Thursday, March 4, 2010

Starting Over: From Me To America -
Wondering How To Make It In An Era Of Overpriced Housing & College Tuition

Been apartment searching with Cassie this week. I swear, I must look like Santa Claus to her. She seems to think that pretty soon I'll be working (true), and then I'll be able to afford anything.

Got news for her -- I finally learned to really save in times of plenty, for the inevitable times of scarcity. Thought I knew this and I took a lot for granted. Several months of really bad underemployment taught me otherwise.

The first building we checked out looked really nice and is a block away from a Metro, which is a DC-MD-VA subway if you don't know. One of her friends and his mother moved there last weekend. I knew it would be out of my price range and she did too, but it's free and fun to look.

A sista gave us a tour. This was interesting because a white guy initially greeted us, but she entered the room and without a word, she was turned over to us while he waited on another white guy who walked in seconds after us, and also wanted to see the place. It was done so smoothly, this race and gender match up, that I doubt Cassie even noticed. I didn't mind, but it made me think of how far we have to go as a society.

The first apartment was designed more like a townhouse and has two levels, with a bedroom on each one. Ideal for roommates, but not what I had in mind for a mother and teen daughter; it was like two separate units almost. Cassie felt the same way.

The next one was better. It also had a second floor, but it was a loft that overlooks the living room.

Have a seat now. The rent for these two units: $1725 plus.


And they don't include utilities.

Double ouch.

"Tell me again how your friend's mama makes her money," I asked Cassie. "I thought she was a security guard."

"Nope. She's a cop."

Must've been on the force a long time, I thought. She's divorced and gets child support. If I had that, I doubt I'd spend it on a luxury apartment - unless my ex was so well off and generous that money wasn't a problem.

While the White House and the media focus exclusively on home owners, renters are being charged up the wazoo. The cost of a monthly mortgage payment for a $300,000, three or four bedroom house in this area, at 5% interest, is around $2K per month.

That's not a whole lot more than the rent at the place we looked at. On the other hand, buying a house now is dicey. I don't think the market has hit bottom yet and is a long way from it.

When Cassie and I move, chances are it will be to a two bedroom apartment that charges around $1300 a month, including utilities. That's still more than any of these places are worth.

Where I live, the salaries are higher than the national average, but so is the cost of housing, so you end up not coming ahead much better than if you lived and worked on Main Street, USA. I also have a fairly good idea what the owners paid for these buildings 10 to 30 years ago, and they're making out like bandits - and they are.

Apartments used to be for people who could not afford a house or the monthly house note. They paid less as a result. Now it's almost equal, but renters have no equity and can get kicked out legally in sixty days without the owner giving a reason - which happened to me and several other shocked tenants last year, I think that so the landlord could gentrify the building and increase the rent.

Rent is a little cheaper in the next county and in quite a few areas in my hometown, DC. I tried to talk her into us living there for the short term. The commute would be horrible for Cassie and I, and she'd have to be extremely secretive about where we lived so she wouldn't get kicked out of her beloved school, but the ability to quickly save might be worth it.

"I won't want to be home on weekends," she announced, when I proposed that plan.

"Ya think?", I said. "You might make a lot of neat DC friends."

"Not interested," she replied. "I like my friends now."

"Then you better kick butt on the basketball team next season," I said, "and keeping your the GPA high goes without saying. The way things are, I'm not sure that will be enough to get all the grants and scholarships you'll need. You sure you want to be a lawyer?"

"Yes, Mom," she said in that tone of voice.

"You better be sure, or you'll be in debt for decades, paying back those student loans."

That's so unfair, and I know it.

Just telling her that made me feel guilty. Not many people really know what they want to be at such a young age, and hardly know what's out there, what they'll be good at, or what makes them feel passionate, until they study and try different things. That's one of the main values of a well-rounded, four year college education.

On the other hand, Cassie said at the age of five that she wanted to go to Harvard, which blew me away because none of us ever mentioned it, and at ten said she wanted to work in entertainment law.

Thus, once we move, it looks like a small two bedroom in the neighborhood will be the way to go.

I think of all the families and young adults scrambling to get or keep a piece of the American pie. The average costs runs $30K a year for a private university. In-state is cheaper if you live at home, but it's still expensive; the U. of Maryland (tuition only) is currently $8,053 for undergrad residents, and $23,990 (tuition only) for non-residents. The current cost for undergrad tuition, fees, room and board at Harvard runs $52K a year.

Don't think I didn't buy a lottery ticket this week, and that one was for my boo.

It's no longer cost-effective for anyone to get a four year degree unless they plan on working in a field where a degree is absolutely necessary. Some of these aren't a passport into high paying careers either, especially teaching, nursing, and social work.

I'm thinking along the lines of a tale of two students, where two people get degrees, but one becomes an engineer or accountant, and the other a teacher or nurse. The first one is earning so much money they can repay their student loans in a year or three, while the other one is stuck in debt fifteen years later and struggling to keep up with a mortgage or rent.

Notice too, that the traditional 'feminine' occupations pay so much less.

Even this game is changing, and I wonder how safe accounting, finance, and law will be. The USA is broke and the dollar is anemic. What happens when the Great Depression II hits with full force, and if afterwards, when the dust clears, we have a whole new way of doing business, with possibly a new monetary system and currency? How much will be obsolete of what students in those fields are learning now?

And what happens to a society when young adult citizens haven't had the benefits of taking courses like philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature, and economics, because all they could afford was a tech school - which is about job training - and not provided with a well-rounded education? Or those who went anyway, majored in liberal arts or English or language or sociology, and end up as debt slaves working as a cashier at the local big box store? All that precious knowledge, under-utilized and benefiting so few.

Many questions, and a lot of ideas floating around on how people can get two basic things that weren't that hard to get fifteen to forty years ago: college for every kid who wants to go, and affordable housing for all.

Hope springs eternal that America's social pendulum will swing back in our favor... or is it not a pendulum, but rather, a spin toy that's lost it's rotational stability?

Addendum, 7PM

I couldn't have more surprised to learn today that on over 100 college campuses, students protested high tuition and budget cuts in California, and a few other states, which you can read about here and here and elsewhere.


  1. Good luck with the search and with that college educationwhen it's time. I told my boys, you will be filling out scholarships forms your sophomore year in high school till your fingers bleed, lol.


  2. Life has so many obstacles. Suffice to say, those barriers are a bigger struggle with children in tow. Feed them, clothe them, shelter them, teach them... show them, are just a few of our responsibilites.

    But you know what, I could say all the championed phrases and words of wisdoms that are somewhat easy to mimmick, but today I am going to take a different route. I am going to put my money where my mouth frequently gets me in trouble. I'm going to my corner store and buy me and you Lotto tickets. Really, see, you've been a gift to me (I know you don't know how,but) so I'm going to try something different. If I win, you win. If your tickets wins, I win. In fact, if you read this in time (really) give me 3 numbers (single digits) and I'll add one. Along with the regional lotto, I'll play a couple of pick 4's. If we hit something, that should be enough for the first & last rent. And like you said, (although probably kidding) college ain't no joke, and Lotto is a smidgen of hope. Who knows what could happen. I know it's a long shot (and out of the ordinary) but hey, hard times call for drastic measures (I got five on it) and a little hope. The story continues...

    See you in the winners circle.

  3. Carey, You so crazy; I'm gonna take you up on that offer. I just emailed you my suggestions.

    Redbone Girl, Lol, 'till their fingers bleed. Yep.

  4. Kit, you are speaking truth. I recently wrote on my blog about the cost of college. As the mother of a senior, mind you a mother still paying on her own student loans, I think the price of college has gotten ridiculous. 11 years ago when I decided to go back to school, never would I have thought that with both a BS & M.Ed that I would be earning less than I did when I had no degrees but I do. From a strictly cost perspective, going to college was a dunb idea yet on a personal level I gained so much, grew in ways I never knew possible. Yet here I am telling folks that I really am not sure college is a good idea. Even with scholarships a family could still easily end up with a 10-15K tab per many of us can afford that. Gone are the days when a kid could work all summer and pay for their tuition out of their earnings. I tell folks all the time, what jobs do you know of that a 18-19 yo can work and earn enough to pay 20-40G's a year?

    Everyone says community colleges but as someone who taught in that system, many CC's are overloaded between kids straight out of college trying to take classes amd older folks trying to get education and city and state budgets being slashed.

    Don't even get me started on housing costs, the only reason we became homeowners was because rent prices were crazy. I was paying over a grand a month in Maine 6 years ago and no utilities included. Like you said affordable housing ussed to be accessible. Hell, 8 years ago when I moved to Maine Section 8 was available, now that list is closed for the next 3 years, this not a high density state so you can guess times are tough all over.

    Hang in there!

  5. Okay, for the world to see, it's you and me.

    04 o8 10 16 18 (13) Powerball... Ill/Ia Lotta

    o3 04 39 51 54 megaball 29 ... Megamillions

    4687 Pick4 Iowa

    4607 Pick4 Iowa

    10 12 27 37 44 Megaball (10)...MegaMillions Jackpot 139 million

    Read them there, you'll find them fair. We're going to the boom-boom room, Killa Thrilla. Or, back to the po' house. But I don't know about you, but I's born and raised in the briar patch, so dropping a five spot is kids stuff.

    Good Luck!

  6. Carey, You really did it?! Wow, you're making me chuckle and smile! Got my fingers crossed and hope in my heart. No matter the outcome, thank you.

    BGIM, We are so on the same page, word for word. Out of curiosity, I checked the cost of rent in Portland, Maine, and it's a lot more than I'd expect. Geez, greed is ripping this country apart. Shredding it.

    Readers, I added an addendum at 7pm after reading about the college tuition protests, and expanded the title of this post.

  7. You are speaking straight to me and my daughter! She just finished a bachelors in nursing and has started paying the student loans. She wants to go on to medical school but has put that on hold for a while, I hope she'll be able to do it eventually. things are just so tough....

  8. Wow, these prices you posted seem out of this world to me, even Vancouver (which is probably the most expensive place in Canada) is cheaper than this. Coming from a country where renting a decent place is a huge problem for single-income households (sometimes even for two-income), I can tell that's a really bad sign for a nation. It's one of the basics of being a prosperous nation or a poor one, the possibility for people to afford suitable housing.
    But you will find something suitable, I'm sure, God will see to that. Or maybe you'll find two good jobs, something will happen for you. You are putting up a great fight. I think Cassie had a good and mature instinct about refusing a long commute, even if her conscious reasons are those of any fun-loving teenager. It would cut hours of her study time, and sooner or later someone would find out you don't live where you're supposed to. And people are... nasty and envious, unfortunately, you'd be risking a great deal. Something better will come up, you have to believe that.

  9. Cactus Rose, Congrats to you and your daughter for her getting the BS degree in Nursing! That is just wonderful. Don't know if she has a family yet, but if not, and she's willing to rent a cheap room for a couple years, she may be able to save up enough and get a grant or scholarship for med school.

    Better yet, check out this site for
    med school rankings & tuition nationwide. It says the #5, 11, & 14 schools are part of the U. of California. In-state tuition, $0, out of state, around $12K.

    Hmmm. Makes me wonder why California students are the first to do all that protesting.

    I'll bet she can get a job nursing out there while waiting to become a state resident, save up for her books and living expenses, and two years from now, be in med school. Hope that's workable and good luck!

    Marianne, Yes, the rents and housing prices are nuts in the DC-Maryland area and have been for a long time. People earning minimum or low wages really have a tough time and those jobs are generally part time. I see it getting much worse and the middle class is dwindling, here and nationwide.

  10. Kit, when I moved here from Chicago I just knew it was going to be cheaper...nope. In some ways living here costs more because in Chicago a car was an option and here its a necessity. There are parts of Maine that are dirt cheap but you are talking the middle of nowhere or up near the Canadian border. I tell folks all the time there are no cheap places it seems in this country, greed is sadly the name of the game.

    Something has got to give, the working person on the street is fed up. No jobs, jobs pay crap and then they ask why folks are not paying their bills...of course that too is an issue since a lousy credit check could keep you from a job.

  11. BGIM, I thinks it's awful that some jobs, where a person who won't handle money or high-end goods, like office jobs for clerks to professionals, run credit checks on potential employees.

    Another thing a lot of these places do -especially big box stores - is make the online applicant take what amounts to a personality test, when applying.

    These tests don't account for the way different age groups and cultures use language, including non-native English speaking people. They give all these bullshit "Yeah, I'm a super outgoing team player, just love people to death, and never get angry no matter how much of a jackass the customer or management is" kind questions.

    That shit ought to be illegal.

  12. "It's no longer cost-effective for anyone to get a four year degree unless they plan on working in a field where a degree is absolutely necessary."

    I so wish that you had been around to tell me that when I went to college. *sigh*

    "Notice too, that the traditional 'feminine' occupations pay so much less."

    YES!!!! I said this to a male friend of mine recently (he's an engineer) and he swore me up and down I was a feminist conspiracy theorist. After a little big of research on his own, he came back and told me I was right. "I can't believe this. I guess I never had to entertain the idea." I am grateful for 2 things here: #1 that I am not crazy and that someone else has noticed that gender inequality can sometimes also be determined by profession and not just getting less pay for the same job and #2 that I have friends who are willing to do the research and learn for themselves.

  13. @ Kit;
    Thanks a mil Kit, I will give her the info. She's a determined young lady, so I feel eventually she canrealize her dream, at least I pray so.

  14. Aw hell Kit, come on out to WV and I can put you in a 2 room shack for $250/mo. . . with partial indoor plumbing.

  15. Sagacious, Ha-ha-ha!

    Cactus Rose, Hope it works out.

    La, Nah, I ain't buying it; although I'm guessing you're up to your eyeballs in student debt, I'm also guessing that your education enriched your talent, and it shows in your superb writing and independent thinking. If you come back to read this, surprise me and tell me what you majored in and your favorite electives.

  16. There are definitely pay descrepancies in traditional female positions..I work in social services and make jack. Though I have when a man is in this field he generally makes a bit more. Its almost like the assumption is a woman will have a mate or that her salary is not needed. I actually had a board member ask about my partners work when I mentioned possibly leaving because I am not earning enough. What difference does that make? Hell, I have a masters degree and earn jack, I can't even afford to pay my student loans they live in a constant state of deferrment. Sorry for the rant.

  17. I *completely* agree about college. One rant that I have is that there's often a lot of pressure on students to go to college right away, to go to 'the best' college they get into, regardless of price, and to not contemplate the financial realities that they'll have to deal with afterwards. If your goal is to be a high school teacher or a social worker, taking on 80K in debt for undergrad (to be FOLLOWED by the mandatory MA on those fields) isn't a sustainable choice, unless you've got a great loan forgiveness program in your state. Thinking about this ahead of time is a good thing, even if it's somewhat chilling.

    Even in more lucrative professions, life doesn't always go according to plan. SO many people go to law school (even after wanting to be a lawyer since childhood), then realize they don't want to practice law. Interning and doing a ton of research before leaping into big $$ commitments isn't sexy or the most lovingly dramatic story, but it's often a lot less painful. (Plus, in many fields your undergrad institution won't get you a ton of cachet - GPA and LSAT/MCAT/GRE get you into grad school, and that pedigree is a lot more powerful.)

    FWIW, I went into a state school straight out of college, and stayed with it largely because I heard from friends who'd left how hard it was to get themselves to go back. However, friends in school who *had* taken a year off to work, and friends who had started out at commuity college then transferred over were _astonishingly_ more focused, productive and effective at getting a lot out of their college experience. A liberal arts education is a wondeful thing, and elements of it are priceless. But that doesn't mean that it's worth paying any amount of money to get, or that a more expensive education is of necessity better.

  18. **Drum roll**

    We still po'. The story continues...

  19. Fine Arts with a minor in RTVF. My fav electives were all things you'd expect; history, humanities, creative writing. I certainly would NEVER diminish the impact my teachers have had on my entire life; they are absolutely instrumental in how I turned out. But I do wonder if the skills I learned in college were skills I could have easily cultivated on my own and in less traditional ways outside of college and student loan debt.

  20. La, You and I had a very similar undergrad program, and I too, give much credit for my world view to this. Technically, we and others could have gotten or get this foundation on our own, but, here's the rub - in college, I learned it's not the answers, but the questions. How would we even know what to ask, or what is out there, if we hadn't had that exposure to those wonderful liberal arts electives? Or the fine professors and other students to stimulate our young minds a whole new world of realities and possibilities? Considering how the world is going, we may be luckier than we ever imagined to get all this.

  21. I hear you, it's expensive out there.

    Around 12 years ago I was house hunting in New Jersey and at the last moment the house I was going to buy fell through. At the same time, the house I was renting was sold and the new owner wanted to move in. It was a very uncomfortable situation since I didn't have a place to live. I was lucky enough to find a nice place, but it was $1850 a month. I paid it, but I was pissed. I live in a house that was new when I bought it five years ago and my mortgage here in South Carolina isn't $1850 a month.

    I was in Northern Virginia yesterday. I stopped on my way home after spending a week in New Jersey, it's beautiful there, but I could see the congestion and all the new housing. It's a nice area though, I have a couple of cousins that live there.

    We throw these figures around, $2000.00 and $2500.00 as if they're nothing. But when the first comes, that shits gotta be paid. We live in a land of plenty, but there are times that it seems we don't have shit.


Hi, this is Kit.

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