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Why Permanent Renting is Bad for Our Souls

Apartment living denies us the burdens and joys of property ownership.

A man was looking at him. A man was in the window across the alley looking straight at him. The man was watching him cry. That was where the geranium was supposed to be and it was a man in his undershirt, watching him cry, waiting to watch his throat pop. Old Dudley looked back at the man. It was supposed to be the geranium. The geranium belonged there, not the man. 

“The Geranium,” Flannery O’Connor

The first word critics use to describe Flannery O’Connor is almost always “grotesque.” The American authoress depicted ordinary people in revoltingly sharp detail to cast hard shadows about the ambiguous figures of morality and human nature. No less in her short story “The Geranium,” which offers a veiled critique of renting and city life.

O’Connor depicts an old man who has moved into his daughter’s apartment in New York City. Simultaneously fascinated with and disgusted by the urban hub, Old Dudley finds himself reaching for any piece of the natural world: daydreaming of fishing and monitoring a geranium in the window of the apartment across the street. When he grows curious about the neighbor moving in across the hall, his daughter tells him to “tend to your own business.” The code of manners in a cramped apartment is strict and it says, contra curiosity and human nature, whatever happens outside your door is none of your business.

This is the jarring in the ordinary; this is the grotesque. O’Connor recognizes there is something subhuman in what T.S. Eliot, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” called the “lonely men in shirtsleeves leaning out of windows.” Human beings do not belong in racked-and-stacked apartment boxes, not merely because they are unpleasant, but because they create a culture of atomization that is counter to man’s inherently political nature. What the reader is supposed to see is what Old Dudley only sort of recognizes, that living in “this damn hole” is eating away at the good qualities in human nature and leaving only the bad ones. At one point in the story, he encounters a woman on the stairs. Despite his waiting and watching for her to greet him, she passes by without a word.

It’s strange that living so close would create greater spiritual distance between men. Yet as many Americans are about to be permanently separated from homeownership, we cannot help but recognize the truth of O’Connor’s observations.

As Grist writer Eve Andrews describes in an article about urban loneliness, isolation is the rule, and community the exception, for the majority of apartment-dwellers. The problem is, quite literally, political, but also has ramifications in practical politics:

Loneliness has significant political implications, too. Apartments make up almost a third of the housing stock in America’s largest cities, with half of all of them being home to only a single person.

Imagine a city block full of apartment buildings; if everyone living there retreats into their own little units, rarely speaking to one another, there’s no community identity, no shared sense of obligation and purpose. This isn’t just a mental exercise — one survey found that the less neighbors socialize with each other, the less politically engaged they tend to be.

Andrews’ solution is to promote affordable housing, but too often that simply translates into more apartments where more secluded tenants continue to live out the problem that the modern approach to housing caused. The problem isn’t simply that Americans can’t find affordable housing, it’s that they can’t find affordable houses, and thus can gain neither the burdens nor the virtues that property ownership demands.

Compounding the shortage of available, affordable houses is an active movement on the political left to socialize American housing as a whole. As Robert Stilson highlighted in The American Conservative’s own pages last week, there is a steady push to get millions more Americans on public housing from left-leaning philanthropists and activists who wish to make housing a right, rather than a private asset. This, they say, will make the American Dream more achievable.

Associate editor of Chronicles magazine and occasional TAC contributor Pedro Gonzalez details how the pandemic heightened this problem. The combination of the CDC’s temporary ban on evicting tenants who don’t pay their rent (the “eviction moratorium”) and real estate investment firms steadily buying large blocks of property at a price point well out of range for the average American means that getting out of a rental is no small endeavor. As property becomes increasingly difficult to buy, and a backlog of unpaid rent makes saving toward a home more out of reach than ever, few Americans will get the chance to exercise real stewardship and self-government through the act of owning property. Gonzalez argues that these tendencies are creating a permanent renter class.

Is permanent renting the American Dream?

Renting takes a toll on human dignity in multiple ways. A few minutes’ thought to the long-term expenses of renting an apartment versus owning a house should be enough to encourage the wise man to buy rather than borrow. But what good is talk of long-term savings when you simply can’t afford to get out? Fully socialized housing would inhibit the kind of smart fiscal behavior a good society should encourage. The problem goes deeper than our pocketbooks, however, as “The Geranium” indicates. Those trapped in long-term renting too often find themselves like Old Dudley, alone in crowded apartment complexes, reeling without an anchor.

Not all who rent live in apartments; still, of the 43 million renter-occupied residences in the United States, the number of occupied apartments has increased from 15 million in 1990 to 23.5 million in 2020. The majority of these apartment complexes boast 50 or more units. Rented houses and other lended-living scenarios still bring with them the problems of renting, too, namely, that occupants are less inclined to care for rented properties, or use their hands and engage with the tactile reality of their own lives.

A few summers ago, my husband and his siblings spent an untold number of hours scraping wallpaper from the 101-year-old walls of the kitchen in his parents’ home. He’ll be the first to tell you it was his least favorite job. A homeowner invites this kind of painstaking work (for himself and his children); it’s not required, but he does it because it’s his property. People tend to care for the things that belong to them.

Apartment homes, deceptively named, do not provide the same avenue for such stewardship. In addition to social isolation, renters live in a sort of suspended reality with limited responsibilities. Trash is removed by a nameless, faceless entity while you sleep. If there’s a plumbing problem, you submit a service request online and someone takes care of it while you’re at the office. Even in a rented house, the responsibility for repairs always falls on the landlord, and when a renter does wind up footing his own bill, it’s not without the righteous anger of a man taken advantage of. In an apartment, you don’t have to reckon fully with the physical realities of your living space, because, after all, it’s not yours. At the most, you might call the landlord or the maintenance crew for a cosmetic repair; at the worst, your landlord may prohibit you from installing several varieties of wall hangings, a testament to your permanent status as Temporary. The renter pays a premium to trade the dignity of property for the comfort of a life without responsibility.

Of course, even in a less volatile market, affording a house is no guarantee. Certainly, there are many reasons why apartment living remains necessary for many people in different seasons of life. But we have lost sight of its purpose when it has become the final goal. Establishing a permanent class of renters only displaces the American Dream even further, by making impossible the life, liberty, and property that lie at the core of our national identity. Even more crucially, trapping Americans in a permanent state of renting means closing the doors on the fully human life that we find in true ownership: stewardship and community.

“The Geranium” ends with the neighbor across the street threatening Old Dudley for not minding his own business: “What I do in my apartment is my business, see? I don’t like people looking at what I do.” The geranium, having fallen from the windowsill, lies smashed at the bottom of the alley that gapes between the two men, “its roots in the air.”