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Home Improvement Can’t Fix America’s Pandemic Problem

Single-family rentals now comprise the fastest-growing segment of America’s housing market, suggesting that the great housing crisis of 2008 never really ended, but has rather just shifted its terrain of struggle.

A country of renters would present a contradiction for the image of autonomy that the home improvement industry pedals. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A country of renters would present a contradiction for the image of autonomy that the home improvement industry pedals. (Photo: Shutterstock)

According to polling research conducted by the Bank of America in late June of this year, 70% of American homeowners said that they also planned to use their time at home during the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to undertake renovation projects.

Since April, the twin titans of the DIY industry, Lowe’s and Home Depot, have both posted massive bumps in quarterly sales and marked upticks in their target prices for 2021. In turn, Elizabeth Suzuki, a senior analyst at BOA, predicts that home improvement is poised to evolve into a central pillar of post-pandemic life, as Americans further prioritize the spaces where they live, and increasingly, where they work.

There are few images that hold as much meaning for Americans, and in so many different ways, as the cultivation of a home. Home improvement symbolizes a cultural anchor of stability, a crucial financial asset, and a shelter from the precarity of a world in flux. The old adage, “a man’s home is his castle,” underscores this ideological link between personal home renovation and the consumption of security. On either end of its cultural history, the home improvement industry traffics in middle class fantasies of stability and refuge. Specifically during times of national crisis.

Stretching back to the racist histories of antebellum sharecropping, the Jim Crow South, and urban gentrification, rental housing in America has long perpetuated an unequal dynamic between the owner of a property and the tenet of that property.

In our shared exposure to the social risks laid bare by COVID-19, the lived realities of domestic isolation are at once common and divergent. For many, especially those who can afford it, investing in home improvement projects may seem like a prudent response. But to a larger extent, these investments have more to do with a collective longing for the way we think things used to be than they do with America’s current socioeconomic realities. During a pandemic that has no end in sight, the season of DIY domesticity will also be one of domestic struggle, revealing divisions of class, self-presentation, and place—something the home improvement industry has always done.

The growing racial wealth gap in America, which is so heavily influenced by the history of housing discrimination (most notably the redlining of non-white neighborhoods), continues to serve as both a product and a process that leads to the uneven accumulation of wealth in domestic space. This has a direct influence on investments in home improvement. Low wages, unemployment, and lack of access to affordable child care often keep many non-white and low- income households from engaging in costly and time consuming renovations. Cultural consumer theorist, Risto Moiso underlines this last point in a recent study, suggesting that many low- income homeowners approach DIY and home improvement projects as extensions of unremunerated work, rather than as auto-therapeutic forms of leisure and productive consumption.

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The structural imbalances between class and home renovation are even more noticeable for Americans that rent their homes. Stretching back to the racist histories of antebellum sharecropping, the Jim Crow South, and urban gentrification, rental housing in America has long perpetuated an unequal dynamic between the owner of a property and the tenet of that property. This uneven relationship drastically constricts the scope of domestic leisure activities for tenants, a fact recently illustrated by Chicago’s passing of a city ordinance that allows landlords to ban social gatherings on fire escapes, stoops, and apartment balconies of rental properties.

This same form of property policing also affects renters’ prospects of undertaking DIY home improvement projects. Most leases and rental agreements contain provisions that prevent renters from making improvements or alterations to a rental property without the written consent of the landlord. To this end, landlords are under no obligation to front the bill for anything they deem ‘non-essential’ home improvements, while any improvements and alterations generally become the property of the landlord. For those who do not own a home, the very ability to autonomously shape one’s sense of domestic well-being is shaped from the outset by a lack of private property. A country of renters would present a contradiction for the image of autonomy that the home improvement industry pedals.

Since the great housing crisis in 2008, American demographics have trended increasingly towards a society of renters. Today, more Americans rent their domestic space than at any other time since 1965. A 2018 study from UCLA Berkeley’s Terner Center shows that this shift away from ownership has been less a result of buyer wariness and more directly tied to the foreclosure crisis, reflecting a disproportionate number of low-income families losing their homes and being forced to rent. As a result, single-family rentals now comprise the fastest-growing segment of America’s housing market, suggesting that the great housing crisis of 2008 never really ended, but has rather just shifted its terrain of struggle.

In a July 4 article, the NY Times reported that an estimated 40% of Americans would be unable to pay rent in the month of August. This pandemic threatens to continue engulfing crucial public spaces--schools, public-works projects, and the freedom of assembly, to name a few. The way people respond (or are capable of responding) to their time at home will be largely dictated by their social circumstances. Meanwhile, the private enterprises of the home improvement industry, while not exactly making their product more accessible, foster a sense of social cohesion through the consumption of middle class experience—allowing a public made of personally branded domestic spaces to assert their belonging to a national narrative of self- reliance and security.

Such visions portend a reckoning between America’s dreams and the realities of its population, a synecdoche for the ongoing instability between an imagined and a real middle-class. Imagined communities are nothing new, but belonging to one when you’re at home all day now comes with a surcharge. It seems that many are willing to pay to play. In a moment defined by social isolation and virtual belonging, a new contract is forming. They who can afford the fantasy control the reality.

Matt Brenn

Matt Brenn was a lecturer in Communications Studies at Kent State University, and is now a professional woodworker, writing and researching on issues of labor, craft, and class in America. He holds an MA in Cultural Studies from Ohio State University, where he later taught Philosophy and Media courses at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Prior to teaching, Matt worked as a legislative correspondent and campaign organizer for U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

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