Monday, March 19, 2007

Anxieties Around Debt and Ownership

I have always been instinctively averse to debt. I may not have understood what exactly debt was when I was a kid, but I knew I didn't want any part of it. I grew up in a small town, and my best friends in my grade school days were the sons of farmers -- I had friends who were middle-class town kids like me, too, but they were much more likely to treat me lousy, catch me up in stupid masculine proxy-penis-size pre-adolescent status games that I could never play worth a damn. But I digress...this relates to debt because debt loomed around those farm friends' lives. I never really remember it being talked about much, and I still don't really understand the details, but it was something about going hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to buy machinery and then something about skyrocketing interest rates in the '80s, and that leaving their families in very bleak financial situations. Or maybe I'm just inserting stories to explain my aversion, and it really has more to do with my personal tendencies towards caution across many spheres of life.

Regardless, it is not a new feeling.

This was strongly reinforced because of one of the biggest decisions to date in my own life: Deciding, after doing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, that what I really wanted to be doing was writing. And changing the world, if I could manage it. There are all kinds of ways that privilege of various sorts played into creating the space for me to make that decision in the way that I did, but one of the most obvious was that I graduated from university without any debt. Oh, it wasn't so simple as my parents paying for everything -- I think they paid for somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of my school and living expenses over those years, and the rest I paid for from money saved from highschool employment, good scholarships, and really good jobs in summers and work terms (my degree was a co-op degree), and all of those things (except perhaps my dishwashing job in high school) intertwined with privilege in important ways as well. The fact that I graduated just under a decade ago doesn't hurt either -- a university education in Ontario is much, much more expensive now than it was then. But even so, even then, lots of people graduated with lots of debt. Maybe I would have found my way to my current path anyway eventually, but it certainly would not have been via a path that gave me nearly as much flexibility in terms of deciding how, when, and to what I extent I would submit the use of my time to the determination and discipline of the market. And there's a chance I wouldn't be a writer at all, that I'd have a job much like my partner's job (which she loves), and that I would be very good at it and I'd earn lots of money but I'd hate it, but I'm very good at pretending otherwise at least for awhile and wouldn't the midlife crisis years be fun then?

I managed to avoid assuming any significant debt until just under a year ago. It's jointly held debt, but still. We bought a car. Used, certainly, but in tip-top condition and not nearly as cheap as I assumed a used car, by defintion, would be. This was a very anxious thing, for me, partly because of the debt and partly because of a visceral political distaste for automobiles and the environmentally and socially destructive political economy in which they are embedded.

I knew this was just a prelude, of course, to the Big Show: Buying a house.

Not long after we bought the car, half of a duplex went up for sale across the street from us. It was cheap and we were given a shot at it before it was officially listed, but we knew nothing about buying a house, we may not have been able to quite yet practically speaking, and I was nowhere near psychologically ready for another move, even if it was only a move of fifty feet. Of course, some of that reluctance was about the whole buying thing too. And not just the debt, not just the buying, but the owning.

I remember being in a discussion many years ago, in fact with the guy who had recently taken on the role of graduate supervisor for my partner. I don't remember how the discussion got there or where it went after, but I remember his scorn about how "you North Americans" felt the need to own a piece of dirt. At the time, he himself owned a sizeable and swanky piece of dirt with a sizeable and swanky house on it in the poshest part of the city, but he grew up poor in urban Barcelona, son of a man who had fought with the anarchists against Franco, and it was was this continental, urban culture that he was drawing on in his puzzlement with the centrality of owning a single-family dwelling to the dominant North American norm of how the "good life" should be defined. I remember this, I think, because I felt both indignant and affirmed -- I was probably the only North American in that discussion who felt at the very least ambivalent about that norm (though I was quite keen at the time to be able to grow my own vegetables).

We are told that by owning our housing, we are buying a certain kind of security, a certain kind of insulation from the ravages of a difficult world. There are important ways in which this is true. The mythology attached to ownership easily exaggerates the power and security that it entails, but of the kinds of relationships that you can have right now to other people with respect to the space in which you live in North America -- and that's what ownership is, a kind of relationship to other people enforceable by state violence -- ownership as it currently exists does give you the most room to manouver. I can imagine plenty of circumstances in which that would not be a true statement, but I think it is now.

But it's the mythology that is the most important tool for capital in constructing the "good life" norm, I think -- the material advantages help, but it's the mythology that sells it. He didn't use this language, but my sense of what my Catalonian conversation partner was so disdainful of was the ways in which ownership was a way for North Americans to flee the social, to get away from other human beings: "This is my land, and anyone set foot on it is gonna get a taste of ol' Bessie, here," [pats shotgun]. And this is almost universally seen as a plus, such that the real estate agent who gave us a tour of Sudbury when we flew up here to find an apartment nearly two years ago could take us through several large tracts of land where the only thing that was not a single family dwelling in the entire area was a convenience store (and even that was far enough away from much of it that you would likely have to drive), and where the dominant pattern was people in houses or in cars with almost no pedestrians and no street life, and glowingly refer to it as a "community" -- not only that, "a great community to be in with a small child."

My sense is that this desire to flee humanity has always been greater in North American than in the rest of the world. Perhaps it was inherent in the process of settlement (via conquest) as it occurred in this part of the world -- after all, many of those who came here were fleeing nasty things done to them by their fellow human beings back in Europe. And they were coming here to create a new social that would displace the indigenous social order, so acts relatively independent of any pre-existing social were valourized.

I don't want to universalize this orientation to ownership and choices about living, however. In a conversation with a friend, she contextualized her desire to own a home (even a suburban home) in the ways in which that sort of living arrangement would give her more space to relate as a full member of her community, the South Asian diaspora in Toronto. For her, the pull towards ownership and suburban living is a pull towards people and not away from them.

Nonetheless, in the dominant, EuroAmerican yearning for flight from our fellow human beings, I definitely see at least a symbollic connection between this tendency and the colonial origins of the states and cultures that dominate in North America: In Europe and elsewhere, even if the details are forgotten, there is some continuity between ordinary people today and those ordinary people who lived with and on "the commons" before it was stolen by the rich and the state. In North America, non-indigenous "ordinary people" were the ones who benefited from the theft of the commons from its original collective owners, and do not have any link to any sort of cultural unconscious connection to the commons being stolen from us.

And certainly in the last century or so, capital has invested immense amounts of money, time, and effort into shaping the culture to encourage fleeing the social as a dominant norm. This cultural shift has happened in dynamic relationship with shifts in our material ways of living thaat have enabled and encouraged it. If I remember correctly, at least some of this has been documented as quite deliberate as a strategic, long-term response to labour militancy in the early parts of the 20th century.

A big part of this is illusion, of course. You can flee people to a certain extent but you can't flee the social. "Ownership" of your plot of land is not sovereignty over it. Building codes apply. Criminal law applies. Particularly given the changes in the law since 9/11, it is easier than ever for police or intelligence agencies to enter or snoop at a distance into "your" land. And they can take it, if they want it -- I'm thinking particularly of an indigenous woman of my acquaintance who is likely to have her land and home expropriated so a road can be widened, and who very well may never be able to afford her own home again because of the specific circumstances. And we all depend on services and are integrated into very complicated social relations of all different sorts.

But if you have enough money, you can find ways to close your eyes, plug your ears, and yell, "Nah, nah, nah, I can't hear you." You can pretend you are an atomized individual. And you can kind of act like one, so long as you have enough money and your desires for living fit within certain bounds.

It goes beyond being a colonially-derived cultural trait deliberately accentuated by the minions of capital, however. Owning your own home is not just valued for the "good life" it can give you, but for the status it gives you. That same real estate agent who gave us our initial tour and lavished praise on cookie-cutter suburbs with nothing but rows of boring houses and cars was also quite blatant about pointing out the older, poorer parts of town and telling us we didn't want to live there -- she didn't explicitly tell us that the people living there had cooties, but it was that shared understanding saying-it-without-saying-it kind of thing that people "like us" (like she presumed us to be, that is) did not live there. I can think of countless examples of people in my life talking about home ownership in ways that is, usually unconsciously, deeply intertwined with class desire and/or class insecurity, from one friend's tales of his family of origin's painful efforts to perform middle-classness through various crises in his childhood, to another friend's occasional tendency to use the expression "grown-up" as a norm-imposing, privilege-flautning adjective that really means meeting middle-class standards for acceptability.

There is nothing secret about this connection between owned housing and status. For example, the book Buying and Selling a Home For Canadians For Dummies, 3rd Edition by Tony Ioannou and Heather Ball, has a section labelled "Joys of Ownership," which lists some of the positive things about owning your own home.

It includes open disdain for poor and working-class people like the following:

Your sense of community deepends.... Belonging to a community can be a wonderful feeling. We recommend that you buy a home in an area where the majority of people are homeowners -- they tend to care more about the neighbourhood than tenants do. [p. 10]

As someone who has been a tenant for almost 15 years, I say a big "bite me" to that. I mean, would those homeowners who "care" be the ones in downtown Hamilton who kept organizing to oppose the allocation of new services for people living in poverty in their ward? I guess if you mean "caring" about property values, there might be some truth to the above statement, but not if you mean "caring" about the life experiences of the actual people in your immediate physical community. And would those tenants who supposedly don't care about community be the people in poor, often racialized neighbourhoods across the continent who organize against gentrification of their neighbourhoods because they know that all the rhetoric in the world about "mixed use" and all the quaint, boutiquey stores they can't afford won't make up for an already existing, densely-interconnected human community being forcibly destroyed by city councils and developers?

The list of the "Joys of Ownership" also includes this:

You're a better person. Or, at least, people think you are. Ownership of a home translates into people thinking wonderful things about you: you're mature, you're dependable, and you're stable... [p. 11]

And you're middle-class. Because that second sentence is there, they are not openly saying that tenants are worse people, but they are being quite open about the social status associated with owning a house. And by implication, about the perception of people who are tenants: not mature, not dependable, not stable...not middle-class. Not "good people", in some sense or other.

Again I say, bite me.

I think if I spent more time thinking about it I could probably come up with other reasons, or do a better job of articulating these ones, but I think I have at least made some substantive points about why my own relationship to the act of buying and owning a house is ambivalent. I certainly don't take a generalized, moralistic position that owning is counter-revolutionary or anything like that -- being able to own is indicative of privilege and being able to renounce ownership by choice rather than necessity (and thereby also feel comfortably able to reject the actual material benefits it entails) is also indicative of privilege. Neither consumer choice is going to "smash the system," as no consumer choice ever does. At the same time, just plunging in to the standard, North American, middle-class ways of relating to home ownership isn't an option either.

I raise all of this for very immediate, personal reasons. Our brush with a real estate transaction a year ago got me to stop avoiding thinking about it. In the last three months we've been having more grounded, future-oriented discussion for other reasons, and that has included careful consideration of our options around housing. Then, slightly more than one week ago, I got a phone call from our landlord. He is not a full-time collector-of-rents, but rather a young guy who works as a teacher and also owns a few small rental properties. He has not always been very reliable, but he's a nice guy. Anyway, he called and said he was thinking of selling, made it sound very unsure -- he had an opportunity to buy some property that was near his parents' place, or something, and was looking around for ways to afford it. And could we let his realtor have a peek through our half of the duplex so he could recommend an asking price. And if he did decide, well, we could have first shot at it (the whole building, not just the half we live in) before it was officially listed, save everyone a little money. With respect to the last bit, I said that we weren't sure if we would be interested or not, but to definitely give us the chance to say yes or no once things were definite, and to keep us posted.

Well, he didn't do that. We found out that it was being sold because a "For Sale" sign appeared on the house some time between L and I getting home from wherever we were out to on Monday afternoon and my partner getting home from work. Several groups of prospective buyers were trooped through the place on Wednesday and Thursday. (The legal obligation to cooperate, even minimally, with a process that could lead to our eviction if the buyer herself wishes to live in our unit, and to welcome uninvited people into our home, is another example of the fewer rights held by tenants than those who own their own living space.) It stressed me out, to be honest -- we had no interest in being excluded from our home over the dinner hour, so we tolerated the uninvited-by-us guests. I tried to be cordial but I think a certain gruffness leaked through, particularly during the first series of intrusions. By Wednesday, we had decided we did not want to own the building -- I like living there but not enough to sign up for the five years that they say you should count on living in a house you buy as a minimum, and the prospect of being a landlord at all, or at least for that length of time, was not one either of us liked.

For the time being, exactly what is going to happen in the next few months is unclear, but this has certainly accelerated our own decision-making around seeking a house to buy. I remain conflicted about it. I am still wary of the ways in which debt can be a chain. Because of all the baggage attached to home ownership around class status, respectability, some sort of frontier ethic "independence", and a messed up understanding of community, I think even the most politically astute person can become drawn into problematic practices and ways of thinking upon making the transition between tenant and owner. But still, there are sound material reasons for doing it if you can. And there are even potentially sound left reasons for (and ways of) owning if you can. As with anything in life, I suppose, you have to live it from where you and the world are rather than where you wish things were, and you have to enter it critically.


thwap said...

Me and my partner bought a house almost a year ago.

Rents are getting higher and higher, and it's just going to someone else.

We're actually in what would be called a "depressed neighbourhood," but we like it.

I don't feel secure with buying this house. If we pull it off though, it will be nice having something that we can invest time, effort, and money into, and it isn't going to someone who will just be able to rent it for more after we move out.

That social snobbery you discovered is pretty shocking actually.

Scott said...

Hi thwap!

Yeah, that's exactly it...taking on such massive debt is a risk, but if you can manage it, there are definite benefits.

Some of what I relate is pretty open snobbery, like the real estate agent who gave us our initial tour of Sudbury. But other stuff isn't, the examples of casual discourse overheard from friends. Neither of those examples, or most of the others I could cite, are really examples of deliberate, personal snobbery, they are more examples of how a certain understanding of housing and ownership (and, sometimes, other material markers of middle-classness) are so seamlessly integrated into the language and concepts of most people, even when those people are do not personally engage in open class-based snobbery. But, yeah, things like the real estate agent and that book I quote are pretty shocking.

Kuri said...

Like you, I have huge anxieties about debt. I feel very privileged that I managed to get through school without debt and the idea of my mortgage, even a small one eats at me sometimes.

That said, I feel good about home ownership. My partner and I have a 1950s bungalow that we're slowly restoring after decades of bad renos and neglect. This feels like a worthwhile project, because if we didn't do it, this house would probably eventually be torn down and replaced with a cookie-cutter mega house. Maybe it's a result of my class (I come from a farm background, but we didn't have debt as my dad also worked in the oil industry to subsidize the farm), but I always saw a day when I wouldn't be giving my money to a scummy landlord.

Also, I think investing in a place to live is actually one of the least evil things you can do with your money. I recently rejected an RRSP product because it would mean investing in EnCana, a company with outrageous human rights violations in Latin America. At least when I invest in my house, I can control the social impact of my investment and use the land to do environmentally responsible things like keep a vegetable garden and compost.

Home ownership (at least a healthy percentage of it) does encourage community, although I lay that gap at the hands of landlords rather than renters. I moved a lot when I rented and didn't become nearly as involved in the community as I have since I owned. But the reason I was moving a lot was because I got tired of poorly-maintained buildings with little community. Kind of a catch-22, but I feel there's something systemic to renting that disenfranchises people from their communities.

Scott said...

Hi Kuri!

Yes, not giving money to landlords is definitely an upside of owning, and it sounds like the restoration work you and your partner have entered into is very worthwhile. You make some good points about retaining more control of the impacts of your investment when it is your own house, too. (The down side is that owning increases the capital available to banks, to use for whatever nefarious purposes suit their bottom lines -- and I'm not sure how much I'd trust even most credit unions in that respect. But that's still an improvement, I think.)

An additional potentially progressive way of using ownership, particularly of a duplex like we are in or something similar, is to keep the unit that you do not live in at an affordable level of rent for the community, thus increasing the stock of affordable housing.

I can see your point about the relationship between owned housing and "community" as understood in a particular way, but I still feel it is important to destabilize the seeming naturalness of that relationship. For example, I suspect the working-class neighbourhoods whose dense organic webs of relationships and community provided the substratum for so much labour radicalism in the early 20th century had significant (if not overwhelming) proportions of renters; one of the motivations for encouraging suburban-style development based on single family dwelling ownership was to erode those webs. And it has worked. My main experience of home owners in downtown Hamilton was, as I said, that they organized against the services that their neighbours needed, explaining it with reference to property values and unpleasant poor-bashing stereotypes. During gentrification, in Toronto and in most places, once the percentage of middle-class owners reaches a certain level and they attain a certain amount of social power, they are an important political element in support of city councils and developers in driving out (or at least rendering politically irrelevant) the remainder of the original poor and working-class inhabitants of the area...yes, in a certain sense that is community, but it is also pretty oppressive.

Not that I'm saying this is intrinsic to the ownership relationship to property, of course, and certainly stability that often corresponds to ownership can be important to building the relationships that are the basis of community. But I think the extent to which the association between ownership and "community" is true is highly dependent on context. I would blame not only landlords for the extent to which that gap exists, but also the generalized attack on organic, non-economic bases for social relations by capital and its minions...relations of production that are precarious for those at the bottom, marketization of the fulfillment of every kind of need, the promotion of a culture that glorifies consumption to anaesthetize our lack of genuine connection to our fellow human beings instead of those connections themselves, and so on.