$Monday: Investing in Your Habitat

This post is not about house-flipping, slum-lording, or monetizing a rental property. It's about investing in your habitat, your very own sanctuary where you, as a person, and your personal finances can thrive and grow. Access to safe and stable housing, independent of income or wealth, is an essential rung on the ladder to economic security. Where you live is as important as, if not more important than, how much money you make. Your home and its location determines your:

  • everyday level of safety from violence and natural disasters
  • everyday safety from indoor hazards such as electrical fires and structural damage
  • ability to preserve health with adequate indoor/outdoor spaces for exercise, hygiene, restful sleep, food preparation, air quality, and clean tap water
  • proximity to your lifeline of family and friends
  • connection with local arts and culture
  • access to nutrition
  • access to education
  • exposure to healing and stress-relieving elements of nature
  • access to safe and reliable methods of transportation
  • daily cost of living
  • job opportunities

Notice that I put "job opportunities" last, because that's often the first thing that comes to mind in determining where to live, sometimes at tragic cost to the worker or whole family who gives up too many other things on that list to chase the promise of an income that only sounds good on paper. The hidden costs of living in substandard, low-income housing can be devastating.

When you have children in your household to consider, safe and stable housing becomes even more critical to giving the next generation a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty or successfully stay above it.

Unfortunately, the housing options available to many Americans are neither humane nor fair. Rental and home sale markets are rife with classism and racism. The lower your budget, the higher your risk of exploitation. If you are not already a comfortable resident of the middle class or higher, the game is rigged against you--and much more so if you are not white-presenting.

For the most part, experts know what should be done at the level of our nation, states, townships, and cities. When choosing where to live, it is important to consider local ordinances and policies and whether they stack the odds of obtaining adequate housing in your favor or the opposite. Seeking out actively anti-racist neighborhood associations, city plans, landlords, or real estate agents can help if you can find them. All an individual renter or buyer can do is try to become as aware as possible of the playing field, use creativity to broaden your options, and then make the best choice for yourself or your family from those that are realistically available to you.

Though nothing is without risk, there are sometimes ways to obtain a living situation that might at first seem above your reach, and sometimes it's worth the stretch to escape the cycle of exploitation. The fact that Americans are forced to try so hard to climb out of poverty and aren't given a fair array of choices is unjust, full stop. And, while we collectively work to solve those larger problems, each one of us still has to live.

Here's my personal story of obtaining my (humble but perfectly adequate) dream house:

My husband and I started living together in our 20s, before we got married. Although we had known each other for most of a decade, we were pushed to move in with each other earlier in our relationship than we might have if we had been able to afford living apart. But that wasn't easy to work out, so we scraped together enough chump change to rent a room in someone else's house.

That situation proved untenable due to a seriously creepy roommate situation, so we rushed to move into our own apartment. We chose the cheapest one-bedroom we could find in a building where good friends already lived, with convenient access to public transportation. At first, it seemed to check all the boxes on the list above (more or less), and then we started to feel sick. It took us a while to connect our mysterious illnesses to our apartment, but we eventually discovered systemic mold issues in the building and possible evidence of a meth lab in the suite below us. We knew that even if the apartment's air quality wasn't in fact the cause of our health problems, it would definitely end up damaging our health if we stayed.

So we set about grasping for every cheat and hack and opportunity for assistance that we could obtain to get ourselves a safe and stable home. We had just gotten married, and we wanted to have a child, but we determined to sort out our health and our future child's access to a healthy life first. After over a year of searching, I fell in love with an outdated (and therefore customizable!) but move-in-ready walkout ranch in a racially diverse, integrated, and thriving suburb surrounded by beautiful parks, in a pedestrian-friendly Title 1 school district known for its progressive practices, warm and dedicated staff, and celebratory treatment of multiculturalism. So basically a unicorn fantasy dream home--which remained just a little bit over our budget, even with a fantastic negotiation of the sale by our real estate agent.

There are various ways to get into a better living situation without being able to pay for it outright, and we explored them all. Some people in some places qualify for vouchers to move into better neighborhoods. Local offerings vary. My husband and I leaned into our privileges, asked our parents for financial assistance, and hustled to improve our credit scores so that we could snatch a home loan in an amount we could not reasonably pay off by ourselves. We tightened the purse strings on our budget as brutally as my grandparents had to do during the Great Depression, accepted being "house poor" for a time, and opened our doors to a rotating cast of roommates who chipped in to cover the bills. We stayed vigilant about finding and applying for mortgage relief and refinancing opportunities, requested the early cancellation of our private mortgage insurance fees, used our storage spaces to stash cheaply acquired things we could resell on eBay when their prices rose, and leaped at the first opportunity to replace an expensive-to-maintain old gas-powered sedan with a used electric car.

Over time, without making any big increases to our income, we were able to phase out the roommates, raise our child in a comfortably spacious, safe, and healthy single-family home, and even refinance our home for a better interest rate with a higher monthly payment, which we can now cover by ourselves.

Not everyone has access to the same opportunities we had to meet our housing needs, while others have a different or even wider array of choices--which doesn't make success easy or simple, just possible with the right mix of adaptability and luck.

If you do make it into a sustainable living situation that allows your physical, mental, and financial health to flourish, congratulations! Don't ever take it for granted and leave it behind for a shiny new carrot without carefully weighing all the important factors first.

There was a moment in time when my husband and I referred to the home we share as "our first house" and fantasized about moving to Europe. With the wisdom of age and the development of climatic and political events since then, we have dropped that goal entirely and focused our energies on putting down deep roots. We love our community, as imperfect as all communities are, and we are invested in helping to care for our neighbors, school system, library, parks, and ecosystems. There are benefits to nurturing deep roots that just don't exist in a more nomadic lifestyle. A strong, well-bonded community can provide benefits of great value to its people, even if it is a relatively money-poor population (see the internationally acclaimed example of Kerala, India or the successful, community-based initiatives to rapidly shrink extreme poverty in Africa and Central America).

During the pandemic, it is good to live as a small family unit in our own house, and it is also good to live near family and friends so that we can support each other from within our safe bubbles. Housing choices are more fraught with danger and complication than ever before, particularly when it comes to the people with whom you must live and quarantine. There are also some new opportunities such as incredibly low mortgage rates.

While we all work together to support policymakers and social practices that ensure better access to adequate housing for everyone, best wishes nailing down every opportunity within reach to secure it for yourself and your family! Your habitat is one of the most important investments you'll ever make, for your health and well being as well as for your wallet. Even when we're not stuck at home, on and off, through multiple waves of a viral pandemic, a great deal of our quality of life depends upon the safety, stability, and health of our living situations. May you find yourself a good one, get it, keep it, maintain it, and reap its compounding benefits far into the future.


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