The rents in my apartment building are going up again this fall (new living situation needed, in Boston or New York!), and my mother is indignant enough for both of us. “I can’t understand it,” she said last week, as we discussed the scarcity of apartments near Boston subway lines that rent for less than $2000 a month. “How could they have gone up so much?”
I didn’t have the heart to reply honestly: “You’re the reason rent is so expensive!”
With my father in a nursing home, my mother now lives alone in a house, within walking distance to the subway, where six of us lived a few decades ago. Her best friend lives a few blocks away in a house where five people used to live. There must be tens of thousands of comfortable homes in walkable neighborhoods in the Boston area where big families have given way to elderly people living alone. This is one reason there are so many children in my apartment building, including the monster upstairs who seems to run around in circles at night like a crazed cat. When there are so few houses on the market, more young families have to compete with singles and couples for small apartments.
In 2005, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey played into the stereotype of the heartless Republican when she suggested that many elderly people in Massachusetts were “overhoused,” with property-tax breaks for seniors only encouraging them to live alone in huge houses. The Boston Globe’s Raphael Lewis captured some of the outrage:
“Reading in the paper about what the lieutenant governor said last week, it was quite upsetting about how seniors should just move out because they only use one room out of your whole house,” Leola Coleman, 74, of Mattapan said to Healey.
'”But I think we should have the privilege to do that if we want to,” Coleman said. '”And you know what I mean, like we have to leave and give up our homes because of the baby boomers.”
Oh, those arrogant baby boomers, living in their fancy crowded apartments and looking askance at people who allegedly use only one room out of their whole house. What would they have the good elderly folk of Massachusetts do with their millions of rolls of gift wrap? (And we’re not really talking about baby boomers coveting houses anymore; they’re now old enough to be the ones who refuse to go.)
I don’t blame my mother for not wanting to move. If she sold the house, she’d only have to deal with the same ridiculous rents and home prices that the rest of us face. But if all the widows and widowers in the Boston area sold their houses at once, we’d get somewhere. Many of the houses would go to young families now in apartments. Some of the houses would be subdivided into apartments or would be shared by students and other young adults. (Cities and towns would have to permit this re-use; posh suburbs like Dover and Weston would undoubtedly ban the disgusting habit of housing more than one person per acre.) At the same time, some of the widows and widowers would move in with other family members, and some would get apartments with roommates. The overall result would be a reduced demand for apartments, and at least a slowdown in rent increases.
There will be no exodus from too-big houses any time soon. Homeownership is too precious to people who came of age anywhere between the Great Depression and the early 1970s. In the 1980s, comic Kevin Meaney made a running gag out of his mother fretting, “We’re gonna lose the house!” It really is an obsessive fear among American working-class families, even when it’s unlikely that the house will be passed down to the next generation.
And though this may change as more people live in apartments for longer periods of time, Americans never seem satisfied with the amount of room for their stuff. As the Washington Post recently reported, “living space available per person has doubled over the last 40 years,” the result of the median home size going up (from about 1,500 to 2,500 square feet from 1973 to 2013) and the average number of people in a household going down (from three people to just over 2.5 people over the same period). In fact, the living space per person has quadrupled or quintupled over the past 40 years for seniors who remain in houses where they once raised families—but that means the living space has shrunk for families who cannot afford houses and have to compete with young singles for apartments.
Since we’re not going to force people out of their homes, a more reasonable solution is to build more housing in desirable areas, including apartment buildings in neighborhoods with public transportation. That’s been happening to some extent in the Boston area, and my mother is all in favor of that. But most of her homeowning neighbors, in a city just north of Boston, are of the NIMBY persuasion, and they loudly oppose new apartments and the “transients” they attract. (My own building, in a formerly all-commercial area a block from the subway, has 11 stories, and that was enough to scandalize the city into imposing height restrictions to make sure it never happens again.)
I get it. A big, quiet, almost empty house is a reward for raising a family, and it hardly makes up for the cost, the work, and the heartaches of shepherding three or four kids into adulthood. But please don’t accuse me, struggling to come up with enough money for a cozy one-bedroom apartment, of bringing down the tone of the neighborhood.