Apartments, Ownership, and Responsibility
Owning a detached house does not indicate moral superiority
I came across an article in The American Conservative from August headlined “Why Permanent Renting Is Bad For Our Souls.” Here are a few choice quotes:
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.
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.
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.
Suffice it to say I disagree more or less with every word of this article. For one thing, it tries to force a primarily economic issue into the culture war. For another, it ignores condos and apartments that can actually be owned, in some markets. Owning vs. renting and detached houses vs. apartments are different debates. Is renting really most young people’s “final goal”? Are renters really consciously paying extra in order to offload the responsibility of “stewardship”? I highly doubt it. Besides, most major work (roof, HVAC, flooring, cabinets, new tub), and stuff like trash removal, is done by companies and professionals in suburban subdivisions too, and for most detached houses owned by their occupants. “Tactile reality”? This sounds like a lot of navel-gazing and abstraction, in the face of an issue that is and should be aggressively practical.
My wife and I own a small-ish condo. We hope to upgrade to a larger place in the coming years, maybe even a detached house, but it sure is nice knowing that the roof and most of the building infrastructure is taken care of. That’s what the condo fee is for, after all. It isn’t free.
We also have a home insurance plan that covers appliance and HVAC breakdowns. It saved us a few thousand dollars on replacing an obsolete, broken air conditioner. Is that morally suspect? Is that paying money to avoid responsibility? Of course not. It’s a tradeoff different people make differently. (What’s funny too is the same people who view this as some kind of attempt to live in an extended college-style young adulthood would also tut-tut us about finances if we’d ended up spending a lot more.)
I think of one of my friends back home in New Jersey, who we visited earlier this summer. (That trip inspired these pieces, too.) He’s expressed the desire to own, rather than rent, his own place. But he’s also uninterested in a detached house. For as long as he’s been old enough to think about living on his own, he’s wanted a condo or a townhouse: a modest place to come home to, but something that wouldn’t be a money pit or a labor sink. He’s less interested in hosting dinner parties and backyard barbecues and patio nights; more interested in traveling and experiencing new things out and about.
I’ve been thinking about this, and I realized something. His parents, like mine, were the first people in their families to own a large detached house on a decent piece of land. (My parents’ house and my friend’s house growing up both have spacious front and back yards and a fair bit of forested land.) They were not from families that had been in America for generations; they were still climbing the ladder in the 1980s or early 1990s.
So for my parents and my friend’s parents, leaving the old city or first-ring suburb in their late 20s or early 30s and moving out to a big, recently built house on a piece of forested land in central New Jersey must have been absolutely breathtaking. I can’t imagine the feeling of pride and of being blessed that they must have had. It’s like seeing something new and amazing for the first time: like seeing Star Wars in the theater in 1977, but 100 times that.
But my friend didn’t ever know that feeling—and I’m not sure he or I can. We grew up in big houses with land. It was our baseline, our normal. My friend didn’t grow up dreaming of one day owning a property like this and achieving the fullness of the American Dream.
He grew up dredging the backyard frog pond and dragging around bags of corn to feed the deer. He grew up watching his dad commute two hours each way into Manhattan every weekday and then on weekends, labor away taking down and painting the shutters, power-washing the siding, repainting the deck, informally finishing the basement. He grew up seeing the burden of the housework and the maintenance, and the sheer amount of stuff that accumulates in a 2,000-square-foot house with a basement and an attic over 30 years. And he doesn’t want all of that.
You can call that selfish, I suppose. You can even call it ungrateful: How dare you not want the kind of life we sacrificed and labored to make possible for you? But it’s just…not. Sure, ownership might engender responsibility in the abstract. But when you’ve got a $15,000 bill to replace a roof the month after the sump pump fails and floods the basement, that’s a lot of things but it isn’t “responsibility.” What about making do with less? What about spending more time with family than on housework? What about stewarding things that simply matter more?
This brings me to something I’ve mentioned before: a weird glorification of hardship and sacrifice on the political right, even when that hardship is not something inherent in the slings and arrows of life. For example, conservatives who claim to like the fact that taxes or health insurance are complicated and miserable. It’s kind of like Calvin’s dad in Calvin and Hobbes saying that camping for a week in cold pouring rain “builds character.” In a review I did of conservative intellectual Matthew Crawford’s 2020 book Why We Drive, I wrote:
Crawford does something that right-leaning intellectuals do often, and almost never notice. They find justifications for hardship or risk, and praise the character that can face them, without distinguishing between natural or inherent risks and manmade ones. They treat policy failures, or problems easily remediated by policy, as opportunities to build character. They betray a touch of self-loathing masquerading as self-reliance. They implicitly view solving problems through policy as cheating one’s way through a life that is supposed to be difficult.
I wrote a little more about that book in a follow-up post here, too. I think there’s really something to this, if I may say so myself.
I get the same sense from people who make arguments like this about urbanites/apartment dwellers/etc. I suspect that some older homeowners and long commuters don’t quite relish being reminded that a good deal of the trouble and hardship they put up with for most of their lives was actually optional.
All of this is a little bit like something in business journalist Adam Minter’s book Secondhand, a really fascinating deep dive into the global secondhand-goods trade (I reviewed it, too). There’s a scene in either Malaysia or Indonesia, I don’t recall, where vendors are selling old solid-wood furniture from North America. It gets shipped pretty much by weight, in bulk. Burgeoning middle-class folks in developing countries want this stuff. American Millennials don’t. He suggests that ornate solid-wood furniture, or sets of special-occasion china, just don’t mean much to contemporary young people. It isn’t their identity, he writes. Why? Who knows. It doesn’t really matter. (Here’s also a great interview where Minter talks about some of this.)
He also gives more practical reasons: living in an apartment or smaller space, moving often, mismatches between modern home design and old-fashioned décor, etc. We spend money differently, and we probably have less of a sense of domesticity. These are not moral or immoral choices. They’re just choices. To say renters or apartment dwellers lack virtues or values is like saying hotdogs are more virtuous than hamburgers. It just isn’t in the moral sphere.
It also reminds me of a thread on a Facebook group I follow, for Northern Virginia old-timers. Most people in the group are Boomers who grew up in the area at a time when it was very different. The author of the post was bemoaning the fact that kids and teens today don’t mow their parents’ lawns. How can the kids not be working? How can the parents not only let their kids be so lazy, but also pay professionals to do the yard work their kids should be doing for free, or for a small allowance?
Of course, there are a lot of reasons. Maybe dad doesn’t hire someone but does it himself, because he doesn’t trust the kid with his expensive equipment. Maybe the kids are doing academic or extracurricular activities. Maybe the parents don’t want their kids doing manual labor, and instead want them spending time with their peers and doing activities of “higher value.” Maybe laziness and video games have very little to do with a change like this, which has all sorts of class and economic dimensions.
I suggested some of this, and the response was basically, “well, but the kids still have to do the work.” Why? “Because you have to work in life.”
This is the same kind of abstraction and judgmental decontextualizing that some conservatives apply to renters and apartment dwellers. It’s an inability to see that the nature of work has shifted for many people, and that sitting in front of a screen all day can be just as challenging and draining as manual labor, in its own way. It’s a tendency to view your own choices, and your generation’s choices, as a moral and normal baseline rather than as choices based on circumstances which no longer obtain.
If you’re under 30 and reading this, what kind of living situation do you aspire to or hope to afford, if you can’t now? If you’re over 30, and especially if you’re middle-aged or older, what do you think about all of this? I’m curious! Drop a comment, send an email.
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