Transient America

This morning I read about the dismay of residents of a New York City neighborhood who have watched as people who owned homes on their block have suddenly disappeared. Foreclosure signs have popped up on lawns up and down the street, and the faces of the people next door that had just started to become familiar have gone away.

It’s an interesting situation, given the tendency of many of us to assume that homeownership leads to more community stability, while renting doesn’t because tenants don’t have the same stake in their neighborhood. These days, homeowners in many places have a lot less reason to spend money on landscaping, new siding or other upkeep. They also have less incentive to go introduce themselves to the people down the block. After all, moving trucks keep showing up, a depressing sight for those who had hoped a community was taking shape on the street.

But the issue is larger than the current crisis of foreclosure. America is a nation on the move. People move all the time, for jobs, for adventure, because they’re restless. Buying a home is not necessarily an indicator that one is about to settle down. And then there’s the matter of housing becoming a mere commodity rather than a cherished possession to be passed down to the next generation.

One housing type where the transient nature of today’s homeownership has become especially noticeable is in condominiums. I don’t have statistics to support my point, but I think the building I live in is a good example. There are six units in my double three-decker with six different owners. Until recently, all six were owner-occupied. It is notable that none of the owners had children in the units. The two-bedroom units are barely large enough to support families with kids; the second bedrooms are more appropriate as oversized closets than as living spaces.

Now half the units in the building have been rented out. The owners have spread out around the country, severing their connection to this street and this neighborhood. I seriously doubt they’ll ever come back. Some will sell their units when the market picks up again, and the cycle of condo ownership turning to rentals will begin again.

Of course, there is also a long-term trend in American communities toward more single, unrelated people buying homes, both in the cities and the suburbs. The fact that the people living in these units don’t have children hardly means the housing and the community are inherently unstable. What I see is more a general shift away from homeownership as a means to achieve community stability over a long period of time.

Does this mean I shouldn’t bother introducing myself to the neighbors? Certainly not — we’ve already had the downstairs neighbors up for dinner, and we keep in touch with each other through e-mail and notes on doors. We all know in our hearts, though, that our future homes may be on this street or they may be half a continent away. Even if foreclosure, crime and decay have been banished from our midst, there is limited community stability in such an environment.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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