Homeownership vs. home

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Homeownership vs. home
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Friday Feb 19, 2010

"Do you own or rent?"

Whatever happened to "Pleased to meet you?" It seems to have been replaced by "Do you own or rent?" Instead of "Hi, I live at number 17," people now introduce themselves as "a third floor condo owner," giving their unit number as part of their address-"I live at number 17-3." They are proud as peacocks, homeowners with a capital H, eager to reveal the exact astronomical sum they paid, and they turn away from lowly renters in disgust.

Tenants are an unstable element in a neighborhood, these homeowners say. Transient and irresponsible, they leave their garbage out on the wrong day and don’t care enough to attend neighborhood meetings. How soon homeowners forget that condos are often bought for investment and have a high turnover, attracting residents who sometimes aren’t involved in the neighborhood and don’t stay long. Short-term residents sometimes throw their weight around, do their damage, and move on. A shopkeeper on my corner used to laugh; these people feel "entitled to own the street," he’d say, but all they own is a floor.

Then there are absentee investors. Although they own part of the same house, other owners may not know their names or even how to find them in an emergency.

There are neighborhood associations that don’t welcome tenants-an absurdity and a contradiction in terms. What kind of neighborhood isn’t comprised of everyone who lives there? I know two women, both black, whose neighborhood association gave them no respect until it discovered they were homeowners. Gee, they looked so much like tenants! I know another woman, a-GASP!-tenant, whose neighborhood association thinks it’s funny that a renter was elected to the board, and they won’t let it alone, constantly making jokes. Too many people think their neighborhood is stable when homeowners outnumber tenants.

"They’re like the status seekers of the 1950s," says a friend, "always trying to keep up with ’the Joneses.’" She also recalls the fall-out shelters of the Fifties and the people who threatened to shoot their neighbors to keep them out.

I heard Barney Frank on NPR a year or two ago talking about how we’ve become confused over "home" and "homeowner." What, exactly, is wrong with renting? A rented apartment or house is a home. Years ago, many South Enders stayed in one place, happily renting for years and years. They were an integral and stable part of the neighborhood-why wouldn’t they be?

At the Brattle Book Shop the other day, I picked up From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors by Lawrence Vale, a history of housing projects, with a lot about Boston. A set of illustrations grabbed my eye-advertisements promoting homeownership over renting, part of a 1920s propaganda campaign by the National Association of Real Estate Boards.

"The Home Owner is the Most Efficient Workman-and the most successful in business and the professions" is one. "The Owned Home Makes Life More Worth While in Every Way" is another. "Out of the Shadows ... Into the Sun" shows yesteryear’s urchins playing in a narrow dark alley contrasted with wholesome white children standing under a pretty arbor in the sun.

A man, arms folded across his chest in satisfaction, admires his suburban house, a castle rising behind it. The caption: "’His Castle’-Home Owning Breeds Real Men." A decidedly lesser man, an unlit cigarette in his mouth, strikes a match against his living room wall. "Does Brown own his home? No, he rents. Haven’t you seen him scratch matches on the wall paper?"

We may believe everything we do is original and au courant, but the truth is there’s nothing new under the sun. Whether it’s yesterday or today, we’re not immune from real estate manipulation-an understatement! If homeownership campaigns go in waves, a tsunami must have hit the South End, because we’ve become homeowners with a vengeance.

Meanwhile, I overhear homeless people talking on the bus. They’re in "programs" and they’re desperately trying to get housing. A woman sits down next to a friend and asks what he’s up to. "I’m going to housing," he says, by which he means he’s going to fill out an application at the housing authority. A man greets a guy behind me. "I ain’t seen you around lately," he says. "I’m in housing," the other man explains. Nobody asks, "Do you own or rent?"

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