In the past month my two neighbors across the street have walked away from their homes. The signs in the windows now declare in bold, red letters, “Bank Owned Property” followed by admonitions of “No Trespassing” and “Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” The housing crisis is hitting very close to home.
A little more than a month ago, we were wishing each other “Happy Thanksgiving,” talking about our children’s sports and activities, and sharing tips on lawn care and animals. One of the neighbors was raising chickens. I know the pressure must have been overwhelming then, but I didn’t see it — or perhaps I wasn’t looking.
We moved into the neighborhood two years ago and were in the early stages of developing the friendships that come with being neighbors. It does seem those relationships develop more slowly now, more cautiously. But we were on our way — on our way to what we hoped would be the kind of long-term neighborhood friendships that last a lifetime.
That, I believe, is one of the casualties of the housing boom and subsequent crash. My wife and I got caught up in the bigger and better trap and, looking back, we would prefer to be in our little three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot home with neighbors we loved and a reasonable mortgage. We rode the wave of the housing market and were fortunate to get out just as the market peaked. Had we not we would be under water by $200,000.
I wish there were easy solutions. Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t have just let everything crash and started from scratch. Even while home prices are falling, in many areas homes remain out of reach for the average income earner. The Central Coast is certainly no exception.
My mother laments that my wife and I are not more financially solid. I have to remind her that her home is worth fully 10 times what she and my father paid for it, even in today’s market. Our daughters’ tuition is 15 times more than when I went to school. My wife and I, both professionals, would have to earn $400,000 per year to keep up with what my father earned as the sole breadwinner. We don’t earn even half of that.
We have sacrificed a great deal in the race for bigger and better, but nothing so much as the relationships that develop over staying put and appreciating the gifts that staying in one place can offer. In the months before my neighbors’ hasty departure, three other homes wore that badge of shame, “Bank Owned Property.” There are certainly more to come.
It has affected the neighborhood in both obvious and subtle ways. The parties and barbecues have ceased. It is quiet here in ways that are reminiscent of some eerie science-fiction movie where, one by one, the town folks disappear. I don’t want to be the last man standing in that scenario.
It is also a vicious cycle; the foreclosed homes will bring the value of surrounding properties down, which will in turn create even more negative equity and the increased chance that more homeowners will walk away. I don’t have a solution except to say, I think we need to readjust our vision. We need to stop looking for bigger and better and relish what we have.
I’m going to miss the neighbors. More important, I’m going to miss what they stood for — connections, community and a daily reminder that I am not in this alone. We need these things, and they are in very short supply.
For now I’ll wait for the new tenants or homeowners to move in. My daughters will take a plate of cookies and welcome them to the neighborhood. And we will begin that wonderful process of building neighborhood friendships in the hope that this time they might stick.