Owning a home has long played a significant role in the American story; the notion that buying a house is the stepping stone to wealth and happiness goes back a long time. But the housing bubble has burst, and many local homeowners are living in the shadow of the white picket fence. This is Part 1 of a WBUR series: The Depreciating American Dream.
BOSTON — Calvin and Ateiya Sangster thought they were doing the right thing for their one-year-old son and unborn daughter, thought they were laying the foundation for a life of prosperity. Four years ago, they bought a condominium in Mattapan.
Soon after moving in, there was a candle in the driveway. Turns out, Ateiya's coworker put it there.
"She happened to come to me and say, 'Oh, you live at this address?' " Ateiya said. "And she’s like, 'Yeah, I put that there for my brother. He was killed in your driveway.' So, you know, it was kind of too late, we was already there when we started finding out a lot of things about the street."
Things like the man who squatted in the foyer of their building. Or the addicts that rang their doorbell. They'd ask for one, two dollars, Ateiya says. Another time her wedding ring was stolen.
But none of that compared to the summer day when they had their windows open. Ateiya and Calvin heard two people arguing — right outside — on the sidewalk. They went to the window to see what was going on.
"They just started fighting and tussling," Calvin said. "And once he had the guy on the ground he pulled out the gun and started shooting him with it."
Their newborn daughter was in the room, too.
"And that’s where we were like, 'We can’t keep her up here anymore,' " he said. "It’s just too much going on out here. I can’t wait to get off of this street."
Now Calvin wonders why they were in such a hurry to get on the street — why they were in such a hurry to buy.
Calvin fell in love with Ateiya — the way she looked at him with her steady brown eyes. She liked the way his bright teeth jumped out whenever he laughed, which was a lot. And when Calvin, Jr. — C.J. — was born, they were renting in Dorchester from Calvin’s grandmother. She lived on the next floor. His mom was around the corner.
"I was very content," Calvin said.
They had it pretty good: a big two-bedroom apartment for $800. Ateiya was working and Calvin was training to be a union electrician. And they were putting money away. Not bad for a 23-year-old father and 20-year-old mother.
Then one day Calvin’s good friend, and C.J.’s godfather, came over. This friend had just become a realtor. He told Calvin that paying a mortgage probably wouldn't be much more than the rented apartment.
"That’s when I started getting drawn in," Calvin said. "Then he started saying all the pluses to owning. 'You know you can resell it and make more money,' and that’s where it caught my eye. I started thinking businesswise."
Calvin talked Ateiya into it. "Dumb me," he said, laughing.
A Moldy Bathroom, Jumping Interest Rates
At $170,000, the condo seemed like a good deal. But once they moved in, things started falling apart at the seams.
"You can see the house is kinda slanted this way," Calvin said. "Because the floor became uneven the tiles started cracking and, you know, I tried to lay some laminate floor down but I’m not that great at it. It was my first time ever. You can see I still got a hole up there from my electrical wire."
Calvin and Ateiya were paying $700 more to live in their condo than in their old apartment — almost twice as much. Add to that thousands of dollars more in repairs. Appliances crapped out. Doors wouldn’t close. Mold bloomed in the bathroom. The young parents feared they were hurting baby Aneiya and Calvin, Jr.
"We actually came in here one day when he was taking a bath, and he had a piece of paint in his mouth," Calvin said. "And that’s when I was like, 'Oh no, it’s too much.' "
So they spent close to $10,000 renovating the bathroom, figuring they would get it back down the road, anyway.
Then, two years in, the interest rate jumped. Calvin and Ateiya refinanced to get a fixed mortgage payment. Suddenly they owed $190,000.
But they were still hanging on to a dream they knew so well but didn’t really understand: the dream of homeownership. And then Calvin finished his training as an electrician. His pay almost doubled.
Calvin was happy. It was fleeting.
"I just graduated from school, I’m making the money and five days later — five days later — my foreman comes: 'Calvin, I need to talk to you.' Ugh, I couldn’t believe it. I knew what was coming because he never talks to me." Calvin manages to laugh again.
Laid off, money was only going out. Month after month, one thought kept coming back to Calvin: How much cash would they have in the bank if they’d just kept renting in Dorchester from his grandmother? That vanished number, which he calculates is about $80,000, amazes him still.
And it pains him, too, because $80,000 happens to be about all his condo is worth today.
"I’ve been regretting owning for a long time now," he said. "I really regret owning."
Calvin knew he had to figure out how to get that debt, that regret, off his shoulders. He had to make things better for his family.
Six months ago, Calvin and Ateiya decided. They stopped paying the mortgage. They’re giving up the condo.
Last week the couple started painting a new rental apartment. Their new old one, really. Because this week they’re moving back into the same building where they used to rent. His grandmother’s still on the next floor. Rent is still $800. Calvin’s mom still lives around the corner.
She stopped by to check out their new start — and the fresh coat of paint. At first, she wasn't sure about their color schemes, but she says she likes what they ended up with.
It was so obvious, Calvin says. But it was so hard to admit that buying was a bad decision. At first, it felt like he was going backwards, losing his house. But now, he feels like he took a big step forward by going back to renting.
"Back at the bottom of it, but I feel more comfortable being at the bottom of the stepping stone than where we were," Calvin said. "I feel much more comfortable coming back here."
It was a costly lesson. The Sangsters had to give up their own place in order to come home.