The House at the Crossroads
letters soul to soul #1
I’m a late-twenties human living happily in a dual-income marriage. With no college debt and two professional degrees, we are incredibly lucky and doing “great” financially. We want to buy a house.
And I start to drown. Will the market ever slow down? Will we ever have enough money to buy something? Do I need to pray for a market crash (hurting current homeowners) to get my own? To secure a small portion of this world for my family?
I’m not looking for financial advice but something more like moral advice. Am I asking for too much? How can we balance the moral dilemma of wanting to make the world a better place while still having a piece of it for my family?
Morally should we even “own property”? I think of my neighbor who has four kids and lives with roommates in a two-bedroom apartment. Do my spouse and I really deserve a single family home when they don’t have one? Is it time to burn the whole system down because if dual professional incomes can’t afford a house, who the fuck can?
My spouse really wants to move to a walkable city and cut out owning a car for our daily commute. There it’ll be even more expensive. We want a garden and public transportation, a reading nook next to a sunny window, to live close to family, to own our house and not see our rent increase another $150 every year.
Are we asking too much? Is anyone else feeling the immense weight of trying to have a piece of the pie? Or am I just a whiner baby who needs to save my pennies and wait my turn like the boomers suggest?
Dual income and broke
Dear Dual Income and Broke,
Not everyone builds their own house from the foundation up. Many young people occupy Valparaíso’s abandoned old houses, transforming the structure of termite-whittled wood into shelter, into home.
I was lucky to be one of those young people. My family of friends, all of whom were builders, carpenters, and talented scrap-collectors, inhabited the top floors of an abandoned century-old house. Like you, we were seeking to emancipate ourselves from the burden of rent. But we wanted more: to live as a family, to work in solidarity with our barrio, to function as a community rather than as a group of self-interested individuals.
After months of clearing the old house of rubble, we surveyed our new home: a dusty space with no walls, no windows, no ceiling. An uninsulated layer of corrugated tin kept out the stars. We brought in mattresses and furniture we found on the street and built whatever else we needed. Every object in the house represented someone’s loving act of effort to bring it home and make it useful.
On nights when it rained, I was lulled to sleep by the tattoo of raindrops hitting the tin roof. It was the sound of belonging.
Several years later in Los Angeles, I managed a small wellness program at a homeless shelter. One of my favorite students was a young man who liked to chat with me before class. Although he now had the assurance of three meals a day, a roof and bed, therapy and meds, he recounted with fondness his years living alone in the foothills. Somewhere in the chaparral, he had built himself a small shelter out of sight from judging eyes. A lizard neighbor would visit him on sunny mornings. They would sit together on their shared porch and enjoy the sun on their skin.
I share these stories with you to illustrate that owning the title to land or a house is not the same as making a place your own. The dream of homeownership, while shared by many, need not resemble the vision of a house in suburban America.
Your desire for a place to call your own is natural, nevertheless. To have shelter, to not be indebted to a landlord, to trust in the stability of your residence: these are natural desires. There is something unnatural about using a majority of your time and labor to earn a monthly paycheck in order to pay for permission to reside in someone else’s building, a structure built by developers who never intended to reside there, a building whose value is measured by speculation rather than by its meaning to its inhabitants. A building which, though it deteriorates over time even as your rent continues to climb, is never yours to change. At the end of your lease, you will be fined if the months or years of life that you lived there leave even a trace of their impact: a nail hole, a chipped counter, a small stain.
Is it time to burn down the system, you ask? The system is already burning. Here in L.A. County 66,500 people live unsheltered. But alongside the deprivation there is also resistance. Every tent erected on a sidewalk, every abandoned house occupied, every trailer installed on a backstreet is a declaration: we as humans have a right to shelter and to know the dignity of belonging.
You already seem acutely aware that our system’s method of doling out pie slices isn’t equitable nor sustainable. You seem loath to participate in this system as someone with closer access to a bigger piece. Yet…you too deserve a house. For you and your spouse, owning a house is reasonably within reach.
I sense that the question at the heart of your letter, dear friend, isn’t only about homeownership. You ask, “How can we balance the moral dilemma of wanting to make the world a better place while still having a piece of it for my family?”
You echo a question that so many of our generation grapple with. I ask myself essentially the same question when I run a long, hot shower, take a roadtrip, or buy something tasty wrapped in plastic. How can I live with my awareness of these habits’ destructive consequences while still allowing myself to enjoy the basic comforts of modern life?
This is the question that keeps so many of us “woke” young people awake at night. We grew up aware of our social privileges and of our species’ damaging effects on the planet—and we’re numbed by the guilty awareness that we socially-mobile Americans are trampling our planet with our oversized environmental footprints. How can our consciences ever rest when even our breathing contributes to CO2 emissions?!
Yet you must keep breathing. Breathe deeply and the dilemma dissolves into awareness.
Inhale…the knowing that we are needy, that we must take in order to survive.
Exhale…the guilt that strangles our ability to give even as we take. What would be the point of moving you, your spouse, and your guilt into your dream home? When you let go of the guilt, you may remember that our very breath is a gift to our green kin.
So could we imagine together another way of living within a broken system? I believe at the heart of your central question is its answer: your phrase “having a piece of the world” betrays the false logic of the American dream. As long as you live under its false logic, you will have a moral dilemma.
The American dream of acquiring a house, car, pension, yearly vacations and household gadgets (lots of gadgets and expensive toys and useful shit and shit-I-bought-just-because) does not include guidance on what to do once you “get a piece of it.” The Dream doesn’t envision its Dreamers inhabiting their houses as activist citizens and compassionate community members. (There is no community in the Dream—just you and the Joneses next door. Even when both you and the Joneses have acquired the Dream, you do not share it nor enjoy it together. You continue to compete with each other for more of it.)
In the Dream, wealth is passed along generationally but not horizontally. There is no ethos of giving, of working for abundance for others in the present. There is no questioning of the Dream’s premise that the planet holds enough natural resources to keep its Dreamers’ fed, clothed, and entertained in perpetuity. There is no remembering of the bodies, voices, and visions that were enslaved, displaced, and excluded in the building of the Dream.
The American dream of homeownership was always an illusory dream. It wooed its Dreamers with the illusion that they can indeed own land or property without acknowledging its human and environmental cost.
“Am I asking for too much?” you write. You aren’t asking for enough, my friend. It isn’t enough to desire and acquire the American dream of homeownership. You must ask more of yourself, your dreams, and your access to wealth.
You have already made the incredible first step of waking up from the Dream: you have acknowledged the moral friction between what you know is right and what is in fact reality. Yet you are still immobilized by guilt and indecision. Step two is making peace with this moral discomfort by allowing your deeper knowing to guide you away from comfortable answers and into the challenge of shaping a life that is harmonious with your convictions.
As you walk out of the Dream and into a truer Vision, you will find that whenever you arrive at a crossroads of decision as a consumer or citizen, your choices are actually quite simple: you can take the revolutionary way or you can take the traditional road with purpose.
Ask yourself, Are my energy, money, and resources best used in this instance to build an alternative to a harmful norm…or are they best used to access a traditional form of power in order to use it as a transformational tool?
You don’t have to choose the same way every time. Both are acceptable depending on your discernment of each circumstance. In the case of buying a house, what if we framed the choice by stating that “Housing is a human right” and then moved towards using our own access to housing as a way of making that belief manifest?
There is a multiplicity of revolutionary housing options if you think beyond a single-family house. You could participate in creating a multi-family co-op, a tiny house community, a van or mobile home, or a lot outside of the city where you can build sustainably. I mention these options because, while they may seem far-fetched, they are possible. There is more than one legitimate way of housing, even within Southern California’s dense metropolitans with their building codes and zoning restrictions. We need visionary people like you who are willing to build alternative models of housing and communal living.
Pursuing an alternative housing situation may present obstacles, but at least you would be giving yourself a choice between different obstacles, as traditional homeownership comes with its own set of challenges. If you choose the revolutionary way it will require relinquishing the natural desire for a conventional life by your culture’s standards. But your essential needs for shelter, refuge, and belonging will still be met, even in abundance.
What if the revolutionary way is not feasible in this phase of your life? If you choose to take the traditional path towards owning a house, you can find peace in the decision by being intentional with your purpose. Recognize that your house is a resource that grants you political power and capital—and use it to serve your community.
A few examples come to mind of people who are using their houses not as private property but as resources for collective wellbeing.
Susan Burton emerged from decades of loss, incarceration and addiction with a vow to use her life in service of liberating other women from the carceral system. She acquired a small house in Watts and immediately offered its rooms to women recently released from prison. More than shelter, she gave the women the dignity of taking ownership of their living space. Susan named the house A New Way of Life. The nonprofit that grew from that first visionary act has grown to include a network of houses in L.A. that have housed over 1,200 people.
Canticle Farm in Oakland was born when two neighbors decided to knock down the fence between their houses. They envisioned building a community dedicated to reparation, regeneration, and reconciliation. More fences came down between the neighboring houses, until Canticle Farm came to include seven houses. Each house serves a special purpose: one houses formerly incarcerated men who are now abolitionists, another houses youth activists, a third houses Central American families who sought asylum in the U.S. A fourth house hosts community workshops and gatherings. All this was born out of the decision to knock down a symbol of separateness between neighbors.
Many homeowners across the country have offered their spare rooms as temporary or emergency housing for unhoused youth, refugees, essential workers, and people displaced by natural disasters. These are good options for temporarily opening your house in service of others.
The land around your house abounds with possibility as well. A grass lawn holds the potential of becoming a native plant and wildlife habitat or a productive vegetable garden. There are organizations that will even help you pick your fruit trees or plant a vegetable garden in order to bring more organic produce to people who are food insecure.
A house can be so much more than shelter for a single family! When we literally open our houses to let in our community, we open ourselves to our greater capacities for compassion and creativity.
If you eventually choose to go the traditional route, I trust you will choose your house wisely. You will consider the pros and cons of your purchase, and then you will weigh which of those “cons” you are willing to live with, because no house will be innocent of having a footprint, social or environmental.
With your deep questions and sharp sense of right and wrong, I know you will make something good out of your house.
The times we live in, as well as your conscience, don’t leave us with a third choice: to seek, acquire, and then guard the American dream for only ourselves and our families.
In Valparaíso, many of the old houses have names. These houses are nodes of collective energy, nexuses for community, parties, gatherings, and common visions.
In the early months of occupying our house, we simply called it “la casa.” As our family coalesced, it became “nuestra casa.” We had big visions for nuestra casa. We envisioned our house as an offering: a shelter for travelers and a community center for hands-on construction experience, workshops, deep discussions, and warm gatherings. A house open to its neighbors. A living counter-response to the individualism that insulates households from each other and from their neighbors. We wanted our house to be the other way around in every way.
One afternoon after a long day of demolition, we sat around the ping-pong table, at the time our only real piece of furniture (it served as kitchen table, kitchen counter, conference table, and work space). Dust swirled through the shafts of sunlight slanting through the missing window. We each tossed names into the air, but none sounded right.
Then someone threw out an idea. “Casa Al Revés!” House the other way around. House inside out. A house unlike any ever built, a home unlike any ever created.
We tasted the name in our mouths. La Casa Al Revés. In that moment, in a house that had stood one hundred years and sheltered several generations of lives, our home gained its new purpose.
So my friend, I dare you to name your dwelling place. Whatever home you and your spouse decide to build, rent, buy, or create, dare to name its purpose—and then commit yourselves to using your home as your greatest resource for manifesting that purpose in the world.
*Want to learn more about homelessness but don’t live in L.A.? Listen to the people living on the frontlines of the housing crisis in the podcast “We the Unhoused.” Hosted and produced by members of the unhoused community in L.A.
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