One Old House Tells a Sad, but Good, Story

It is not easy to humanize something as abstract as the real estate market, but the New York Times managed to do exactly that.

The frequent use of anecdotes to illustrate larger trends can sometimes make journalists’ stories seem formulaic. But when this tried and tested method works, it really works.

Case in point is a story by Louis Uchitelle in today’s New York Times. It is not easy to humanize something as abstract as the real estate market, but Uchitelle does just that.

The piece tells the 85-year history of a single house in the posh New York suburb of Hastings-on-Hudson, a wonderful way to illustrate how much more difficult it has become for an average family to own a home.

The current owners of 150 Edgars Lane, the Hirschfelds, bought the house five years ago for $890,000. They’ve subsequently poured a ton of money into it, so much that Mr. Hirschfeld is pretty sure the investment exceeds his home’s current market value, about $1.2 million.

Significantly, the piece doesn’t shy away from letting us know that the Hirschfelds are very, very rich. And that only people with similar levels of affluence are currently able to purchase pleasant old homes that need the kinds of massive repairs and remodeling that 150 Edgars Lane demands.

Many journalists would have written a chatty lead about the Hirschfelds and left it at that. But Uchitelle goes a big step further by comparing the family to the home’s eight previous owners. What we get as a result is a much clearer picture of the anomalous state of today’s housing market.

We learn, for example, that Ralph Breiling, a Brooklyn school teacher, bought the land and built the house in the 1920s, spending less than $10,000 in all, or about $111,000 adjusted for inflation. He lived there with his family until 1950 ,when the house was sold for $191,000 in present dollars. It changed hands several more times, but never fluctuated much in value. It sold for $250,000 (again, adjusted for inflation) in 1974. By the late 1990s it was worth almost $900,000.

Particularly telling is the stark comparison between previous owners, who were distinctly middle-class, and Mr. Herschfeld, who is the chief operating officer of a hedge fund.

Something remarkable has happened to the housing market, and it has etched a sharp divide between citizens who can achieve the great American dream of owning a home, and the increasing number of families that cannot. That is a class division that deserves more coverage in the media. We are happy to see that the Times, at least, found an interesting way to reflect the new reality.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.