For years my husband and I have nurtured the dream of homeownership, and when it finally came true last year, we were in heaven…but then reality caught up to us, as we ran into people who didn’t think we looked the part.
We live in a condominium complex. All the units are privately owned, and some of the unit owners rent their units to tenants. So there are two factions in my complex: owners and renters. We are live-in owners. Last year, at the beginning of the summer, we were told to report to the management office to pick up our pool-membership cards. When I arrived to pick up the cards, I gave our name and unit number, only to be told, “You need to get your landlord’s permission in order to pick up your cards.” I told the office manager that I was the owner of the unit, not a renter, but she remained unconvinced. Finally I told her I would be more than happy to run back to my condo, get my deed, and bring it back to show it to her. Her incredulity finally abated, and she handed over the cards.
Funny, wasn’t it, that this woman wouldn’t believe I owned my condo until I volunteered to show her my deed? I asked myself what it was about me that caused her to think I was a renter. Was it because I wasn’t swathed in designer labels and made no pains to smooth out my city accent? Did I look young? I may never know.
A few months later, my husband and I reported to our local polls to vote. We struck up a conversation with an affluent-looking woman from our neighborhood. Instead of asking us where we lived, she said, “You live in the condos, don’t you?” Well, yes, we did, but what gave it away? What about us told her that we didn’t looking like the single-home-owing type? Like the situation with the office manager, were our lack of designer labels and our heavy city accents a dead giveaway that we were out of our element? We may never know.
Many people believe that social class, unlike race and gender, can be easily concealed. I say you can’t always slap a bandage on it and assume no one will know. There are certain outward markers — accents, mannerisms, ways of dress, etc. — that give broad hints as from which side of the tracks you hail. The office manager assumed we were too poor to own; the woman at the polls assumed we were too poor to own a single home. In each case, the way we spoke, dressed, and acted were tip-offs as to our place in society and, for these women, determinants as to our probability of owning a home, or a certain type of home, or no home at all.
Another thing I learned from these incidents is that homeownership is a boundary in a class divide: Those who are fortunate enough to own their own homes are much higher up the social ladder than those who rent. By this rubric, I should be on top. But what I was never told is that once I reached the top, I would meet people there who would judge how worthy I was to be there and treat me accordingly.