inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #0 of 79: (dana) Tue 3 Mar 09 14:40
    
It's our pleasure to welcome our own Mary Elizabeth Williams to the
Inkwell.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is the culture critic for Public Radio
International's morning show, The Takeaway. She also writes for
Salon.com and hosts Table Talk, its reader community. Her byline has
appeared in the New York Times, New York Observer, Fast Company,
Parents, Yoga Journal, and numerous other publications. 

Her first book, Gimme Shelter (Simon & Schuster, 2009) chronicles her
misadventures in New York City during the housing bubble, and the
economic and cultural circumstances that took the US from an all-time
ownership rate to an unprecedented level of default and foreclosure. 
Mary Elizabeth is the cohost of the popcult and byline conferences on
the WELL.

Leading the discussion is Jeffrey McManus. Jeffrey has spent nearly a
decade as a consultant, developer, and writer. He has written or
co-written six books on technology and regularly speaks to corporate
groups on strategic and tactical issues pertaining to emerging
technologies. 

Jeffrey has also developed and manages the consumer document-sharing
site Approver.com. With his daughter Celeste, he hosts a science blog
for kids at KidScientist.com. He co-hosts the pop culture and genx
conferences on The WELL, and his personal blog is at
http://blog.jeffreymcmanus.com.

Welcome, Mary Elizabeth and Jeffrey!
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #1 of 79: Jeffrey McManus (jeffreyp) Tue 3 Mar 09 15:09
    
Thanks, Dana.

So I'm in the process of reading the book right now, although I'm not done 
yet (it greets me every night on my bedstand). One thing that struck me as 
someone who purchased a home in the only slightly less absurd housing 
market of San Francisco is how familiar the cast of characters are -- I 
find myself re-living our experience of the first time we bought a house.

But I was also struck by the fact that this is one of those stories where
you kinda know how it's gonna end, like the epic legends that were
appropriated by Shakespeare back in the day -- the story isn't about how
it ends, but how everybody gets there and what casualties occur along the
way.

With this in mind I did flip to the end and read the Prologue first. It's 
a terrific contextualization of where the overheated housing market has 
gotten us to today, and it serves as an excellent bookend to your story, 
MB.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #2 of 79: Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Wed 4 Mar 09 04:58
    


Thanks so much, Jeffrey and Dana and everybody! I really appreciate how well
you got it there about the outcome.

When people ask me about the book, I do tell them -- I don't want to give
away any spoilers but... the whole housing market goes to HELL.

And one of the things that surprised me in doing the prologue was how many
people who'd assumed they were well embedded in their living situations
wound up changing them. I think for a lot of us, the purchase of a home
represents a kind of permanance. But that is just so completely not the
reality of life.

I'm looking forward to hearing from everybody here about their own housing
sagas. It's such a personal quest, and most of us wind up having war
stories.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #3 of 79: Dana Reeves (dana) Wed 4 Mar 09 10:03
    
(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added
to this conversation by emailing them to inkwell@well.com -- please
include "Gimme Shelter" in the subject line.)
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #4 of 79: Jeffrey McManus (jeffreyp) Wed 4 Mar 09 11:22
    
Dana, is there a public URL that we can refer off-Well people to get to
this topic?
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #5 of 79: (dana) Wed 4 Mar 09 11:38
    
Why yes there is:

http://www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/topics/348/Mary-Elizabeth-Williams-
Gimme-Sh-page01.html
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #6 of 79: Stella White Fisher (artlife) Wed 4 Mar 09 11:56
    <scribbled by artlife Wed 4 Mar 09 14:56>
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #7 of 79: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 4 Mar 09 15:03
    
Oops, looks like that wrapped and broke.  Try 
 http://tinyurl.com/b68oxh

Loved the descriptions of the smells of the fixer-uppers... that stays
with any home-hunter. I remember looking at a place once with a hole
rotted thru the living room floor, and mushrooms growing around the
rim, all from a drip unpatched for years.  Scary smells!

There is always such a range of places in a given price range, from
the choke-inducingly squalid to the carefully staged complete with
scented candles or baking bread.

This book brings all of that back with a shudder and a laugh.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #8 of 79: reader (artlife) Wed 4 Mar 09 15:09
    
<6> scribbled for a good reason

i am just about finished reading this, and i really relate to the
roller coaster MB describes

the absurdity of the housing prices for the real-time quality of the
properties just blew me away when i was looking to buy - and i did
this dance twice

a lot of crap for a lot of money

many compromises must be made when one's budget is set, but somehow,
you learn to live with them and family life takes over

my second house had a stove that was probably there when the house was
built in 1952

the kitchen was small and separate from the dining room and living
room

so as a cook, remodeling the kitchen was first on my list - and when i
bought the house, i had grand plans for tearing down a wall, putting
in a banquette and adding french doors to the backyard from the kitchen

but first i had to buy a new furnace, then remove asbestos, then xypex
seal the lower level, and put on new gutters

so that my money went for essential repairs and needs - mostly stuff i
could not even see!

and in 12 years, all i ever did in the kitchen was refinish the
butcher block countertops myself and put in a new dishwasher

somehow, i managed to turn out fabulous meals on less than optimal
equipment

the tradeoff was a great location where my kids could walk to a good
public school in a safe neighborhood

i loved MS's wry observations that are both descriptive and funny -
although i imagine some of these things were not funny at the time

but she demonstrates a good perspective, and her honesty in describing
her feelings made this book a lot of fun to read

well, fun until one realizes that the cost of housing is still
ridiculous and now we are in a terrible financial crisis as well
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #9 of 79: Mrs. Bigby Hind (jessica) Wed 4 Mar 09 15:10
    
Having experienced the ups and downs (ups: prices; downs: the pits of my
despair) of trying to find a good rental in your old neighborhood before we
decamped to Queens and then to Long Island, where we bought a tiny house for
a lot of money, I felt every ounce of your struggle as I read this book --
rapidly and without wanting to put it down. I think you really capture the
experience of trying to make your way in an overheated market, and trying to
figure out where you fit into this whole notion of the American
Dream=homeownership.

Clearly the world of finance and housing markets looks a lot different upon
publication than it did while you were going through this, and probably
things changed radically even as you were writing and preparing the book for
publication. How did this affect the project of creating this book?
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #10 of 79: Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 4 Mar 09 17:28
    
I must get a copy of this book.  I'm loving everyone's house musings thus
far.  We bought just before the top of the market, so I am one of those that
has lost a big chunk of value in the home I bought.  The only saving grace
is we didn't have to put anything into it other than our own aesthetic.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #11 of 79: Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Wed 4 Mar 09 17:37
    
I bought almost 15 years ago, sold 5 years ago, and am now a renter
again, probably for life, since there's no way even post-bubble that
housing prices will ever fall back within my grasp. (And yes, I still
miss my home and think of it as "my home." If I could have moved it
from Boston to San Francisco, I would have. It's true, I thought it
would be forever when I moved in, but life has a way of being
unpredictable.)

So of course, I swallowed the whole book in a single reading,
trembling at some points and grinning at others. Who'd have thought I'd
be so emotionally affected by a book about MORTGAGES? And yet it gave
me flashbacks -- especially to the experience of knowing that the
places I could afford were still practically out of my grasp, and that
the sacrifices I'd have to make to afford one made it questionably
worthwhile to try. 

Do you think that thinking of the experience as material helped you
get through it a little easier?
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #12 of 79: Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Thu 5 Mar 09 04:34
    

Wow, it's so heartening to hear from other folks about their own
experiences! You know, I wrote this in my own little chamber of thinky
thoughts, and now what I want for the next phase of the process is for this
to become a dialogue. We ALL have stories, we've all been there. And I
believe we need to talking about what happened in the housing market in this
country if we're ever going to figure out where to go from here.

Jessica, I started taking notes very early in the process, and I first
shopped around a book proposal in 2005. I couldn't GIVE this idea away then.
I was really close to just self publishing the damn thing.

Then I finally got my "ending" -- bought a place, changed agents. By then
the writing was on the wall and housing was becoming an issue. That was
2007. Now it's 2009 and it's THE issue. I feel like, our global economic
meltdown is my good timing!

Fawn, you totally NAILED how I felt about writing this. At times it's
horrible and wrenching and did I mention horrible? reliving your life but...
My friend Dan Kennedy, who has written two hilarious and self deprecating
memoirs, told me once, "Are we lucky? When stuff happens to us, we get to
*write* about it!" And there were times in the process when it was really
hellish  and I could think, this will make the story better someday.

Yes, my coping methods are probably just a little insane.

A photographer friend was mentioning recently the John Mayer lyric "hoping I
would see the world with both my eyes." I think for those of us who write or
take pictures or sing  songs, that penchant for seeing life as grist can be
our best blessing and our Achilles heel.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #13 of 79: Paula Span (pspan) Thu 5 Mar 09 08:28
    
It's always a nauseating process, even when the economy is not in freefall.
Just to write those enormous checks, pore over the inspection report hoping
the inspector didn't miss some crucial item, hope against hope that two
weeks after moving in you don't discover the neighbors love to practice the
tuba at midnight...
But it's way worse in New York City (and Boston and San Francisco) than in
most places.

I personally tried to lure Ms Williams here into moving to leafy yet
sophisticated Montclair, N.J., where I've been a renter and homeowner for 25
years.  I doubt it takes me any longer to get to midtown Manhattan than it
takes her from Inwood.  (Yes, we do have public transit.)  But she always
refused.

So my question: why were you so committed to living in the city, a choice
that many of us would like to make if we had a million two to spend on a two
bedroom flat, but most of us can't?
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #14 of 79: Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 5 Mar 09 12:21
    
I'm loving this.
nauseating just about perfectly describes my feelings about the home buying
experience.  The only part I liked was the looking and the moving in.
Everything in between sucked.

leafy living and city living are so different.  i can completely understand
why one wouldn't even consider one over the other.  I'd be with Ms. Williams
in Inwood before I'd be in Montclair, but i think Montclair is lovely - just
not for me.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #15 of 79: Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Thu 5 Mar 09 13:18
    
<cue MB, beehive askew> They tried to make me go to Monclair, I said no, no
no....

On a personal level, I'm a city person. I grew up in Jersey City, so the
metro NYC area is in my blood. I like bumping in to people on the street,
striking up a conversation on the subway. It's just who I am.

I think home is SUCH a personal issue, and I am not at all dogmatic about
it. I totally totally get it that my crazy dysfunctional overpriced city is
not everybody's idea of home sweet home. But it's mine.

And if I can tear myself away from own head for a minute -- I think it is
really, really a big deal that cities be able to sustain middle class
people, and creative people. More Americans are living in urban areas than
ever before in our history. They cannot all be bajillionaires, illegal
immigrants, and tourists. If that's the case we have a big problem on our
hands. Cities need the people who work in schools and offices and hospitals,
they need working, non-trust-fund writers and artists.

So, as drop in the bucket as this may sound, my staying here and raising my
kids here is also a statement. This is my home, and regular people like me
should be able to live and work and sometimes thrive in cities. And as god
as my witness, neither Al Quaeda nor the fact that there's an Olive Garden
in Chelsea are going to drive my ass out.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #16 of 79: Gail Williams (gail) Thu 5 Mar 09 15:05
    
Very interesting having this conversation follow Laura's Narnia book
conversation.  I hadn't thought about it, but both are in no small part
books about topofilia, the love of place.

I think a lot of us coastal California urbanites can relate. Fires? 
Earthquakes?  Drought? Housing costs? Those are supposed to make us 
want to live in Reno, Raleigh or Dayton?  

I don't think so.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #17 of 79: It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Thu 5 Mar 09 16:41
    
I'm looking forward to reading this book. 

I had a great loft in Providence that I bought in 1992.  I paid it off in 
full, it tripled in value, and then ....

I fell in love, and moved to Yonkers NY to an 1895 Victorian that needed a 
lot of work in a neighborhood that out-Bronxes the Bronx in some way.

I got a mortgage on my apartment  in order to get a mortgage on my new 
house in Yonkers In order to make it all work, we are one of those "No 
Verified Income" loans -- 

Which means I went from having 1 house and no debt to having 2 houses and 
about $500K in debt.  And the market's dropped 30% or so.  Yay me!

Fortunately for me so far, I've got a renter in my Providence loft, my 
wife has a really good job, and we haven't been late on our mortgage yet 
(we're actually paying the principal  down)  but it's very very tight.

But enough about me!

MB-- how did the book proposal change as the economy changed? (If it did?)
And how did you keep the despair from running down your face and into your 
Cosmo?
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #18 of 79: Philippe Habib (phabib) Thu 5 Mar 09 17:45
    
I'm about half way through the book now, given how I only started it
less than 24 hours ago and I've been busy doing house construction
during a lot of it that says how much I've been enjoying it.  I only
had to go through buying once and that was 25 years ago but it all came
back as I was reading.  I'm looking forward to reading the rest and
joining the discussion.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #19 of 79: Mary Elizabeth Williams (marybeth) Fri 6 Mar 09 04:20
    
Thank you Philippe!

And Gail, I know. I've heard a lot of "well, that's what you get for living
in New York!" and I'm like, I'm just not convinced Dayton is the answer
here.

Adam, I wince in sympathy. It's all going to get better, right? RIGHT?

The original proposal was more about me me meeeee than even I can be
expected to stomach. I worked with my second agent to broaden it with more
about my friends across the country (some of whom you may recognize from
this very online community!). As  I went through the whole shebang myself,
it just became more and more apparent how complicated and built to fail the
whole housing and mortgage industry were. Here's the thing -- I'm not an
economics person, I'm not a business minded person. But you know, I have a
decent education and I speak English as a first language and I thought -- if
this system is this complicated and scary and frequently flat out misleading
to me, what's it like for anybody who doesn't have my advantages?

And it became very very important for me to try to see if I, as a regular
layman, could make any sense of the whole damn mess. I don't need to run the
treasury, but if the system is fraught with this much confusing information
and potentially devastating fine print, it HAS TO be reformed.

I couldn't have imagined, when I started the original proposal, that that
would turn out to be such a big part of it for me. I'm really pretty
evangelical now.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #20 of 79: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 6 Mar 09 04:30
    
>>> if this system is this complicated and scary and frequently flat
out misleading to me, what's it like for anybody who doesn't have my
advantages? <<<

I've had exactly this thought lately as I go through the house-buying
experience. It's not my first time but it's my first time in a while,
and I am amazed that it is still as bad as ever.

I've also had the same thought about medical care. 
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #21 of 79: . (wickett) Fri 6 Mar 09 06:42
    

Exactly why I fought many of the battles I took on as a gimp.  If I,
educated and fierce, was having such difficulty, what of everyone else?

A knowledgeable, persevering, clear-headed vanguard is exactly what is
needed to help others and then reform that which is broken.
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #22 of 79: Jeffrey McManus (jeffreyp) Fri 6 Mar 09 09:29
    
MB, I'm about halfway through this. Couple questions:

1) At what point did you think this experience was going to be book-worthy
from the start? Did you sit back and say "somebody needs to write a book
about this carnival of absurdity called home-buying" or did it sort of
happen after the fact?

2) I'm amazed at the way you seamlessly jump back and forth between the
technical aspects of home-buying and the personal story of you and your
family -- that's got to be challenging to do and it's one of the things I
like most about this story. I was curious about what your organizational
process is? I keep imagining outlines like:

1. Credit-default swaps
  1a. Wall street weasels
  1b. Shifty mortgage brokers
  1c. Baby poop
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #23 of 79: Jeffrey McManus (jeffreyp) Fri 6 Mar 09 11:34
    
Also with you 100% on the urban-kid-raising-as-social-statement thing. I 
think that events of the past six months are validating our choices. 
(Maybe that's a topic for the next book?)
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #24 of 79: Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Fri 6 Mar 09 12:07
    
I have to say that part of the fun of reading this was playing spot-the-
people-I-know!
  
inkwell.vue.348 : Mary Elizabeth Williams, Gimme Shelter
permalink #25 of 79: reader (artlife) Fri 6 Mar 09 12:12
    
i was amazed to read about all the hoops you went through at the end,
just to get to the closing - i cannot imagine the stress

in california, i never used a lawyer - i had my buyer's and seller's
agents, the title company person, my mortgage broker and a home
inspector

these were single family dwellings, so no boards

MB how are you liking your home and your neighborhood? 
  

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