Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

When the house is no longer home

Professor McCormack researches foreclosure.

Owning a home has long been the American Dream—a sign that you’ve “made it.” But with the economic downturn and the increasing number of foreclosures, the meaning of “home” is changing. Assistant Professor of Sociology Karen McCormack has been researching the impact that foreclosures are having on individuals and families, particularly on women and minorities. She has spent months interviewing those who have lost their homes or are at risk of losing them. Her findings so far indicate a fundamental shift in the meaning of “home,” which she explores this semester in her research-inspired First Year Seminar: “No Place Like Home.” She also made presentations on the research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Eastern Sociological Society, and at Boston College. We asked her about her continuing work:

What led to your interest in this research?

My dissertation work involved talking to women who were receiving public assistance in the late 1990s when welfare reform was in the works. The public discourse on welfare demonized poor women as “welfare queens” and bad mothers, and I wanted to understand how women responded to that, how they protected their own identity once they had become the scapegoats for larger economic and social problems. When people started blaming the current economic crisis on homeowners who took out bad loans, there was a parallel process at work, blaming those struggling economically for larger structural problems.

Why the blaming?

It’s the easy thing to do and we don’t emphasize a structural discourse in our country. Many Americans sincerely believe that the opportunity is out there for anyone willing to take it, anyone willing to work hard; you play by the rules, you’ll get ahead. And so when people’s experience violates that assumption, the easiest thing to do is to blame others. It preserves our sense that the American Dream is still intact. Right now, things are a little bit different because so many people have been harmed—so many people who seemed to have done the right thing—that people are starting to look at the banks, at Wall Street, and to place blame there. In the early days of this crisis, that wasn’t true, especially when it was primarily poor people and people of color who were losing their homes as a result of predatory lending. The initial reaction was: you didn’t do your homework, you didn’t do your research, you were trying to get too much of what you couldn’t afford.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Karen McCormack

What are your research findings so far?

When I began the research I really expected that people were in their situations because of predatory lending, that they had bad loans. That was true for many of those at risk initially, but starting in 2009, many people with prime loans, good loans, were in trouble. In the majority of the interviews that I’ve conducted, the path to foreclosure is fairly complicated. It’s often not one catastrophic event, but a series of events that lead people to seek help, to identify as truly at risk. The most common events include loss of work hours, especially overtime hours, an illness in the family that creates unanticipated expenses or loss of work, and a change in family composition—a divorce or death that leads to the loss of an income. Problems with tenants, commitments to family in other countries, home equity loans and falling house values. Underlying many of these problems, not surprisingly, is the decline in the value of houses in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Problems like illness and divorce have always led to economic trouble, but people in past decades were able to sell their homes, or use them to take out second mortgages or equity lines. Homeownership used to offer a form of insurance in the event of these troubles, but now it can add to the burden.

So what is the overall message?

The overall message is that the loss of security that people experience through even the risk of foreclosure can be devastating. While we might think of foreclosure as the loss of a house—a piece of property, an investment—it is experienced as the loss of a home. The home entails a great deal more, and its loss can mean a loss of security, stability and control. People think of owning a home as being in more control of their lives. They have a sense of a place of security, a place where they can be in control and no one can tell them what to do. Many of these people see the loss of their homes as a tremendous loss of control—not only over the physical environment, but also over the process. They often don’t have the language to talk to the banks. Many begin to feel at the mercy of these larger institutions at the same time that they have lost trust in them.  This creates real risks not only for trust and faith in institutions, but also for the health and stress levels of individuals.

How has all of this changed how people think of home?

Something significant has happened. For white Americans post–World War II, there was a belief that buying a house was a marker of adulthood. From the 1960s through the 1990s, there was some shift toward the democratization of homeownership as explicit barriers to borrowing were removed for people of color and for women. For immigrants to the United States, it’s a marker that they have achieved a part of the American Dream. The meaning of owning a home has shifted, so that a lot of people talk about their home as a burden, a source of stress and exhaustion rather than of security and control.