Comfortable homes, uncomfortable disparities

by Kristin on October 12, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Floor plan from 535 West End Avenue

We just said goodbye to my parents and their big dog Calla, who have been visiting since Thursday. Each time they visit, I am very aware of two things:

1) How thankful I am to have such wonderful parents we all love spending time with.

2) How small our house feels when seven people and two dogs spend several days in a row together.

Several months ago, I wrote a post called Making do: less money and a bit of paint. In it, I describe the addition we’d love to put on our three-bedroom, one-bath house (sooner rather than later—we have three girls, you know!), but how, for now, we’re finding creative ways to make do with the space we have. One of the things we’ve done since Jason and I got married is to finish off a nice room in the basement. It’s a great guest room when people visit, and a Wii and movie room when we don’t have company. But things are still tight.

Putting things into perspective

Yesterday, as the confines of too much togetherness began to press in on me, Grandpa took Q off on a bike ride, Grandma and S worked on a project in the dining room, and I sat on the couch with the The New York Times Magazine. I opened it up to the first spread: The all-new 2010 Cadillac SRX, as shown $45,820.

The second spread features advertisements for two condo buildings in New York—one on West 86th Street, the other on Fifth Avenue. I would have flipped past them without a glance, but both ads feature floor plans, which I find somehow irresistible.

The half-floor residence at 535 West End Avenue (at West 86th) features 5 bedrooms, 5.5 baths, a library, and a family room, for a total of 4,396 square feet. The half-floor and full-floor options range from $8.5 million to $25 million.

At 995 Fifth Avenue, where you get views of Central Park, full-floor residences start at $23.5 million. At this point, I was so disgusted I didn’t bother examining the floor plan. (But I’m looking at it now, for the purpose of this post: looks like 5 bedrooms, 8.5 baths, a media room, a fitness room, a play room, a gallery—you get the idea.)

I realize I run a lot of risks with what I’m about to say next. Some people could say I’m jealous. Others might say I’m being judgmental, or I’m just an Obama-loving socialist. And there’s always the “she’s an ignorant girl from the Midwest, who’s never lived in a real city” argument against me.

But I’m going to say it anyway: This kind of excess disgusts me. This kind of disparity, between the rich and the poor, is wrong. (And no, I’m not suggesting I am the poor—we are solidly middle class.)

Has anyone really earned a $25 million home?

I don’t care how hard someone has worked, or how much money they’ve sunk into a top-notch education, or how smart they’ve been about their investments. Even impressive amounts of philanthropy don’t take much of the sting off. I just don’t believe anyone has a “right” to live like that while so many kids in our own country are stuck in terrible schools, and don’t have anything healthy to eat, and their parents are forced to decide between paying the gas bill or having some important dental work done.

Of course, I’m not implying this is an easy problem to solve. Where do we draw the line? How much does any given family need? How much do they deserve? How can people be rewarded for hard work and important contributions to society? How do we begin to factor in and level out everything an individual brings to the table in terms of privilege—education, connections, parents who have the vision and energy to guide their kids? People have been struggling with these issues forever, and I’m no economist.

I will say this, though: I don’t think it’s just a matter of spreading the wealth around more equally, and giving kids a more equal shot at success through better education. It’s also about attitude—what we’re willing to accept as normal. Do we accept that this is just the way the world works? Is that what we tell our kids? Is that what we demonstrate by our choices, our votes, how we live?

Because our attitudes about what’s “normal” are more powerful than we’d ever imagine. So is our ability to gradually shift the paradigm by shaping a different dialogue around a different ideal.

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  • Tracy

    Hi Kristin, I try not to let the excess bother me too much but I can’t wrap my mind around a country where it’s possibly for a family with two working parents to not be able to afford safe housing, healthcare and adequate childcare.

    I have no problem with people amassing wealth and living a luxurious lifestyle – but when that wealth comes from exploiting workers, how is that justice?

    I hear of so many companies being bought out by private equity groups looking to do whatever they can to trim all the fat and turn it around for a quick profit. Since they aren’t planning on keeping it, they do whatever is expedient in the short term, including laying off workers and cutting benefits. It’s just business after all.

  • Archie Mck

    I think your concept of changing the way we think of ‘Normal” is really the only response we can have to this problem, phenomenon, illusion?
    Not too long ago one of my friends lost his job, he was right out of college (He dropped out of school before getting his bachelor’s in accounting) and engaged to be married. Most of us would think he would just move on a get a new job, I did. I heard from him again a few months later and a few weeks before his wedding. When I asked him what he was up to he replied something to the effect of “nothing” and “still looking for a good job.” I wondered how that was working so I pushed a bit more. Apparently he (and she) were living off her student loans for her master’s degree while he was “looking for a job”… His response when I suggested a few friends of mine hiring for part time work? “No, those jobs aren’t good enough for me.”
    Turns out his dad had been laid off the year before and was doing the exact. same. thing.
    “Normal” needs to shift and it starts when each of us puts another person just a few steps in front of us. I’m not saying everyone needs to be Mother Teresa but just a responsible adult… As hard as that may be. Great words Kristin.

  • Sara

    Kristen — I might have slipped by this post, but, like you, something about the floor plan and what on earth you were going to say about it stopped me. I’m glad it did. This post make me do some thinking. I haven’t really stretched my economic or political muscles lately, but your post made me want to.

    I have two things to say: 1) We need to teach compassion and social responsibility to our children from birth on. I think it should be a mandatory class from K-12th grade. I realize there are lots of parents who would be unhappy about this and feel this isn’t “educating” our children. I feel, however, that if we don’t do this, then the traditional education will not matter because our tiny planet may not survive.

    2) I think there should be a social tax on all people who pay income tax. It can be adjusted depending upon your income, but it should go the health and well being of our children and their families. I do not have faith that the care of our children will become a priority otherwise.

    While there are some wonderful people who donate great amounts, there are just as many who keep every dollar they make. I no longer believe that the wealth in this country is used to stimulate the economy and therefore provide more services/jobs for those in need. It’s just not happening! Wow…I haven’t spoke my mind like this in a long time, but I must admit it felt good:~)

  • Abby

    Kristen, Chuck J told me about your blog and I’ve just started reading lately- and this one resonates deeply with me.
    When we did our two years building with HFH in MS, David re-designed the home. It was at the homeowners and board members request, adding things like a broom closet and creating slightly bigger bedrooms. Many of the out of state volunteers who came regularly fought the changes, arguing that the house was now too nice “for them”- though it was obviously still below the standard most of them came from. It was infuriating.
    Closer to home, we struggle with some of the same questions about our house- is it too small, or is it just that our American expectations are too big? We’re just undertaking a sunroom re-do, but not the discussed second story add-on…and how should we re-do, anyway? How nice is necessary? We’ve become big fans of the idea that it’s not so much more space, but better space, that we need (have you read the “not so big house” books?) It is striking to us that our home has felt both too nice and too shabby at different times with different guests.
    I’m rambling now, but great thoughts, thanks-

  • Daisy

    There’s a huge gap between the Haves and the HaveNots. A girl in my class will be moving soon; they’re being evicted on November 1st. Instead of planning her Halloween costume, she’s worrying about whether she’ll have a roof over her young head some November.

  • Kristin T.

    Tracy, yeah, that’s what I’m really trying to figure out right now—if I have a “right” to have a problem with people living what I see as excessively luxurious lifestyles, or if such a focus could even potentially have a positive outcome. Sometimes I think it’s really important to shine a light on it, other times I feel like I’m worrying about the wrong things. Your point about *how* people get this wealth, and who is being exploited in the process, is very important, though, without a doubt. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Archie, I’m glad to know someone else thinks the way we frame something can actually be a *response*! Sometimes I wonder, but other times I feel so sure of it—I feel like most of the problems of the world are rooted in our messed up perceptions of what’s happening around us. What you said about “normal” rings very true: “’Normal’ needs to shift and it starts when each of us puts another person just a few steps in front of us.”

    Sara, I’m glad this caught your attention and got you a bit riled up! Your economic and political muscles seemed ready to go and just waiting for a workout. :) A big amen to your thoughts about teaching compassion and social responsibility to our kids—yes, even in school! And I couldn’t agree more with this: “I no longer believe that the wealth in this country is used to stimulate the economy and therefore provide more services/jobs for those in need.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Abby, I will definitely have to thank Chuck for pointing such a compassionate, sharp thinker to my blog. :) I was actually thinking about Habitat for Humanity when I was writing this post. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the US had to help build a home for someone in need? Not just throw some money at the organization (although that’s important, too) but actually put time and muscle into it, and see the need with their own eyes. But then how do we overcome the natural “us-them” problem? The idea that something is good enough for “them” but not for “me?” It’s so complicated! (And yes—I have also felt that my home is too nice or too shabby, depending on the circumstances. So fascinating.)

    Daisy, isn’t it amazing how these “concepts” and “ideas” change when there are real people/faces/feelings to go with them? You see the reality in your classroom each day. Have you ever seen any truly helpful approaches to the problem, on a big or small scale? Just curious.

  • Chuck

    Kristin, always a joy to see a new post from you in my reader.

    I did, however, stumble somewhat at your question as to whether or not these people really earned $25 mil at all, or if they did earn it, if it’s possibly honest or ethical even in the earning let alone the spending.

    I disagree at first glance based on my initial impression, but I need a little more definition on what you mean in there in order to express my thoughts.

    You do such a nice job in the comments too. It’s good to know that I can come back later and find a thoughtful response. : )

  • Angela Harms

    I am coming in late again, as usual… I hear you, that it’s hard to watch. And also, that it’s not about finding a system for sorting everything out, distributing the money in ways we’ve figured out are better. It’s about attitude.

    I think that’s what Jesus calls us to, as well. He didn’t force anyone to give, but he did say something like “Look what you’re doing! Turn away from this, and toward love.” I don’t think we can solve this with systems or programs or taxes. What’s needed is a change of heart–a world where it’s just unthinkable to let someone suffer while you live in comfort.

    I was driving through a (relatively) rich neighborhood last winter, and thinking “How can these people live like this in their big houses with empty guest rooms & three cars when people are outside freezing?” The answer came to me: “they’re scared.” Just like me, they’re protecting their interests because they don’t know how to trust God to take care of them. Just like me, they’re telling themselves that they need this or that to “be ok.”

    I’ve learned to give more, but I’m still in self-protection mode a lot of the time. I long for a world where seeing someone suffer, we slam on the breaks and start yelling “Someone call 911! This person is hungry!”

  • xmartinj

    I can really identify with the anger toward the top 1 percent. I’ve read recently that the gap is no longer between the rich and the poor in America, but between the wealthy and the ultra wealthy.

    I don’t think anyone deserves $25mil in a year. I think there may be some fraudulent practices happening in the board rooms of gigantic corporations. “You deserve this bonus at your company (wink, wink) and I’m glad you’re on my board of directors.”

    At the same time, it’s easy for us to believe that the top 1% in our country has the hoarding problem, when most of us reading this blog (with family incomes over $45k) are in the top 1% in the world. As soon as I say $25mil a year is ludicrous, I have to remember that most of the world’s population would look at my life with the same incredulity.

    “Yeah… but $25 million?” I can hear myself saying, but I can’t squelch the devil’s advocate reminding me of my incredibly jaded perspective.

  • Angela Harms

    Yes, @xmartinj, exactly. “As soon as I say $25mil a year is ludicrous, I have to remember that most of the world’s population would look at my life with the same incredulity.”

  • Gen

    Well, I’m a Midwesterner, too, but I’ve lived exclusively in multiple major cities, including New York City, and I tend to agree that things can get absolutely disgusting. It’s not a new problem, though, as far as I can tell. Despite the fact that we’re constantly informed that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, it’s always been abhorrently wide and has, in fact, been much wider than this (and if we’d like to look globally, the problem is even worse).

    This may be a bit of a digression, but I do have a take on New York in particular. The degree to which people there put up with discomfort is unbelievable. The drive that so many have to live there is even more unbelievable (and it’s a drive that is often, though not always, based on hype). In any case, personal space, social niceties, and good old-fashioned politeness take a backseat there, because there is simply NOT ENOUGH SPACE for a sane person to exercise them comfortably. For this reason, I think New York has become a place of ambition, a place that prides itself on stress, because that’s how you compensate–by working yourself numb so you can buy an escape for yourself in the form of spacious and opulent housing, by telling yourself that the discomfort is worth it because hey, you’re living in NEW YORK (whatever that means). If there’s a city that embodies the term “rat race,” New York is it. And I’m not saying it’s a horrible place for everyone–some people find the rat race to be exciting. But I would caution against too much jealousy–we have to consider the price (and I’m not talking just money) they pay for their playpens/prisons. I live in another, slightly smaller city now, and I wouldn’t trade my tree-lined street, friendly neighbors, and garden space for what they have.

    As much as I hate having to worry so much about money, I do often think that it’s probably a good thing to always have to worry about it a little–sort of gives you an edge, keeps you crafty, keeps you appreciative, makes you clever, stretches you constantly. Luxury tends to make one soft…I do pity those $25 million dollar people sometimes, and wonder if they ever notice the lack of that edge.

    Thanks for the post–good brain food, for sure!

  • Linwood’s Girl

    Great post! I do not get angry at this type of excess, just sad and disappointed in the priorities people choose to have. I agree with the need to change our attitudes!

  • Jennifer

    As usual, much to chew on here. Our kids attend a private school, where their father is a teacher. We pay for it, but not nearly as much as the other parents pay. That being said, we are not exactly “target demographic” for this school. There are days when I sit in the carpool line wanting to bang my head against the steering wheel. The children have more expensive shoes than I have, and so to say that the parents’ cars and homes are bigger, prettier, and fancier is an understatement. Fortunately, so far, our kids don’t seem to mind the disparity. The same can not be said of their mother. I resent sometimes paying babysitters who drive up in brand new Infinities. I frown when another order form for another t-shirt comes home. The new homes that are going up where I live are monstrous eye-sores. But there are days when I sure wouldn’t mind living in one.

    I don’t know if people EARN the right to live in a house. I do find it obscene at times. That being said, they have the money, ergo, they have the house. The weird part is that some of these people, many of them are my friends. I don’t think many of them have a clue what it’s like to live like we do; on a budget, simply, peacefully. There is more I want to say on this but I think I’ll chew some more first.

  • Kristin T.

    Chuck, I’m so glad you enjoy the posts! Regarding your question, I think by italicizing the word “earn” I was trying to reference something more along the lines of “deserving,” not literal earning. I’m not going to get into the issue of whether the money is theirs or whether it lawfully became theirs. I guess it’s more about a sense of entitlement—the idea that “this is my right.” I hope that makes it more clear!

    Angela, thanks for the many really good thoughts. I especially like how you paraphrased the way Jesus looks at things: “Look what you’re doing! Turn away from this, and toward love.” I still feel like a change in policies and taxes are a necessary part of fixing this, but it’s not going to happen without this piece: “What’s needed is a change of heart–a world where it’s just unthinkable to let someone suffer while you live in comfort.” That’s the attitude I want to send my kids into the world with.

    xmartinj, this is a great, important perspective to bring into the conversation: “As soon as I say $25mil a year is ludicrous, I have to remember that most of the world’s population would look at my life with the same incredulity.” Yesterday I tweeted a #lovelist item sparked by your comment and others: “I love being able to share something I’m pondering, and then watch all kinds of wisdom & thought pour in from others.”

    Gen, I guess what you’re pointing out about it not being a new problem, and being even worse globally, is exactly what I worry about—that we’ll just get accustomed to this being “the way the world works,” and we’ll grow complacent. Your take on New York living makes a lot of sense to me, but I’ve only visited several times and talked to friends who live there, I’ve never lived there myself. Any New Yorkers out there want to comment? :) And finally, I completely agree with your last paragraph—having a bit to worry about gives you a creative edge. At the same time, I believe everyone finds something to worry about. Some people are just worrying what to feed their kids for dinner while others are worrying that they don’t have the right shoes to go with that dress.

    Linwood’s Girl, I think I could stand to translate a lot of the anger and frustration in my life into sadness and disappointment. It would serve me well. I tend to get worked up, though. Maybe the good in that is it spurs a post and conversation like this? Thanks for jumping in!

  • Trina

    Oh, such a great post Kristen. I am looking forward on catching up on what your readers think on this topic.

    For me, I know I cant solve the issue, I know many do not see this as an issue. I decided many years ago to let go of what ‘they do/want’ and chose to live by the addage ‘less IS more’. I too was/am discusted by excess – in more areas than just square footage or price. I do this first by appreciating my small home (990sqft) for its location and large yard space. When it feels a bit too small, I think of my fmaily in Holland who thrive in even less space. I do not see moving up to a newer, ‘better’ neighbourhood as a measure of my success.

    Before I ramble on, I would like to say it isn’t the cost of the real estate that disgusts me so, but the ideology saying that it’s desirable…. I do look at celebrity excess with disgust though, often thinking if only they would live ‘reasonably’ – what could be done with all that money…

    Parlaying those thoughts into what I model for my kids can be summed up with a recent comment back from my daughter when we were discussing a fee for a camp – she responded with ‘experiences over things, right Mom?’ – though self serving, I could not have been more proud of her. Plus, grateful my message was making it’s way through.

  • Trina

    My apologies for the name type Kristin. :-)

  • Trina

    OK, I see from reading the comments now, and your responses to them – I have missed part of your point. I focused on the how I live my life in response to the ‘haves’. I dont make many choices in my life based on the ‘have nots’ – thats just the truth. Having admitted that though, I live my life the best I know how, for my family. If ‘we’ want to live our lives so no other individual ‘suffers’, we need to live more like Mother Teresa. How far are we willing to go?

  • Kristin T.

    Jennifer, the situation you describe would be very frustrating for me. I don’t know if I could handle it with as much grace as you do. Jason and I are friends with people from a broad range of socio-economic categories. It doesn’t always bother me, which makes me think it’s not about the wealth (or poverty), it’s about how people carry themselves, interact with others and generally respond to what they have (or don’t have). Our town is a bit odd, too. Here, a PhD from a top school carries more weight and prestige than owning a mansion.

    Trina, I’m really glad you shared with us how you live your life, in response to the “haves.” As you pointed out, that’s the most important thing we can do—decide how we want to respond, and in essence “walk the talk.” It sounds like the message is getting through to your kids, too, which is the other important part of the equation—sending kids into adulthood with wisdom, compassion and good decision-making skills. Maybe they can help shift the narrative around wealth and poverty.

  • Carla

    Every time I think about the tens of thousands of dollars that come out of my pocket for out-pocket-medical expenses (for an incurable chronic illness), I think about the hundreds of people who die everyday in this country from lack of healthcare.

    How can be balance this huge issue? What should the people who “have” do? I guess a huge burden falls on big business (ie. insurance companies) for instance.

  • Kristin T.

    Carla, I completely hear you—healthcare is a huge factor in all of this disparity. As a freelance writer, I have to buy my insurance, but I haven’t faced the sort of medical expenses you have. I’m amazed that you can think of people who are worse off than you, rather than just feel angry about your own situation. I don’t have the answers, but please keep sharing your story and asking the important questions, like the ones you asked here. It’s a mercy and justice issue that MUST be addressed.