The Obscenity of Owning Real Estate

“No One Can Sell What They Do Not Own in the First Place”

CJ Green / 7.23.21

The housing market was bananas when I first encountered Eula Biss’s book, Having and Being Had. It was May. Home prices were at an all-time high, inventory an all-time low. Millennials, in the words of Derek Thompson, were “storming the housing market” after a decade of gig work and fruitless attempts to pay down college loans. The pandemic — and low interest rates — made prospective buyers desperate, transforming the market “into a once-in-history, hair-on-fire, what-the-hell-is happening bonanza.”

But in the middle of it all: Having and Being Had. It’s a contemplative, funny riposte to the insanity of possession. What you own, Biss observes in a quiet, ironic tone, often has a way of owning you. She points out that consumption is etymologically related to destruction: “to seize or take over completely.” We consume and are consumed, have and get had, and our desire to own — or maybe ownership itself — can pretty much crush us. Anyone who’s spent time on Zillow in the last few months knows this is no exaggeration. You’re clicking, refreshing, disappearing into your compulsion to have not even your dream house but a house.

“Americans spend their entire lives ministering to things,” remarked a missionary I once worked with. Her point was that material goods tend to distract from matters of the heart and soul, whether it’s the home you’re constantly renovating, or the phone you keep updating, or the car always in need of fixing. For that missionary, Jesus presented a sharp contrast: no place to lay his head, wandering town to town with no concern for accumulating land, money, or power, only forgiving sins, feeding the poor, healing the sick. In a similar way, it seems as if the influence of Christianity has moralized money (or the lack of it) in America today. The wealthy are widely thought of as “bad” (“privileged”), and the poor inherently virtuous (or at least less bad).

But only insofar as it’s convenient. We may sign the petition to keep Jeff Bezos from returning to Earth, because billionaires are evil, but I have yet to meet someone who has willingly given away all of their possessions. Shaming the wealthy doesn’t prevent anyone from actually being wealthy; it just means that Americans who are not-poor stop talking about money entirely. It’s shameful to have, but impossible to give up. Irina Dumitrescu, reviewing Biss’s book, puts it this way:

American society is obsessed with money, but rigid rules of decorum control any mention of it. Biss wonders what genre of book she is writing — “an internal audit?” “a series of jokes, made at my own expense?” — but one could also call it a confession. Less than a century ago, Pauline Réage or Philip Roth could still shock readers by describing explicit sexual acts and outré desires. Nowadays it feels more obscene to write about owning real estate.

In her book Biss puts her own real estate on full display. She writes with unusual freedom about her ostensibly comfortable perch in the upper-middle class. What allows her to do so is a keen understanding that the world — life — is transitory; as such, few of us are truly comfortable. “The house isn’t mine,” she realizes, about a house that she and her husband have just bought. They own it, but in an actual sense, they also owe on it. And in a deeper sense, they cannot keep it forever.

The psychologist Bruce Hood makes a similar observation in his book Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need. He writes that the definition of “property” has evolved over time, and some cultures have rejected the idea outright. As Hood reports, “the indigenous peoples of North America did not recognize the concept of ownership of land … No one can sell what they do not own in the first place.” He quotes a descendant of one of the First Nation tribes, who says that the term “property” is “inadequate”: “The possession of these items is ‘Creator-given’ and as such, cannot be owned or deemed property as such.”

Such a God’s-eye view is mirrored in the Psalms: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, / the world, and all who live in it.” In Deuteronomy, it is God “who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” In this sense, nothing is owned, nothing is earned. At best, property is a thing that you have for a while, to care for, to minister to. The term “stewardship” comes to mind; Biss uses the word “husbandry” to suggest that she is figuratively married to her property. She has a relationship to it, to care for it and to be cared for, to have and to hold, to be had and to be held.

I have the sense that all of this — the brick the roses climb, the lath and plaster, the copper pipes, the oak floors, the coal room, the cracked slab on which it all rests — is a gift. Not to me, but to the future. The house is just passing through my hands. It’s not a purchase, it’s a husbandry. 

I’m in service to the house. The truth of this is married to the other truth, that the house serves me. I can borrow against this asset, which will grow in value if all goes well. But a house, my grandfather warned me just before we bought this house, is a place to live. Not an investment. 

The house, the car, the college education — the old joke is that “you can’t take it with you.” Perhaps, in the meantime, it’s enough to tend what we’ve been given.