(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!
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.
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.
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 email@example.com -- please include "Gimme Shelter" in the subject line.)
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?
(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
Stella White Fisher (artlife) Wed 4 Mar 09 11:56
<scribbled by artlife Wed 4 Mar 09 14:56>
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
. (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.
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
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?)
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!
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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