When my father, aunt, and uncle decided to pool their money to buy my grandmother a house closer to one of her children, they didn’t need to look far. The house next door to mine had just gone up for sale.
I had played with the children who lived next door for years, so my father asked me what the inside of the house was like. “I don’t think you want to buy that house,” I told him. He was confused—the house was in perfect condition on the outside, a cute little colonial-style two-story. Yes, it was built in 1921, but it had an immaculately kept lawn and a big tree with a swing in the backyard.
But the inside of the house looked nothing like the outside. The owners had started renovating years before, but stopped midway through when money got tight. There were no walls in the kitchen and dining room, and no flooring. Old knob-and-tube wiring hung, exposed, from the studs. One planned bathroom had barely been started, it was just exposed pipes in the wall. The basement had a dirt floor that got muddy when it rained, and the washing machine was propped on plywood in the corner.
An exposed stud in the kitchen was a sad testimony to the history of the house. The heights of the family’s three children were marked there, starting when each child was 2. By the time the family moved, they were in their 20s—proof that the house had been unfinished for decades. My family thought I was lying until they saw for themselves.
“I can’t believe they lived like that,” my dad said, “all those years.”
The house next door is a symptom of and a metaphor for the larger phenomenon of suburban poverty. Americans have ready-made stereotypes for poverty in urban and rural areas, of crime-filled streets and crumbling housing projects or broken-down farmhouses and beat-up pick-up trucks. But suburban poverty, thanks to its stereotype-defying nature, is often more difficult to understand.
My family bought that house, and the more than two acres of land it sat on, for $20,000. The sale notice in the local paper caused a scandal in my suburban community—housing prices in the region are low, but not that low. Neighbors were unwilling to believe that $20,000 was all that house, with its pleasing exterior, was worth.
As my family worked to renovate the house, we realized that we had much more in common with the family next door than we thought. My father, a cabinet maker, had always gotten along well with the machinist patriarch of the house next door. They bonded over a shared identity as working-class men, relating to each other’s long shifts and six-day work weeks. But my dad hadn’t realized how much his neighbors struggled. They had seemed so much more prosperous from across the property line.