More than 7 million Americans lost their homes to foreclosure or short sale between 2007 and 2014. Three years ago, my husband and I became one of them. And like the housing market, despite much improvement, we’re still recovering.
While we hear far less about the real estate crash that’s not so far behind us, it has left a permanent mark on many communities. Decreased property values lower municipal tax revenues, which lead to cuts in services. Stressed municipal services and underserved schools result, continuing a downward spiral. Vacant, neglected properties are targets for vandals. While homes in desirable zip codes are again selling these days, poor and minority neighborhoods simply haven’t seen the same rebound.
And millions of families like mine, who lost their homes during those crisis years, find ourselves in a far different reality than we imagined when we bought them. These economic forces feel personal to us, even as their effects linger on years after we’ve moved out and moved on.
The option to walk away from our underwater mortgage brought with it a spiritual and moral dilemma. We’d purchased a tract townhome for $193,000 in a distant blue-collar, economically depressed suburb of Chicago in 2006. After years of prayerful deliberation and counsel from good friends, a lawyer, and a financial expert, we elected to sell the property via short sale. The best offer was less than half of what we’d paid for it just six years earlier. Years of carefully stewarded housing investment vanished with a few strokes of the pen in a title company’s office.
The numbers still stun me. Stock market speculators may expect to take a loss like that. But we never imagined the purchase of a home could be as financially risky as investing in, say, a ground-floor opportunity to buy into a Bolivian copper mining business. Decades earlier, my husband and I had purchased our first home with money from a small inheritance. Conservative financial advisors emphasized that a home was not only the biggest investment we’d probably make in our lifetime, but was also the most secure. This script seemed as certain. It had worked for generations of Americans. My husband and I banked on the fact that our investment in a home would serve us as it had our grandparents and parents before us.
But you know how this story ends: The Great Recession shredded that script. As my husband nears retirement age, we are trying to make sense of the best use of the resources we do have. While our credit scores have rebounded, they’re nowhere near where they were before. God provided a rental property for us, but we’re dealing with the insecurity of living in a house that is currently on the market. We know we’ll have to move again at some point, probably soon.
Families like us, housing refugees from foreclosures and short sales, have flooded the rental market in our area and driven up rent prices. Nationwide, renters are spending 19 percent more of their income on monthly rent than they did prior to 2000, according to Zillow blogger Krisha Rao. “In fact, in some parts of the country such as Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco, the average household would need to spend over 40 percent of their income to rent the average home.”
John Donne’s famous words, “No man is an island / Entire of itself / Every man is a piece of the continent / A part of the main,” are apropos to us in the wake of the popped real estate bubble. Housing insecurity weighs families with stress, financial hardship, and displacement. Many foreclosures came from compounding financial issues—with breadwinners losing jobs during the recession. Without the luxury of settled school, medical, and community connections, home doesn’t quite feel like home. Instability and financial stress can play havoc on both marriage and family life.
We thanked God that our children were grown and flown from the nest and that my husband’s job was preserved as we walked through our short sale. Millions of others have had to uproot their families and relocate, sometimes multiple times during the last few years. The shock-and-awe headlines that grabbed our collective attention during the peak of the crisis have faded, but the trauma and hardship are ongoing for those of us who’ve lost homes and sometimes their livelihoods, too.
There is no quick fix. Laws, economic policies, history, and corporate market forces go beyond the scope of what any individual or well-meaning group can hope to tackle. All any one of us can do is love our neighbors as Christ would. For individuals, this might include prayer, a bag of groceries—or giving another family a place to stay while they get back on their feet.
My husband and I have been on the receiving end of the kindness of others during this time, and we have sensed the care of our heavenly Father as a result. Some churches and faith-based organizations like the Christian Community Development Association work to provide fair housing and economic opportunities to underserved areas in the name of Jesus.
We learned that housing wasn't the secure investment we'd always thought. Our retirement years aren’t very far away at this point of our lives, and we’re in the midst of thinking through where and how we’re going to keep an affordable roof over our heads as we age.
Jesus cautions against being driven by worry about the stuff on the bottom level of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs (Matthew 6:25-34). He doesn’t promise us the picket-fenced house of the American Dream, but we continue to discover he is faithful to shelter us well as he guides us home.