Glass Houses

How often do we pause to think about the spaces that have formed us? I don’t do it often, but I recently drove past my uncle’s old apartment and had the stark realization that I would never form another memory there again.

The house on Yarrow St. becomes the heart of The Turner House, just as it is the heart of the Turner family. It becomes a liminal space where Francis and Viola are able to feel hope, where Cha-Cha’s haint resides, and where Lelah lives after being evicted. In a literal sense, the house is an asset to the family; in a figurative sense, it is a security blanket—the place where Lelah and Cha-Cha go when they have nowhere else.

The chapters set in the 2000s show us that the house is not in the same condition as it once was. It’s not in the safest neighborhood, it needs work, but that doesn’t diminish the memories and milestones associated with a home. However, when faced with a crisis, this sentimentality often seems to come second to pragmatism and numbers.

The Big Short gives us the numbers, the evidence, the how. It fulfills our immediate, innate craving for information. It makes us into detectives hot on Wall St.’s tail. We blame the subprime industry, Wall St. itself, and anything we can to make sense of the disaster. We scornfully disapprove of AIG, Bear Sterns, Deutsche Bank, and whoever else engaged in predatory lending. We listen to Eisman’s speech, “Why This Time is Different” and think to ourselves, boy, was he right! It satisfies our craving for knowledge, but some things are too subjective to really be known.

It’s not possible to crunch thoughts and feelings down into a science. They are unique to every individual’s experience. However, fiction allows us to explore the realm of the subjective. In the more recent chapters of The Turner House, the family is struggling to decide between keeping the house on Yarrow St. or selling it. Some siblings have strong attachments to the house, but others worry that keeping the house is not worth the monthly payments.

As the chapters move forward, the siblings begin to think that Cha-Cha wants to sell the house. Marlene gives him an ultimatum via text message:

“I’m too upset to pick up the phone. I hear you’re moving forward with the short sale. If you sell that house I will never forgive you. I don’t put down my foot on anything in this family, not ever. But you do this, and you break my heart. Not trying to be dramatic, just how I feel.”

The Turner House, pp. 198.

Marlene’s response to Cha-Cha possibly short selling the house fills in the blanks that hard numbers and evidence can’t fill. A house is far more than brick and mortar, it is a place where memories and feelings are preserved. A house is a freezer for the subjective human experiences that can’t be measured and studied.

Nothing is really free. The Turner family house, a box of memories and legacies passed on through generations, is valued at $4,000 (half the price of my Pontiac vibe.) Yet, after 57 years of owning the house of Yarrow St., the family still owes $40,000. These numbers show us another narrative:

Francis and Viola buy the house when Cha-Cha is seven, in 1951. According to the United States Census of Housing, the unadjusted average value of a house in Michigan was 7,496 in 1950. With adjustments that number looks more like, $45,400. If we were to assume that the house on Yarrow St. costs similar to this average, that would mean that after 57 years, the Turner family had barely paid off 10% of the original cost. This, of course, is not the case once the effects of interest rates and other fees are factored into the equation. Then, another number to consider is the number of Turner children. Each of the thirteen siblings would need to pay roughly $3,100 to keep the house as an asset in the family, which is roughly 75% of the house’s current value.

As someone who can’t even balance a checkbook, I can’t interpret this information in an informed way. However, I can observe the absurdity of the situation. 57 years of payments and 15 different individuals are not sufficient means to keep a house that is currently valued at $4,000. Something is not right about this. Imagine how many other families experience the same dilemma over half a century, and then try to imagine when exactly this bubble started to form.

It is no secret that inflation and bad loans add to the confusion that everyday people like me have. The numbers just don’t make sense to me. How is anyone supposed to buy a house if the amount they owe only seems to increase, while incomes remain stagnant? Something doesn’t add up. Among the dozens of explanations and calculations featured in The Big Short, nothing seems to balance this equation.

Eventually, the family is caught in a push and pull of sentimentality and pragmatism. The house becomes so burdensome that Cha-Cha and Troy wonder if it is worth keeping. As the narrator words it, “humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to brick and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time”. I understand this to an extent; the things we own are not what define us. However, it is interesting to compare the situations of our protagonists in The Big Short, to the Turner Family. Yes, The Turner House is a work of fiction, but it is based on real people: the author’s family.

Eisman, Burry, and Vinny play central roles in discovering and exposing the 2008 subprime mortgage industry collapse but are merely spectators compared to the people who are deeply affected. None of them would struggle to pay a $40,000 mortgage, and could probably pay the $3,100 each Turner sibling would owe upfront.

It will always be interesting to observe what those with power and privilege do in the weeks leading up to a crisis. The crash of 2008 revealed the social Darwinism underlying American culture. Now, it is 2020, and we are on the verge of another crisis. As COVID-19 sweeps across the States and the rest of the world, the stock market is doing a familiar dance.

News came out as recently as today, that some members of congress began selling stocks after the COVID-19 briefing on January 24th, and then proceeded to vote against the relief bill. Much like how those who predicted the stock market crash of 2008 were able to line their pockets before the consequences fell onto the most vulnerable.

This is evidence that privilege allows some people to have stronger foundations than others. For the Turners, there is not a clear distinction from one catastrophe to the next. They don’t suddenly owe $40,000 on their house in a matter of weeks. However, these events still impact their lives, and may even force them to sell the house of Yarrow St. Rather than dwelling on one instance, The Turner House alludes to something more systemic. The narrator exposes us to the earliest cracks in the foundation when telling of Francis Sr.’s death as a sharecropper. Then again as they allude to the fail of the auto industry in Detroit, and again as see how insurance companies handle Cha-Cha’s accident, and again, with how Lelah is affected by the rising unemployment rate. When the foundation finally breaks, we must critique the system that built it, rather than the people who are living on it.

As Karl Marx once said, “revolutions are the locomotives of history”. Who knows what this new decade will bring…

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