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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Do you really want to own a house?

    Alyson Hill columnist
    Alyson Hill

    Ah, the American Dream: Row after row of suburban houses, each with an ample yard (something Americans seem awfully passionate about, even if they don’t intend to do much of anything with it), perhaps a dog or a kid or two. If you’re really lucky, you might even get that fabled white picket fence.

    Since time immemorial, the “”American Dream,”” that goal to which we are all at least supposed to aspire, the very point of this country, has been or at least included home ownership. It’s taken for granted that while every American may not want the minivan or the picket fence, we all must at least be clamoring to own our very own house; apartment-dwelling past one’s mid-20s is regarded as a failure – not only a failure to grow up but a failure to be properly American – rather than a personal choice.

    In the early 19th century, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville toured the recently-formed United States, exploring the culture and theorizing as to how and why it was so radically different from that of Europe. The difference, he concluded, was that Americans did not have a hereditary aristocracy, and the law gave them a hell of a time if they tried to create one. Consequently, everyone was concerned with getting rich and “”making it”” on his own, which was actually an achievable goal for pretty much every white man.

    A few decades after de Tocqueville’s tour came the Homesteading Act, which allowed Americans to claim up to 160 acres of land, work the land for five years and then be officially given the land by the government. This was handy for the country that kept stealing its roommates’ food from the fridge, so to speak, and perhaps it’s also where Americans developed their thirst for owning their own little chunk of land with their own little house on it. To live the American Dream was to do what could, or at least would, only be done in our country: to amass land and wealth regardless of one’s class at birth, to become visibly wealthy and to do so entirely on one’s own.

    Admirably self-sufficient though those ambitions can be, they’ve grown into a preoccupation with self-reliance at the expense of cooperation, individualism at the expense of community, and wealth at the expense of actual personal fulfillment. Living in close quarters with others has become a mark of inferiority, an acceptable state of being for a college student but embarrassing for an actual adult. As a result, young people hasten to become homeowners as soon as they can afford it (and sometimes before then), often without seriously considering whether they actually like the idea in the first place.

    But home ownership isn’t the be-all-end-all we like to think it is. Aside from the obvious “”you have to fix everything yourself,”” there are the tens of thousands of dollars of debt you’ll acquire by purchasing a home if you’re not filthy rich to begin with. Subprime mortgages – mortgages offered at a higher interest rates than usual to borrowers with less-than-stellar credit histories or incomes – might lure young people into buying homes they can’t afford, and perhaps even into lying about their incomes to do so (something several companies involved in the recent subprime crisis were accused of encouraging applicants to do). That’s a mighty high price to pay for a shot at the American Dream – defaulting on a loan like that is likely to lose you your house.

    It’s sad to think that we’ve become so fixated on the idea of success requiring home ownership that we’re willing to lie and enter into risky agreements with shady companies to become homeowners. Renting is by no means so dismal a prospect that we should be willing to ruin our finances and make ourselves miserable to avoid it. It is more energy-efficient, and therefore environmentally friendly, to live in a multiple-dwelling unit. Such units are more often conveniently located for going to school and work (making them even more environmentally friendly). Such living also provides a ready-made community, which helps to prevent the isolation many experience in suburbia. (“”American Beauty,”” anyone?)

    There’s nothing wrong with not wanting a house or sharing the “”American Dream.”” It doesn’t render you un-American or prevent you from being an adult any more than owning makes you Uncle Sam. Indeed, we would all do well to consider living closer to our fellow citizens long after our dorm days are over; one stands to gain both solidarity and wisdom by caring about and interacting with one’s community on a daily basis. And that’s really something to dream about.

    Alyson Hill is a senior majoring in classics, German studies and history. She can be reached at

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