A Home of Our Own
It is not in the habit of this publication to find good things to say about George W. Bush or his presidency. One of my earliest memories of the American Conservative was a graphic with Dubya’s face beside the heading “Missions Accomplished,” below which appeared, inter alia, “Start a war (or two),” “Ruin America’s reputation,” and “Create Democratic majority.”
All of which is to say, when I suggest that on one of the most crucial political questions of our age Bush was more obviously insightful than any of his three successors, I do so in full knowledge that I am going out on a limb here. But with two decades of hindsight, I think I can say with confidence that when Bush praised home ownership as an ideal to which the vast majority of Americans should aspire and, more to the point, which the federal government should do its best to subsidize, he was absolutely right.
I say this in full knowledge of the so-called subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08. I say it also in full knowledge of the fact that I have spent the last week or so with a Bobcat excavating the ruins of the clay pipes leading to our sewer—in the middle of which my brother and I found tree roots growing and from we retrieved a pair of my three-year-old son’s underwear—and asking for a friendly electrician to explain knob and tube wiring to me. (Google it, kids.) This is to say nothing of the chimney sweep who came by only this morning and informed me, in case I was somehow unaware, that our fireplace is so old that the engraved brass screen carries a dedication to the memory of the Civil War dead of our county. To all of the above I can only say that it is a miracle that the Federal Housing Agency, in whose loan program we participated until late 2019, is willing to cover houses built during the Jackson administration.
No part of turning 30 and counting has been more satisfying than watching friends my own age purchase their own homes. Instead of talking about prestige television, we can compare notes about light fixtures, dishwashers, garages (or lack thereof), breaker boxes, multimeters, and our favorite pseudo-Edison bulbs.
This is why the most heartening news story I have read in ages was this one from the Wall Street Journal, which confirms that it is not only far-right religious weirdos and other salt-of-the-earth types out here in the middle of the country who are somehow able to realize the dream of home ownership. When I say “dream,” I am using the noun deliberately. For many years my wife and I assumed as a matter of course that we would never be able to purchase a home of our own, that our children would spend their entire lives screaming “TREE MONSTER EATS FAIRY POOP!” outside on late summer nights only with the de facto permission of their dog mom neighbors, that I would live and die without ever having to reseal a toilet.
The reality, alas, is a very different one. If the $635,000 of the couple mentioned in the Journal story were the only possibility for would-be 20 or early-30-something homeowners, we would be in very much the same situation that we were half a decade ago. But for all that, despite the absurd speculation in property that has driven the price of home and commercial real estate through the roof in the last ten years and counting, I cannot help but be thrilled by the fact that, so far from having “largely spurned homeownership,” my fellow millennials want to suffer again the habit-forming pain, mismanagement, and grief the rest of us experience.
Why is this, I wonder? It cannot be just because. Here I am afraid I must find myself citing authorities who are even more discredited in fashionable circles than Dubya. I mean, of course, Chesterton and Belloc, who argued for something once called “distributism,” but which our 43rd president, in those halcyon days before our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, termed “compassionate conservatism.”
Who cares what it’s called? I would be lying if I said that the subsistence agriculture envisioned by Belloc seemed to me a practical ideal for the vast majority of the American people. But I would be guilty of the same sin, and with rather more gravity, if I blithely insisted that, on balance, those who have never argued about lawn mowers or the relative merits of drywall and plaster or how often a working fireplace lead jollier lives than ours.
Matthew Walther is editor of the Lamp magazine and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.