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Earlier, I wrote about “buyer backlash” in the media—-that, while most news about the foreclosure crisis, including a story in our very own newspaper, has tended to condemn the lenders, the buyers are now getting some of the blame. You can read my first example here.
Number two comes in the form of a piece written by Michael Lewis, a man who never ceases to make journalism seem like a well-paying and simply-plotted career (and by that I mean, he is excellent, and everyone knows it). Lewis’s story in Portfolio is all about the strain of moving into a house you can’t afford. The thing is, Lewis’s house—-which he rents while writing a book in New Orleans—-is unaffordable by (nearly) all of humanity’s standards.
Soon, his daughters are getting stuck in the elevator. He’s spending unexpectedly gargantuan sums on utilities. And, adjusting to the house’s enormity, he’s asking himself questions like “How badly do I really want to find my six-year-old daughter? How much does my one-year-old son’s diaper really need to be changed?”
The trouble is temporary and not highly pitiable. But, it helps Lewis ruminate on some problems facing the masses:
Americans feel a deep urge to live in houses that are bigger than they can afford. This desire cuts so cleanly through the population that it touches just about everyone. It’s the acceptable lust.
Consider, for example, the Garcias. On May 30, the New York Timesran a story about a couple, Lilia and Jesus Garcia, who were behind on their mortgage payments and in danger of losing their homes. The Garcias had a perfectly nice house near Stockton, California, that they bought in 2003 for 160 grand. Given their joint income of $65,000, they could afford to borrow about $160,000 against a home. But then, in 2006, they stumbled upon their dream house. The new property was in Linden, California, and, judging from its picture, had distinctly mansionlike qualities. Its price, $535,000, was a stretch.
Okay, skip, skip, skip. Read more about the Garcias here. Back to Lewis’s monologue on the American housing mentality:
But the real moral is that when a middle-class couple buys a house they can’t afford, defaults on their mortgage, and then sits down to explain it to a reporter from the New York Times, they can be confident that he will overlook the reason for their financial distress: the peculiar willingness of Americans to risk it all for a house above their station. People who buy something they cannot afford usually hear a little voice warning them away or prodding them to feel guilty. But when the item in question is a house, all the signals in American life conspire to drown out the little voice.
In other words Mr. and Mrs. Garcia, what’s wrong with you? I’ll take my pity elsewhere, to a more deserving recipient, Lewis seems to say.