Life

Do the People Who Live in This House Have the Right to Be “Struggling”?

Taking the bait of rich-person budget outrage doesn’t help anyone.

196 Lefferts Place on Google Street View.
196 Lefferts Place.
Google Street View screenshot

This is a house.

It is a nice house, but not an extravagant one. It sits next to a house in disrepair, and another house that is kept up. If you notice, there are two doors. The address 196 Lefferts Place, Brooklyn, New York, is divided into two homes, and the house I am talking about is Unit B, consisting of the upper floors of the structure. The cost to be the proud owner of 196 Lefferts Place, Unit B, is $1.395 million. I bet you can get them down to $1.35 million pretty easily.

If you live in a house, it’s probably bigger than this. This house is 1,503 square feet, while the average American home is 2,641 square feet.

If you live in a house, it is probably in a safer neighborhood than this one. This house is in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, which is remarkably safer than it was 30 years ago at the height of the crack epidemic. But this house is still in the New York City precinct that has had the most murders in Brooklyn this year.

If you live in a house, your children likely go to a better school than the public school available to the children who live here. The zoned elementary school for this address has experienced teachers and seems like it’s improving, but its test scores are still far below the citywide average—and just being average in the city isn’t such a great place to be.

The house is a 45-minute commute from midtown, if the trains are running on time, which they aren’t always.

So the question is, at $1.4 million (and I’m telling you, you can get them down to 1.35), how much should a family earn, in salary, to afford this home? This smallish home, zoned for a below-average school, in a neighborhood that is not unsafe but is much less safe than other neighborhoods in the city. Do you have a number in mind? Good.

Here is the actual number: $550,000.

One rule of thumb is that a home should cost between two and two-and-a-half times a family’s annual income. There are other ways to calculate the home you can afford, and many of them depend on how much money one puts down, which depends on how much money one saves, which depends on how much money one makes (or inherits), but the point is, it is not an unreasonable assertion that a home worth upward of $1.5 million demands a income approaching the mid–six figures. It’s not just Brooklyn. You should earn half a million dollars a year to comfortably live in this San Francisco three-bedroom, or this truly beautiful home in Boston. (Of course, the listing, at $1.45 million, is for just the second floor of the pictured building.)

Which is why it was intellectually curious but emotionally predictable that the tweet pushing out this MarketWatch article—itself reframing this CNBC article—caused so many on the internet to lose their minds. Articles like these are written to provoke anyone with less money (that is, 98 percent of us) into paroxysms of outrage. A plucky Macedonian hacker could not social-engineer greater outrage-bait. Twitter users were apoplectic—

—indignant—

—and bedraggled.

I wasn’t surprised by the outrage—this discourse was occurring on Twitter, after all—but I was surprised with which parts of the family’s expenditures were seen as most outrageous. Take the food budget: $70 per day for a family of four works out to less than $6 per meal per person. One actual nutrition expert, blaming “caviar sandwiches,” advised that $1.46 a day is a more reasonable expenditure. Or take preschool. “24K a year on preschool! GTFOH,” a critic replied. And yet, that’s how much preschools in NYC cost. As someone who sent two kids through preschool before universal pre-K made them free for 4-year-olds, I wish they weren’t that expensive, but they are.

The word struggling in the headline was a special provocation, inspiring definitions of who can’t be seen as struggling. People with savings can’t be struggling:

People who pay their bills on time can’t be struggling:

People who take vacations can’t be struggling:

It should be noted that there is no actual family chronicled here. The source is a blogger named Sam Dogen who constructed a supposed ledger as “an example budget of a dual-income household with two kids.” Dogen, who blogs at a site called Financial Samurai, told me he modeled it after “an aspirational budget that I would consider having if I have two kids and stayed in San Francisco, where I’ve lived since 2001.” He came up with the $350,000 family salary based on a recent report indicating that the median home in San Francisco would require a minimum salary of $343,420.

Though the family is a fiction, and the framing at MarketWatch was intended to maximize outrage, it’s not as if the situation portrayed doesn’t exist. Urban dwellers in several North American cities will have to make $350,000 to be able to afford to buy a three-bedroom home in a neighborhood that isn’t necessarily ritzy, particularly safe, or home to great schools. No amount of real anger at a fake budget will change the reality that housing prices in many places are so high that, yes, if you’re not making what seems to be an obscene amount of money, you can’t afford to live what has long been the definition of a middle-class existence.

The interesting thing is not that class resentment is so easily baited—it’s that the same viciousness that is rightly decried in the service of commenting on the spending habits of the poor or millennials are seen as righteous when directed at those who are considered rich. When an Australian real estate mogul no one had ever heard of told millennials to quit their avocado toast habit, he was rightfully pilloried. But when it comes to wealthier people, let’s hear everyone’s suggestions! Because caviar sandwiches.

Could our fictional family move to Muskegon, Michigan, instead of living in an expensive city? Sure. Maybe their companies will let them work remotely, or maybe they’ll get a lower-paying job in Muskegon, or, hell, invent cold fusion. But even if those imaginary undertakings come to (imaginarily) pass, it does not change the fact that this normal house, in Brooklyn, will still require about half a million dollars to live in, as will many, many other normal houses in America’s high-priced cities.

The solutions, on a policy level, aren’t so different from the general solutions to the problems plaguing affordable housing everywhere. The government should subsidize and encourage more housing for all families, and supplement what building there is with more usable transportation. What citizens should do is vote for those policies—not fall into the traps of hating your fellow citizens (or the imaginary versions thereof) who do, indeed, struggle. Our (manipulated) outrage is unempathetic, adding to the anger in the world while doing nothing to achieve a solution. Next time you see a story like this, remember that.