Home Improvement

(The following appeared in an earlier version on Rev-o-lution.org) Confession: I am an HGTV junky.  It probably stems from my old rainy-day Saturday afternoon habit with my dad of watching “This Old House” with Bob Villa when the weather kept us inside.  I love watching home improvement and design shows, I enjoy reading Better Homes and Gardens and I can go up and down the aisles of any department store in their home decorating section and spend hours thinking about the ways I can change the décor of my living room to match the season (the latest manifestation of this obsession is finding the site Pinterest—if you value your free time and have an addictive personality, do NOT go there!)

However, there are times when I watch a home improvement show or read an article about a house remodel and my stomach will turn in knots, or I will feel the blood rush to my face and my brow furrow in anger: when the owner or buyer complains about their “dream home becoming a nightmare” because their choice of flooring isn’t in, or the wrong sink was installed from what they ordered.  It’s when the couple gets angry and yells at the contractor or storm out of a conversation because the design they had chosen won’t work and they act like it’s the end of the world.

Why should it bother me when it’s their home and their money?  When I hear those complaints, I start thinking of the homeless families we have known.  Back in Massachusetts, I met a family of five whose apartment flooded and they had no place to go and were sleeping in the basement of a church.  Both parents were working, all three kids were in school and doing well, and they were homeless.  I think of the family of three that moved for a new job only to be let go within the first week because the contract spoken over the phone was not the contract given when they arrived, and they could not afford the rent.  I think of the families here that moved in with friends and in Red Cross shelters after the tornadoes this spring.

But I think not only of the homeless, but all those families who have aspired to own their own home over the years but could not do so.  They could not afford the down payment, even though the monthly mortgage is less than the rent they are paying.  I read an article a few years ago about a woman in the Washington, DC area, who had lived in the same apartment for sixty years, and a family member had gone through her finances when she became ill and realized she could have paid the mortgage twice over—if only she had the money for the down payment.  In our part of Southern Oklahoma, we have more families living below the poverty level in rental homes, and few truly “homeless” people, yet these that live in run-down rental homes, in my mind, are still homeless, in that where they live is not a home, especially when the landlord does not care and the tenants have no idea if they can afford to live there one month to the next.

As I’ve shared on my blog at times, I get a little disgusted the greed of some people in trying to create a “dream home.” For many people, the dream is simply to own their own home, and due to the cost of living that is not possible.

But the other concern I have comes from the Home Improvement industry that has increased dramatically over the last twenty years.  I remember as a child going with my dad to the yearly Home Show.  All of the vendors from around the state would be there with their logos on yardsticks and measuring tapes and paint stirrers—fun trinkets to collect as a child!  Now, though, many of those vendors are out of business.  The last time I was home in Alaska, I was talking to my dad about how the small lumberyards and hardware stores have all gone out of business with the advent of Lowes and Home Depot coming to town—even to our small town in Alaska.

My dad started out as a finish carpenter–doing cabinets and countertops, but now he leaves the houses he builds unfinished. He figures every buyer is so picky these days that he won’t choose something and have a potential buyer not like the choice in cabinet or countertop, so he sells the house, without carpet or hardwood or laminate, without countertops or cabinets, without paint or ceiling tile–just unfinished. Thanks to the Home Improvement Industry, the rest can be taken care of by the buyer, because my dad doesn’t want to deal with people like I watch on the TV, changing their minds and complaining that their dream home is a nightmare.

I love home design and improvement—I love that the skills and knowledge I’ve learned from my dad have carried over into confidence of improving our own home that we bought this summer in Oklahoma.  But I’m a little sad that people no longer call up my dad to do new cabinets or renovate rooms in their house, or that he doesn’t have the confidence to even finish a house to a customer’s liking, because they can get a contractor at the mega home improvement store to do most of that for them now.

We may have lost out on the small hardware stores and local lumberyards in most areas, but we have not lost the ability to help others achieve the dream of owning their own home.  I’ve volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in the past, giving families a chance to not only own their own home but also to take responsibility of their own mortgage payments.

I still love watching design and home improvement shows. But I could do without the people complaining, who will still get a beautiful home once it is all said and done even if it is not exactly the way they wanted or imagined it. They still have a home that is theirs. They still get their American Dream. But there are ways we can turn away from the industry of home improvement to really improving the lives of those who desire to live in a home of their own.  There are housing organizations in local communities that work to help families with down payments and closing costs. You don’t have to go on Extreme Makeover to get a hand.  Families still have to make payments and upkeep and take responsibility for their home, but they get that little help needed to move from renting forever to ownership.

Back in May, my husband and I became homeowners for the first time.  For me, as a Christian home ownership goes hand in hand with hospitality: we may have come to a place in our lives where we feel we have “earned” it or “deserve” to own a home; however, we also have earned the right and responsibility to take care of the home we live in and to share the space when we are called by Christ to do so (read my reflections on Hospitality here).

Reflecting on home ownership has drawn me into these three realizations: one, that we are called to the right and responsibility of home ownership, to be part of the community we live in, to offer hospitality when we feel called by Christ to those in need; two, that we are called to speak on the justice issue of homelessness, especially family homelessness, but also to speak to the housing issues of the poor who have the dream of owning their own home but prior credit or the cost of funding a down payment have kept them out of home ownership; and three, I cannot help but think of Jesus, the son of a carpenter.

We don’t know much about Joseph in the Bible—he is there for a few fleeing scenes of Jesus’ birth and the one scene in Luke 2 of Jesus’ childhood.  We know that Jesus is called the “carpenter’s son” in Matthew and Mark.  In the Old Testament, the carpenters are referred to as the skilled workers whose craftsmanship was important to the construction of the temple and of David’s palace.  In Jesus, I see the carpenter becoming the one who builds the reign of God.

How are we working to build the reign of God in light of homelessness and housing for the poor?  The cries of those who didn’t get the right countertops in their dream home can capture the commercials for home improvement shows on TV, but the cries of those children who move from church basement to church basement, or apartment to apartment, who long for a roof over their heads that is more permanent—these are the cries that call us to action.  There are ways for you and your congregation to be involved, through Habitat for Humanity and other organizations working to cover the gap between can’t affording the down payment and home ownership.  Get involved, and follow the Carpenter who is building the reign of God on earth.