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Search for a new home creates clash of ideals

I’ve seen this commercial on television recently for a local realty company. In it, a smiling family is pictured sitting on their front steps: a mom, dad and three kids looking, well, a lot like us. The suave voice-over says I, too, can find the house of my dreams.

Cut to a three-story Victorian with a wraparound front porch, original scroll work and a double lot. I can picture it -- the home office, a bedroom for each kid, a sewing room, tons of storage, an eat-in kitchen, den, fireplaces, pantry, sunroom ... you get the idea. I shake myself out of my tube-induced reverie and click “mute” on the remote.

My family is facing a housing crisis. Okay, not a crisis -- let’s just call it a real estate conundrum. After nearly eight years in a duplex we bought because for some reason we thought a mortgage would be just the thing to go with the baby we were expecting, we’re just plain outgrowing our space. My baby is now a growing boy with two sisters and a need for privacy and a place to put his stuff. I’d like to reclaim our dining room from the home office that has taken root there.

The ensuing discussions about what we want -- and need -- in a home are fertile ground for a resounding clash between ideals and values as people who value living at least a little bit counterculturally.

Our current neighborhood is fighting to maintain a positive image in the wider community. It was never swanky; most of the homes reflect working-class frugality in building materials and no-nonsense design. I read a few years ago in a local publication that our zip code is considered the home of social workers and teachers -- in other words, those who can’t afford to live in the choice parts of town. In reality, our neighbors are blue-collar workers; writers, musicians and artists; a few professionals (including teachers and social workers); some intergenerational households; retirees; renters and homeowners; dozens of kids and one or two problem households whose occupants don’t seem to care much for the neighbors’ good opinion.

We have crack houses and coffee houses, seedy bars and community gardens. Our proximity to the freeways and downtown is convenient. But it also means we belly up to chancier, higher-crime areas. A drug bust five blocks away and a dead body in a car trunk two blocks from here made the second-section headlines a few weeks ago, the kind of publicity that keeps housing prices down. But day-to-day, a fairly stable, friendly place where neighbors know neighbors, people pay their taxes and want in return decent schools and safe streets.

We also consider staying in our home and converting the place into a single-family dwelling, but I’m concerned that to make such sweeping changes would do an injustice to the building’s integrity as duplex. Not to mention the sweat (my husband’s), tears (mine) and blood (anybody’s guess) this work would require.

In our search for the greener side of the fence, we’ve seen dozens of homes that fit our criteria on paper but disappoint on sight. They turn out to be right below the most-used flight path or with a freeway in the front yard; with bedrooms the size of closets, and actual closets only if you’re lucky; or floors that tilt so much you begin to develop sea legs on the Minnesota prairie.

Or you size up the house next door and notice two motorcycles and a rusted pickup on blocks in the yard. Or a flock of pigeons swoops down to greet you and settles back on the rafters, a little winged gang checking out the competition for their turf. Or, my personal favorite: the one with a neighboring house boasting a large ship’s figurehead of a naked woman and a “Jesus is Lard” sign over the front door.

I know that eventually we will come to a resolution to our housing dilemma. We have choices, difficult though they sometimes seem. But what I keep pondering is, if my family has a hard time with finding a suitable home -- two college-educated adults with incomes -- what about those millions of sole breadwinners working minimum wage jobs, or paying for their own health insurance, or seniors on fixed incomes? What about people who don’t even aspire to home ownership -- people who live doubled up with relatives, among the “invisible homeless”?

Government bodies across the country are dealing with the need to ensure affordable housing for the thousands of people whose eligibility for public housing will end or whose federal funding for the housing they do have has been cut. There are lots of welfare-to-workers whose minimum wage jobs will not get them a decent place at market rents: The Twin Cities archdiocesan Office for Social Justice reports that a worker earning $7.05 an hour can afford a monthly rent of $267, “afford” meaning costing no more than 30 percent of income. But in our area, the fair-market rate for a two-bedroom apartment is $644.

There are approximately 75,000 renter households with annual incomes of less than $10,000. It is also estimated that 52,000 families spend more than 60 percent of their income on housing. There is a gap between affordable and market-rate housing, and it is dramatic.

I look down at my baby’s face, angelic in sleep, and know that I would never choose for her to live in most of the “affordable” apartments in my community. Two blocks from me, five blocks from me -- where the dead bodies and the drug busts are not a newspaper headline or a distant siren, but a next-door, living color, Sensurround, prime-time all-the-time reality. I have some nerve whining about the lack of counter space in my kitchen.

To be perfectly honest, my American ideal is to live in a house that looks more like the one on the commercial than the one I live in, to seek out a secure, homogeneous, Rockwellian landscape. But my conflicting Christian values call me to live in a community much like the diverse urban area I live in now, safe enough, yet earthy enough to serve as a year-round reminder of the Lenten message that we are ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

So for now, I’ll be paying my taxes and going to block club meetings, hanging on to what I’ve got until I have a really good reason to move on. Look for me at the community education class on kitchen reorganization.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 6, 1998