On Moving

I remember Angels in America primarily because I have changed houses so many times. After all the AIDS and the Mormonism, the bizarre sex stuff and the dramatic visitations by the celestial and the deceased in this utterly wild ride of a two-part play, what I remember is that one of the titular angels’ primary goals was to stop humans from moving around so much. I interpret this to mean that my wife and I, having moved several times within the past decade, are particularly excelsior queers.

I’m aware that this is a dumb reading of the play. I feel I’ve earned a little harmless sophomorism. For the past month, my wife and I have bent every free minute to the service of our living space. We’ve primped it, preened it, touched up the paint, and tightened the doorknobs. Now we just need Condorella to make a good impression on some lucky prince at the showing, which will probably occur in a couple weeks. We’ve been here for about two years. I can just see the angels burying their beautiful heads in their hands.

The housing market in our area is currently way, way out of control. This is one reason that we’re selling. With the likelihood of a recession lurking around 50% according to a notorious finance company, it seems like a good time to cash in. The other is that we just don’t like the town. We’re a bad fit here and we miss the place we were living before. Our main concern is that we won’t be able to leave if the market really tanks before we can close with a buyer.

The upshot of this situation is that we’ve either got to buy a new house within the thirty to ninety days after we accept an offer on our current place or we’ve got to temporarily move into a sublet. As we prepare for the possibility of renting, I’m watching John Oliver’s takedown of the current landlord ecosystem. One thing that he doesn’t discuss is why property owners seem to be such jerks to tenants these days. I’m of the school of thought that nobody is “just mean.” There’s always something under that. Sometimes this involves some internal lying or self-delusion, sometimes there’s some arrogance or insecurity in there. It goes without saying that money is the MacGuffin.

In eastern Massachusetts, people and companies are snapping up buildings like trading cards. For landlords who intend to generate income from the property long-term, this means buying high and consequently renting high. The laws of rent calculation are even stricter for people who purchase the gorgeous but rickety 200-year-old houses that make New England such a desirable setting for Halloween movies. Many, like our last landlord, have absolutely no idea what they’re in for in terms of maintenance. Think custom-sized glass for hand-crafted windows. I suspect that many of them end up swamped in houses that don’t pay for themselves, at which point they sell. For a higher price, of course. Then the cycle begins again.

For companies that intend to trade up these properties to satisfy investors, it seems to me that there’s almost no point in renting some of them. Renters will just mess up the pristine walls and toilets and incur those ever-pesky maintenance costs. If you’re just going to wait for the market to inflate even more and then sell the building like a stock, why worry about tenants? There are buildings in New York that have rearranged the whole city’s skyline, but remain completely unoccupied aside from a few highly choice clients. I wonder about that. The line can’t go up forever, and if I, a humble writer and librarian, can tell that the fun’s going to end someday, then I’m sure that the very well-educated investors building, selling, and paying for these high-end condos are already aware.

But most people would never live in luxury high-rises anyway. Their solution would be affordable housing, which is a wonderful option if you discount the NIMBYs. Today, I drove through two different communities where residents are fighting affordable housing projects. The arguments range from the environmental to the aesthetic, but none of them hold much water. (The yard signs alone were probably uglier than the proposed buildings would be.) These communities just want to remain exclusive to the wealthy. That’s something that John Oliver didn’t address.

As their rents rise beyond what they can handle, where will middle-class people in the GBA go? Small midwest towns? Vans that look great on Instagram and nowhere else? Detroit?

We don’t consider leaving the area an option just because we know exactly where we want to live. It’s expensive as hell, but if we can pull it off, we’ll get what we pay for: home. But as I browse Zillow for living spaces starting at under half a million, I realize that there’s a lot of privilege in attaching that word to a place.

We’ve been lucky. We’ve been unusually well-informed. We’ve been flexible. Let’s hope that will be enough.