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The Housing Bubble Saved My Home

Even though the house was just across town, a then-15-year-old William Brennan did everything in his power to keep his family from moving to Pheasant Manor. In the end, the decision wasn't his—or anyone else's—to make.
(Photo: cameravox/Flickr)

(Photo: cameravox/Flickr)

I hated the house.

My parents first took us to see it on a chilly day in March 2007, near my 16th birthday. It sat behind a row of fir trees, in a quiet neighborhood with aimless sidewalks. It had things our current house did not: a twisted secret staircase, a long hallway lined with children’s bedrooms, a circular driveway, a swimming pool—and a name, one mismatched to its tiny lot: Pheasant Manor. By all measures, Pheasant Manor was a perfect home; my parents and my siblings desperately wanted to live there.

I, on the other hand, found “the whole thing insufferable,” I wrote in my journal later that night. And as my parents tried to wrangle its owner—a down-on-his-luck doctor who needed cash—into selling it cheap, I waged an angst-fueled fight to thwart them.

"Home, to me, isn’t the place where you live, but the place where you can be most comfortable and where you form memories. For this inexorable reason, no place but this house will ever be my home."

THERE WAS A CASE to be made for moving. We—all nine of us—lived in a four-bedroom house across town, north of Philly. I shared a room with one of my brothers, our beds pushed end to end. Our older sister lived in the attic with a dysfunctional heating unit and a slanted ceiling. Few of us could remember the dreamy era of the single-occupancy bedroom, and so my brothers and sisters were understandably excited at the prospect of having more space, more privacy, and fewer late-night fights over noise leaking from headphones or the passive-aggressive use of book lights.

As we neared the height of the housing bubble, sellers across the country were still fetching double or triple the value of their homes. My parents had been eyeing Pheasant Manor for half a year, and it seemed an opportune moment to sell. The short distance, they thought, assured an easy transition. All in all, the move would have changed very few of my life’s practicalities: I’d go to the same high school; I’d belong to the same Boy Scout troop; I’d live in the same zip code.

But in a letter to my parents, I laid out my objections in the vernacular of the distressed teenager:

Beyond the fact that our family is a bit too large for our home, I find there is no reason to move.... A terrible thing (the most terrible thing) you could do to a certain one of your children (ME) is to force me to leave my home. There is no way for me to express how this house is an integral part of my daily ability to continue living.

I went on: “Home, to me, isn’t the place where you live, but the place where you can be most comfortable and where you form memories. For this inexorable reason, no place but this house will ever be my home.” (Note the very high-school use of “inexorable,” which I’d just picked up in English class.)

Yet when I look back on this letter (with a painful, self-recognizing cringe), what stands out most is everything I left out. It’s probably not a deeply original insight into the teenage condition to say I was concerned about my friends. We’d known each other since we were still unsteady on our feet. But where I once lived within blocks of them all, from Pheasant Manor, I knew, I couldn’t see them without getting a ride. My friends and I, connected to each other by sidewalks, were incessantly mobile. We’d meet on a Saturday at noon and walk around our town until midnight. On West Ave., we’d dare each other to see who could slip farthest down the lightless alleyway between the New Age apothecary and the vacuum-cleaner repair shop. We’d make our way down the main drag to knock on the frosted-glass door of Sunshine Spa—which, everyone knew, specialized in hot stone massage and handjobs—and then run for our lives when we heard footfall on the other side. We’d cross paths with other groups of kids our age (some friends, some foes), and the night could take a new direction. Up and down the streets, from one friend’s house to the next: My adolescent years, in memory, were spent entirely on foot.

Now, I imagined my mom dropping me off at a friend’s house, my friends at the windows, watching me step out of the car like a gravity-sick cosmonaut returning from a long trip to Venus—the same person, but changed by distance and increasingly out of step with the customs of home. I was terrified by the idea that a move across town would change me in my friends’ eyes, that it would turn me into someone different than I had been.

MY PARENTS RECEIVED MY letter with amusement more than sympathy. And so I drafted more letters—this time to the doctor himself. I warned him of my parents’ misguided intentions and begged him to sever ties with them. But when it came to slipping the letters in the mail, I chickened out. After the open houses began, I refused to clean my room. Once, in a rage, I threw a spoon at my mother in front of a potential buyer. The realtor—my best friend’s aunt—roared toward me, yelling “You 16-year-old brat!,” as she banished me from the house.

She had a point—and in voicing it, she’d laid bare the power dynamic that had me frustrated in the first place: that my sense of self was in the hands of people who chalked up my concerns to my age.

Except, our house wasn’t selling. Bolstered by the housing bubble, my parents had settled on a listing price so high even the bull market of early 2007 couldn’t lure any prospectors to our door. This high price, though, was borne of necessity: Since the doctor wouldn’t lower the price on Pheasant Manor, and my parents couldn’t afford a mortgage on it unless our house sold at the exorbitant price, they were at the mercy of the market.

In the end, our house did nothing but sit in the local real-estate listings for six months.

The attempted sale had taken a mental and physical toll on my parents. My mother, whose multiple sclerosis can flare up in stressful times, began to lose her balance; her legs felt weak, and standing for too long she’d become disoriented, as if she’d stepped into a hall of mirrors. My dad, in turn, shifted his priorities. Moving to Pheasant Manor had been an aspiration, not a necessity. Suddenly, they now say, the fantasy house lost its allure. On a breezy day in May, they pulled the FOR SALE sign from our lawn.

I remember walking down the street with my friends that night to get pizza, clear-headed and relaxed for the first time in months. My older sister went away to college a few months later, and my brother moved into the attic. Our house no longer seemed quite as cramped. In time, my mother regained her strength.

Yet just as my personal (and, admittedly, superficial) housing crisis came to an end, many other, more serious ones were beginning across the country. According to one survey, the period between late 2006 and mid-2007 saw the highest number of home loans in or approaching the foreclosure process since that survey began in 1970. It’s estimated that some 10 million Americans moved during the years of the Great Recession—most of them locally.

I recently asked my dad what kept us from moving in the end. He told me about the out-of-reach mortgage and the doctor and the exorbitant listing price. Unexpectedly, he added: “There was also a young man who lived in our house at the time, and he wrote a letter to his mother and father....”