I was recently introduced to the concept of a “starter home.” In sum, a starter home is a house that allows you to “get in the game,” so to speak – something small, with a fairly low price tag.
But sometimes the language gives away the game.
When you go looking for starter home, you are not being sold just a house. You are being sold the feeling of dissatisfaction.
You might like the place, but you already know from the beginning that if you are still there for more than a few years, you have failed.
Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot to spend on the feeling of dissatisfaction. But that is, of course, one way the US economy works. Consumers are offered a certain set of choices based on the unspoken assumption that more is always better. In the case of houses, bigger and in a more expensive neighborhood are usually associated with success. There is no end to this game.
Not only does the starter home idea leave us dissatisfied, it trains us to think about our neighbors in particular ways.
From the outset, the goal of the starter home is to grow money for you, and not for you to grow attached to a place or the people that belong to it.
With your first big purchase, you learn that land is a commodity for trading.
This is a distinctly Western idea, one connected to a critical error in history, dating to the European age of exploration, called the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Under that doctrine, which remains in use as legal precedent today, land became an investment to be monetized.
This was a novel idea, but new ideas are not always good ones.
For most of human history, land was seen as a gift to be nurtured, a commonly held source for building flourishing communities.
The history of Discovery is still with us, and still colors how our systems of real estate work. When land is a commodity, then the rising value of previously disregarded land makes the people who live on that land either a nuisance, or yet another commodity. And when people become something other than neighbors – something less than people – it makes it easier to push them around, or displace them, or worse, without consequence.
Without title to land, those who do not own homes – or whose generational homes are just numbers in someone else’s portfolio – are the collateral damage of the system that wants to sell you a starter home. (For historical precedent to this, you could read up on the Homestead Act of 1862.)
When land is a commodity, neighbors who might slow down the rates of return on investment become enemies.
It is not hard to see the commodification of land and people paralleled in gentrification.
At one recent neighborhood association meeting I attended, a neighbor in our gentrifying neighborhood asked what we might do to prevent Habitat for Humanity from building in our area.
For him, the presence of low-income neighbors – in this case, homeowners – was a threat to his capital gains, not an opportunity for building a better neighborhood.
In a system that teaches us to monetize our land and our lives, people with too little money become not neighbors or friends, but enemies.