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You don't have to own it to make it a home

In the end, it's family, not a mortgage, that matters most.

August 29, 2008|Kerry Madden | Kerry Madden is the author of "Gentle's Holler," "Louisiana's Song" and "Jessie's Mountain," and a forthcoming biography of Harper Lee for teens.

My husband and I have never owned a house -- and may not any time soon, despite the steep drop in home prices. We have one kid in college, another going next year, and a 9-year-old. My sister, who is almost seven years younger than me, just bought her first home. I have soul-searched for jealousy, but all I feel is admiration. It took five months of looking and bidding and losing -- but she finally did it. Kiffen and I, on the other hand, have lived and rented in Southern California since 1988.

We met at the University of Tennessee as theater students and eloped right after graduation, ready to escape the South and explore the world. We spent our first year of marriage teaching English in China and then moved to Hollywood, where we thought my husband could get a screen test. What era did we think we were living in?

Our first apartment was at Valentino Place, in the shadow of Paramount Studios. It came with a roommate, because my brother-in-law, a disenchanted cameraman and our only Hollywood contact, signed his lease over to us when he fled to Hawaii. A woman named Aphrodite lived on the building's top floor, and the ghost of Valentino roamed the halls. It cost $250 a month.

Our 1974 Toyota Corolla got us to awful temp jobs at banks on Wilshire Boulevard, except for the few days Kiffen drove the prop truck for "The Golden Girls." We moved down to another floor, to a $350 studio, and our new baby's first bedroom was a walk-in closet.

Our next apartment was a one-bedroom in Silver Lake that cost $500 a month, and we felt that we were moving up in the world because we had a bedroom door to close. By then, Kiffen was substitute teaching in South-Central and taking acting classes at night. Then he got a real job as a real teacher in South-Central and quit the acting classes. I became certified to teach ESL and was hired to teach in East Los Angeles.

I was pregnant again when a house for rent became available. I met Gloria, our new landlady, in Silver Lake Park, and she told me the rent was $735, preferably due a few days early. True, the house was a dump, 763 square feet of crumbling stucco and sheet rock, but we had a huge backyard, and Kiffen transformed it into a slice of Tennessee. We planted a giant garden, and the kids grew up picking Swiss chard, beets and broccoli in the winter and tomatoes, carrots and lettuce in the summer. We had roses, sunflowers and champagne poppies. Jasmine climbed all over a "King Kong" topiary he built under the apricot tree.

Gloria and her husband, Al, lived directly behind us, where they led a back-deck life of wine and jazz and rarely went anywhere except to visit troubled adult children in the desert. Our dog fell in love with them and hung out on their deck all the time. But we never entered their home once in eight years.

And that was fine. But other things eventually weren't. Gloria and Al were cheap. If something needed fixing, Gloria would leave typewritten letters on yellowed paper explaining to Kiffen how he could fix it and to "save the receipt." She replaced an exterior door with a thin plywood model that our dog immediately clawed through to get back outside. When the Northridge earthquake left gaping fissures along the foundation, nobody told FEMA. When I had the 1928 toilet replaced by the DWP for $60, she hit the roof and demanded I pay for it myself.

When I became pregnant with our third child, everything about the house made me throw up. I was terrified of turning into Gloria and Al with their lost years, warped sense of money and aesthetic of decay.

We've lived in our current home for 10 years now. We pay $1,400 a month in rent for a five-bedroom in Silver Lake. Our only debt is mounting college loans. Our landlord is a good guy. He's raised the rent only once, and he has a home-warranty plan, which means that if something breaks, the company comes out and fixes it. The neighborhood is full of friends for the kids.

But is it a holding pattern? Shouldn't we look to buy now that prices are finally coming down? But how can we with tuitions going up?

--

In July, I spent a week with my teenage daughter, Lucy, at the Appalachia Service Project in Leslie County, Ky., collecting oral histories from families while she took photographs. It was a land of coal trucks, church bells and folks who grew up on roads named Hell For Certain and Turkey Foot. The extended family we interviewed had rarely left their Kentucky holler and lived in a compound of four adjacent trailers built in the 1940s, some heated by coal and wood stoves. We stood in one tiny addition built recently out of plywood, and I asked, "What's this room going to be?"

A volunteer said, "It's going to be the new baby's room."

I slipped outside in the hot July sun to watch as kids of all ages raced around playing; 21 children lived on the place, all cousins and siblings.

Turkey Foot Road was home to them. My sister's new Craftsman in Oakland is home to her. California is home to my kids.

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