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The Upside of the Downturn

Curt Nickisch

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Curt Nickisch in Jamaica Plain
(Courtesy Curt Nickish)
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Not too long ago, I was a homeowner in South Dakota. Mortgage, taxes, and insurance for my house cost me just $450 a month. Total. So when I moved to Boston and was priced out of the market, it felt like I was going backwards in life. It was depressing. But now that housing prices are falling, I feel like I'm catching up. Homeownership is back in reach.

"You were smart to wait," says local realtor Diane Pienta, "because this is the best time to buy!"

She's making her sales pitch showing me around a condo in the neighborhood where I rent, Jamaica Plain. 'JP' is the kind of diverse, urban neighborhood that was starting to give way to the pricey condo boom.

This place she's showing me is a beautiful old triple-decker. It's got wide-slatted wood floors, an open floor plan and a big backyard with towering trees. Down the street, a Guatemalan restaurant sits right next to a Finnish cafe. This condo is just the sort of place that would have ignited bidding wars back in the 'go-go days,' as Pienta calls the boom.

"I mean, I can remember taking clients to an open house on Sunday," she says excitedly. "You know they may have already lost three or four properties to multiple-offer situations. They loved the place, we'd be writing the offer on the hood of the car, we'd be running it back to the office to get it accepted before anybody else could!"

Now it's much more civilized, and so are the prices. Even so, this condo is still $350,000. That's too much for me, but manageable for some couples, such as Alden and Caroline Cadwell.

"We got married, have a dog," says Alden, "and it's time to get a house." They rent an apartment near the airport with their chocolate lab, Olly. Alden's got a beard and works for a non-profit. She's an interior designer, lends a little grace to his granola. Anyway, they're tired of signing away a check each month and not being able to paint the walls. Or just having to listen to what comes through the walls from the neighbors.

"We'd get woken up regularly at five o'clock in the morning with dishes flying across the apartment," Alden remembers.

"Lots of arguing," Caroline says.

Alden says, "it was always about who was going to be able to use the car."

It was clearly time to move. But Alden and Caroline felt trapped. It was the boom, and they couldn't afford anything here.

"We threw things out like Burlington, Vt., out west, maybe Colorado, I don't know," Caroline remembers. "We were all over the map, basically."

"Your typical mid-20s couple," Alden says.

But the boom turned to bust, and that was a blessing. So now they're looking in my neighborhood, Jamaica Plain. They started with lofts and condos, and they had some reverse sticker shock.

Alden says, "When we saw the places and the prices they were going for, we realized we could probably afford a small single-family [house]."

Olly, the dog, must be happy to be getting a backyard.

Personally, I'm happy they're moving into the neighborhood. These are the people that keep Jamaica Plain unpretentious.

Still, this isn't just about me and the kind of place I want to live. It's actually good for everyone here. And don't take my word for it. Alan Clayton-Matthew is an economist at the University of Massachusetts. He says when housing prices fall, younger people are drawn to the city and stay. Innovative companies thrive on that talent.

"The fact that the housing market has been soft here now," Clayton-Matthews says, "actually has been healthy for the economy."

So I realize that the housing slump has left some people with a sour taste in their mouths. But when the economy gives you lemons, well, I'm going to be on the back porch, looking out at those big green trees, and drinking the lemonade.

  • Music Bridge:
    Balcony
    Artist: Tom Verlaine
    CD: Around (Thrill Jockey)

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