chapel, paneled library, and a green marble bathroom—one of five—the size of our current kitchen. Every house we saw had a name and a family attached, because in a town that size, everyone knew who was buying and who was selling, who was climbing up and who was sliding down.
In the story of progress sold by the American real estate industry, even paradise is just a stop on the path to somewhere better.
My family was not so much climbing as leaping, from their modest farmhouse to a six-bedroom, four-bathroom Georgian Colonial advertised in its own brochure, a house so big that it was frequently mistaken for a school. I knew somehow that we had missed a step, skipped a stage, like that recurring nightmare in which I’d forgotten to do something vitally necessary. But I was fourteen and there was nothing I could do except assume that my parents were making good choices—something those nights and words and bottles had already told me, numerous times, was not in fact the case. (There is no house too big for children to hear the clink of ice in a glass, the scratch of a top screwed off a bottle.)
After we’d moved out of what was now our old house, a pipe burst and nobody was home to notice. The house filled with water and the floors fell in, one after the other. From the outside, it appeared intact, but inside, there was nothing left but sagging wood and dank, dark space. My mother went to look and came back, weeping. Now we couldn’t go back even if we wanted to. The comparative safety of the past had collapsed in on itself and closed up behind us as irrevocably as a dream at dawn.
My parents died within six months of each other. My mother, of lung cancer, in August of 2020, two weeks after our offer on the house in Maine was accepted; my father, of Parkinson’s disease, three weeks after Christmas, which we spent in New York to be as close to him as we could at the end. A small part of the heartbreak of that impossibly awful year was knowing that they would never see the place I still can’t quite call home, literally or logistically. They would have realized right away what took me a strangely long time to see: that the house I immediately recognized as mine looked an awful lot like theirs.
I’d like to believe that the resemblance between our starter homes stops at the pocket doors and sweeping staircases, but does it, really? My property is the product of others’ tragedies—and I don’t just mean Covid. It stands on land stolen from the Wabanaki. I purchased it with money I could access because a million people died, money funded by a stock market that relies on exploited workers and resources. So many of the stories we tell ourselves about homes focus on the people inside, as opposed to the mythologies of nation, money, and ownership that the houses themselves uphold, fairy tales that keep us dreaming the same dreams instead of imagining something different. For people like my parents, desire seemed like destiny, luck looked like fact, hope felt like history waiting to happen.
The American Dream combines a pathological allegiance to the illusion of mobility with an equally determined resistance to structural change. What’s the point of a starter home if everything is ending: the environment, democracy, the civil rights of anyone other than murderous, militant white people, their corporations, and their cash? The pandemic let us see the emptiness and rot inside the structures they keep selling us, but after the briefest of reckonings we decided to keep buying.
From my desk in Maine, where I’m teaching online, I remind my husband in Brooklyn to check the mail for a lease renewal from our landlord that will tell us if we can afford to stay in the apartment my family has lived in for the last ten years, the rent for which is more than twice the mortgage and taxes on our house in Maine. After a massive uncovered medical expense last year, I used my excellent homeowner’s credit to get three new cards and promptly maxed them out. No news on the lease renewal yet, but the debt-consolidation and payday-loan offers have returned, like migratory birds.