The last couple of years’ worth of housing crisis has got me thinking about how deeply the buying and selling, the acquiring and losing, of homes can consume our lives.
I’ve grown up, as most of us have, in a culture where home ownership was a sign that you had arrived. It was the cornerstone of a stable and prosperous life. Renting was for young people, people who paid other people’s mortgages, people who had to be dependent upon a landlord, people who were bound to be unstable. My family history bore some of this out: My great-grandparents were homesteaders. Their homestead served as their lifeline through the Depression, and it essentially paid for three generations of us to live better than we might have.
But my grandparents could live off their property — farming, gardening, raising beef and chickens, hunting pheasants. And because of the homestead, their property and home was paid off. Most of us cannot live off of our home plot — our homes house us, but cannot otherwise sustain and maintain us in times of trouble. We work to sustain and maintain them instead. Sometimes — many times — it takes more than we’ve got to give.
I’ve only owned three pieces of property, and they’ve all had an enormous impact on my life. There’s the house – a beautiful 1913 Craftsman – that Susan and I now own, with it’s two little detached garages (one the car garage, the other — still with carriage doors — as my tiny shop). We nearly lost this house, and if it hadn’t been for the generosity of my mother, we would have.
Before that there was the three and a half acres on Burley Lagoon, with the renovated mobile on the back and a beautiful (if I may say so) custom home designed and built by me and my Dad (and occasionally a small army of family and friends). 50 feet off the high tide mark. Spectacular. Seven years of continual work. A monument to many things, including, unfortunately, some things that I had to give up in order to live and love authentically. Gone.
Then, before that, there was the duplex. Practically no one knows about the duplex, but it was important as a part of the wrenching decisions and events that went into me not going to seminary but into the professorship. The underlying cause of that decision was my own movement away from thinking I could provide people with answers, framed within a system of belief, to wanting to help them ask and explore questions within a more open system of education. Where I found my vocation, I suppose. The underlying cause was internal. But the proximate cause was the duplex.
I bought the duplex in St. Louis, Missouri (where Seminex, the seminary that I wanted to attend, was located) with the money I was earning at West Coast Grocery, the job I landed after my time living in the Ghetto and Gremlin. I had been really impressed with Seminex’ faculty and its students, and so I went out with some other prospective students to visit the seminary in my senior year of college. One of the seminarians, who had volunteered to put us up, was about to graduate. He and his wife been living in the upper half of an up and down duplex they had purchased, and they just happened to want to sell it. I was interested. After all, who better to buy from than a seminarian? I thought it would be an opportunity to buy property, live in one half and rent out the other, do a little fix up, and then sell when I graduated. It was definitely a fixer-upper, but looked in pretty decent shape from the quick tour they gave me. Nothing too serious. They were upbeat about it, and said I could probably double my money.
I talked things over with my fiancee, and we decided to go for it. Her parents had made a bundle buying, selling, and renting property, and I was interested in getting in on the game. Back in 1980, and back in St. Louis, the duplex was only about 45k, which made it seem a bargain in comparison to Washington. But the interest rates at the time (I had a *good* rate at 14.87%) still made the payment pretty steep. However, the owners were willing to float me a 5,000 off-the-books personal loan to help cover the downpayment. And one of the other PLU students who had gone out with me, Steve [not his name], wanted to rent it. Steve had an air of authority and an interesting background: he was a former priest, then airline pilot, and he now had a wife and kids. What better renter could you have than a former priest?
Things seemed perfectly aligned: The owners needed to sell but were willing to make it possible for another seminarian to buy their house. I could buy the house but couldn’t live there right away. Steve and his family needed a place to stay but couldn’t afford to buy a house. I wanted to rent to a seminarian, whom I wanted to help and I could depend on in a city I didn’t know. It was all heaven-sent.
However, after the papers were signed, the owners had vacated, and Steve arrived, things went to hell instead. The house was in shambles. Holes in the walls behind where furniture had been. Mounds (over twenty garbage bags) of trash in the basement filled with rats. The tub drain turned out to be a garden hose that ran to the outside. The furnace was non-functional and had to be replaced. That meant that the jury-rigged wiring and out of code fuse box had to be replaced and updated as well. Then the city showed up to dig up the street at my expense because there were nearly a thousand dollars of unpaid utility bills from the previous owners and the city couldn’t find the water shut-off to cut off the duplex’s water. Then the roof started leaking. Meanwhile, the former owners dropped off the map and either didn’t pick up, or weren’t available to receive, the certified letters I sent them.
As the bills piled up, the mortgage continued. I put off seminary to try to get on top of them and continued working at the warehouse. I had arranged with Steve, who was willing to oversee the work and to do some of it himself, to submit receipts for what he had to pay to the workmen or for materials in lieu of rent. Piles and piles of receipts arrived.
As the months went on, Steve always sent enough receipts and bills not only for him to not pay rent, but for me to owe him money. A check to the bank and a check to Steve went out every month. But as I kept looking things over, there were receipts for things like paint or wallpaper for rooms that had already been painted, new lighting fixtures, and new appliances; things that I hadn’t approved. I began to feel that Steve was fixing himself up a rather nice place to live at my expense. Calling attention to this, I asked Steve to at least get things pre-approved before he spent money on them. Instead, he sent me a litany of grievances about the duplex along with the next bundle of receipts. He expatiated on the home’s dire condition, his poverty, and my ingratitude for his hard work in making it habitable.
Eventually, instead of continuing to fight with him about what constituted a reasonable expense, we decided to sell the duplex, and enlisted a local agent. But Steve demanded to be there when the house was shown, and wouldn’t let people in most of the time. When he did, he regaled the prospective buyers with his litany of grievances, and demanded that his family be allowed to stay in the home at least until he was done with seminary under the same conditions as he was presently living. Needless to say, no one was interested. I began falling behind with my mortgage payments. Then, another realtor contacted mine, and the bank, and made an offer. His client would take the property off my hands by assuming a portion of the loan if the bank accepted the portion and I paid all the closing costs, the realtor fees, any balances to the bank, and performed a list of upgrades on the house before closing. This, by now, was sounding vaguely familiar. I checked around: it was Steve. I got a lawyer.
The ensuing eviction battle was costly in all kinds of ways. It eventually ended, months later, with me flying back to St. Louis for the court hearing. I telephoned the lawyer from the airport. “We settled,” the lawyer told me. “While you were in the air. Go home.” Since there were no flights going back until the next day, I spend the night in a cheap airport hotel emptying the mini-bar.
I finally had to let the bank take back the duplex and sell it at auction. Steve probably bought it. I didn’t check. But by then things had changed. I had changed. I didn’t go on to seminary, but into the graduate program in Classics at the University of Washington. It was a hard sell, coming in from PLU, but they let me enter non-matriculated (that is, you can take classes but you’re not “in” the program). They eventually accepted me, and eventually gave me a Teaching Assistant position so that I could quit working graveyard at West Coast.
I thought it was over.
Then, almost eight years later, I was living in Italy while pursuing the final stages of my degree. Out of the blue, a letter arrived, forwarded from my parents. It was the original owners of the duplex, asking if I was ever going to repay them the $5,000. I gave them a short version of the events, asked them where they had been when I was trying to get hold of them, and told them that I expected never to hear from them again. I didn’t.
To this day I don’t know what the full truth of it all was. I don’t know if the owners or Steve were completely scamming me. I don’t know if there are still people out there who are bitter because a naive pre-seminarian got over his head and screwed them over. But the duplex certainly precipitated some big changes in all our lives, and sucked away thousands upon thousands of dollars and a couple of years that might have changed them for the better. Now don’t get me wrong here, I love our present home. It’s Susan’s and my refuge. It has a history, like we do. I can root around and follow the thoughts, problems, solutions, and innovations of its builder. I feel like I know him pretty well. But I’ve come to know that owning a home comes with enormous risks that we often can’t foresee, and ones that aren’t really acknowledged in our national American Dream of home ownership. And when we get burned by our dreams, it leaves a permanent scar, on our credit, our financial future, and our psyche.