Katharine Greider: Nearly a decade ago, my husband and I learned that the old Manhattan row house we called home was in a state of gradual, but accelerating collapse.
Tess Vigeland: Commentator Katharine Greider.
Greider: We bolted with our two small children. Over the next year and a half, we anguished over whether to sell or try to repair the property. And I opened my eyes to something that should have been obvious all along. Holding the deed to our apartment didn’t give us the power to choose. Our ownership rights were sharply limited by a crowd of fellow stakeholders, from the building’s co-owners, to bank representatives, to city buildings’ officials.
When we bought the place, I’d held an appealing, soft-focus notion of home ownership as a gateway to independence, safety and freedom. I was 30, pregnant with our first child. We were fashioning walls and storage bins as boundaries designating us, and ours. And I suppose I was steeped in the cultural remnants of a centuries-old legal tradition that tied voting rights to landownership. “The small landowners,” as Jefferson wrote, “are the most precious part of a state.”
This glowing portrait of home ownership has a dark side, and that’s the persistent denigration in American life of people who live in rentals and apartment buildings. We prefer to shield our eyes from the massive communal investment — via government and financial institutions — that underpins private home ownership. But we got a bracing display of this reality not long ago when the housing market tumbled into a ditch, taking with it big banks, great swaths of investors and whole neighborhoods.
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