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The Departed

Why must owning a home entail leaving the places where we have always lived? What does “home” even mean then?


At the start of this summer my parents moved out of the house that I grew up in. They had bought it in the fall of 1998, with a third child (yours truly) on the way and the walls of a one-bedroom condo closing in on them.

It is a good house: a classic Cape Cod with three bedrooms on three quarters of an acre. It is the kind of house an American family should be raised in—and has been for the last few generations. The tree-house that my dad and brother and I built is still standing in the woods out back, which extend all the way to a little public pond that’s fine for summer swimming.


Naturally, the thought occurred that I ought to just buy the place. I am getting married soon. I have a very good job, and even adjusted for inflation I make in a year just a little less than they paid for that house in 1998, five years after they graduated college.

At a glance it all makes sense. And then you run the numbers.

They could sell it to us at well below market rate—as cheap as they could afford to, say. We could put 20 percent down, which would take more than we have in savings. I could even use the V.A. home loan. My monthly mortgage payment would still be more than triple what theirs is now.

The house did not gain any magical qualities in the last 25 years. The neighborhood hardly changed a bit. In the immediate area, the only noticeable development was the arrival of a Subway. Why does a middle class home there suddenly cost a fortune?

My father has always said that the American dream is to leave behind for your children a better life than you had for yourself. By virtually any metric within human control, it is safe to say he’s succeeded. But in something as basic as four walls on a little plot of land, my generation will be maybe the first in American history that is worse off than the one that came before.


I have been very blessed, and though I won’t raise my children in the house that I grew up in, I will certainly not be in the majority of my generation who will never own a home. This column is not written in bitterness or despair; I’ll be just fine. But how many won’t?

A New York Times feature published on Friday looks at the predicament of some of my fellow zoomers who put more than half of their income toward rent every month. (I am nowhere near that ratio, thankfully, though I spend more than I should.) Some of these are unsympathetic figures: aspiring rappers or theater geeks flushing money down the drain in New York City. But then there are those whom the system has failed: a young father working two jobs forced to move his family back in with his parents in a house that doesn’t fit them.

There is a real crisis here that it seems most people are ready to acknowledge.

Carmel Richardson, my friend and former colleague, is not so easily convinced. She wrote in The American Conservative about a year ago that the crisis is a mirage. It’s just that people won’t move to the places where cheap housing can be found.

This is true in an important sense, and there may be part of a solution here. As the office drops from the center of the American economy, we may see the vast middle of this country resettled, at least in part.

And I could do that: find a laptop job and buy an old Victorian in some half-abandoned town. I could move to Michigan or Montana and fly back home for Christmas. I could move to El Salvador and live like a king. But why should I have to?

As Carmel noted last year, “West Virginia now has a state program dedicated to bringing remote workers to the state, complete with $2,500 in mortgage assistance, $12,000 cash, and professional-development opportunities.” I was sincerely tempted when I read that. Parts of West Virginia are among the most beautiful places in the world. But I am not, nor could I ever be, a West Virginian.

It is often said that America is the only place in the world where an immigrant can come and be considered one of the people. You can spend your whole life in France without becoming French if you are not born so. Whether the same goes for being an American is a question of its own, but what is certain is that the more concrete a community becomes, the less abstractions like that hold.

I suspect my grandparents, and many of my friends’ grandparents, would have considered themselves Bostonians before Americans. They were tied together in time and place. But they were chased out of their city by a hostile regime, and the idea of return is unfathomable now.

I could go further out, to a little town or farmhouse on land no generation before me ever touched. The thought of peace—to say nothing of the savings—is alluring. But how much further can we run before there is nothing to leave for the next generation?

I was born and raised in the place where my forefathers’ forefathers disembarked four centuries ago. The particular house is its own concern, but there are graver things at stake here. There is no true solution, for conservatives or for Americans more broadly, that demands that this kind of inheritance be squandered.