Somebody’s buying my house.
Not from me, of course. I’m a millennial, I live in my car. The Astro van has a couple decades and a couple hundred thousand miles on it, but it’s pretty much waterproof and it’ll roll if you put gas in.
I manage to rent this casita by the blissful ignorance of the absentee owners and a pact of mutual hostility with the super. As long as I don’t tell them that he’s letting me freeze to death, he doesn’t tell them that I’m degrading the property value with my trash-person lifestyle.
Now, some middle-age hustlebro is going to buy the place, and I’ll bet you the price of a spare tire that I’ll be back in the van, showering at the YMCA, calling frantically for my cat every time I get moved along. (There are few positive things about homelessness. One of them is that my cat can shit in your yard, not mine.)
I’m on the bleeding edge of gentrification here, a neighborhood colonized by the Instagram aliens and being rapidly terraformed from chop shops and thrift stores to yoga studios and vintage boutiques. The person who buys this house will not think of themselves as causing the gentrification, of course. They’ll perceive it as an inevitable trend, a wave they can ride all the way to a cushy retirement. The rest of us will get what we deserve. Should have been born rich, idiot.
The new owner won’t see this as my home, where my cat grew up and where I have only finally just now acquired my own goddamn mop. They will see it as a piece of property, solidified wealth, a heap of their money in which an ungainly bird made the mistake of nesting. If that goose won’t lay golden eggs, it’ll be evicted for someone who will.
Money that makes more money. What a concept.
I could crack a squat or find a work-trade situation, so I don’t have to blow every other paycheck on rent. I’ve done it before. But, in my experience, the only thing worse than knowing you’re thirty days from being evicted at gunpoint is being evicted at gunpoint all of a sudden.
My block is a mixed-use zone, according to Albuquerque’s Integrated Development Ordinance. The side that fronts onto the main arterial is “moderate-intensity commercial” (currently a car lot, but likely to be an egg-salad eatery any minute). The rest of it is “multifamily low-density”, so we have clumps of two-story apartments mixed in with single-family ranch houses.
The apartment block next door has a security light on the back, where people park their cars in a wide part of the alley. There might be a Starbucks across the street, but this is still Albuquerque. People get nervous about their cars.
This light points right in my window. It’s on 24/7. It is very bright.
Fortunately (I guess), the window is quite small and it is frosted with cheap stick-on plastic. So instead of a piercing interrogator’s light, it’s a phone screen glowing at the foot of my bed. When my insomnia is bad I console myself by mentally smashing the bulb, one smash, two smash, three smash, four.
No one who lives in those apartments thinks much about the light. Why would they? It points away from their bedrooms, after all. To them it’s mostly invisible, and occasionally convenient. The renters didn’t install it, the owners did. Probably for insurance reasons. Got to protect their investment.
Meanwhile, the family down the street cut all the branches off their tree. This tree was alive, healthy, a thick majestic purple elm. They topped it like a head of broccoli and left a fifteen-foot stump in the front yard. I think they wanted more sunlight to hit their house (as if sunlight were in short supply in the high desert). Do they expect it to grow back? Did they run out of money halfway through the project? Are they going to hang laundry from its gruesome stumps?
This is why I don’t talk to my neighbors. None of us chose to live together. We have nothing in common except a mailbox and an income bracket. You can’t build a community on the shared foundation of “we can all still afford to live here, for now”.
I do know a couple my age who bought a house. They came from California. They had savings from their coastal salaries and they wanted to live near mountains. Denver was too expensive, so Albuquerque it was. They bought a house a couple miles from where I live.
It’s a small place, with the big expanse of gravel that passes for a yard in these parts, two bedrooms and one bath. It’s also in the war zone.
The “war zone” is the colloquial name for the four square miles between the air force base and the fairgrounds. This is the Albuquerque made famous by Breaking Bad , all dirty needles and sheet-metal fences and gunshots. In fact, if you look up “War Zone” on Google Maps, it labels one nondescript street corner as a “wholesale drugstore”.
It’s not as hellish as it sounds. Cartel drama will mostly leave you alone, as long as you look the other way. The city has re-branded the area as “The International District” and the Vietnamese food is killer. But somehow, in the entire process of searching for, buying, and moving into this house, no one had ever told my friends about the war zone.
I felt bad when I mentioned it. Their faces dropped. They had the American dream, two jobs and a house and a Prius. They didn’t have a bun in the oven, but the dough was on the rise. They thought this was just another neighborhood of mid-century sprawl, but now their minds were tainted with thoughts of gangs and dead bodies and crystal meth. Then their roof fell in.
Well, it leaked. Lots of people’s roofs leaked last summer. The winter was snowy, and the flat-roofed stucco houses couldn’t handle the strain. But one thing led to another, millennial do-it-yourself attitudes kicked in, and suddenly the whole living room was sans ceiling.
I understand they’ve now moved out, financed a different place up in the foothills, where theswaddled in electric cars and premium-food stores. Rent the other place out to pay the mortgage and a little extra. Put that extra value toward affording the house where they live.
Lots of people are stuck in situations like this: underwater on some building they don’t want to live in, commuting to their jobs, commuting to the bars, commuting to their friends. It was worse during the last housing crash – and it will be worse during the one that’s coming up.
When house-rich/cash-poor boomers get sick and die, and gas costs $12 a gallon because Iran closed the Strait of Hormuz, no one will be buying those McMansions on the edge of town. Maybe if they have lake access, and the lake is clean enough to drink. Maybe if the yard is big enough for a good crop of potatoes.
The prices will drop, more people will be underwater and panic, and the prices will drop more. It’s the natural conclusion of building endless stick houses in the middle of nowhere. It’s the end result of letting people own houses they don’t live in.
There are more than enough houses for every person in the US. But since you can own a house you don’t live in, the people with the money buy the good ones and rent them out. Everyone else can just suffer.
You don’t like handing over your paycheck every month? Don’t want to look out your window to a dead tree, rust-bucket car, seven-million-watt floodlight? Get in your car and move, buddy. This is the land of opportunity.
Thanks for reading,
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