The Free Agent’s neighborhood is at the high-water mark of gentrification, so many of its houses were purchased during the new century’s home buying frenzy. Nevertheless, we are a happy and collegial group who enjoys the occasional neighborhood watch cocktail hour, or during last week’s splendid weather, a block party. It was at this outing, between sips of the local ankle-biters’ lemonade and diplomatic bites of each of the seven pies baked by their unemployed mothers, The Free Agent was called upon to referee a dispute.
Mister West and Mister North both took out variable rate, no money down mortgages in early 2007. They were inspired to apply by a commercial from defunct Washington Mutual, which showed a young black loan officer corralling a group of semi-nude overweight white men. Mister West in particular rejoiced that finally the pejorative label “credit unworthy”, which had dogged him ever since the Prius he bought in an effort to generate green jobs got repossessed, was expunged. He wasn’t unworthy at all, the banker assured him, he was merely underserved. Congress agreed. His Aunt Fan and Uncle Fred lent him the full price of his house, and Mister West realized the American dream of becoming The Free Agent’s neighbor.
Mister West was only dropping in on the old street, though. Last year, in a “strategic default”, he walked away from the house which, like more than a fifth of all mortgaged homes in the U.S., he owed more on than it was worth. And here grew his disagreement with Mister North. Mister North, an excellent neighbor, by the way, whose hedges are in military trim and who kindly minds The Free Agent’s cat when she’s away, beckoned her over in an uncharacteristically harsh tone.
“Let’s ask The Free Agent,” he said. “Which of us is the victim, him or me?”
“I am,” said Mister West. “I was sold a mortgage I couldn’t possibly afford.”
“—that you chose not to pay,” interrupted Mister North, “you and I make the same amount and I’m still in my house.”
“You’re a victim too, then,” said Mister West. “Walk away, chump!”
“In twelve and a half years, I’ll own something that will be worth . . . well, something. That’s what I signed up for. Nobody thinks anything of buying a new car and it not being worth what you paid for it. But eventually you own it. You’ll be paying rent forever.”
“I’m a victim, my credit’s ruined.”
“It was bad to start with. That’s why no one wanted to give you a mortgage. You’re not out anything.”
“I must say,” The Free Agent gently suggested, “Mister North makes a good observation. You made no down payment, you had, well, discouraging credit to begin with, what have you lost?”
“The dream!” he shouted, to the alarm of ladies collecting pie-plates and empty cups, “The dream of home ownership. I’m back where I was, in a lousy apartment. Although it does have a pool.”
“That’s nothing. Stop playing the victim card,” said Mister North, now sounding very cold and practical indeed. “The only way you’re a victim is we all are, because now the taxpayers own eighty percent of your beloved Aunt Fan and Uncle Fred’s bad investments. We both made a risky decision. We’re both adults. Was someone supposed to stop you from signing a contract if you wanted to? Oh why am I even wasting my breath?” And with that, Mister North stomped across his manicured lawn into the house which would be his in twelve and a half years.
“Lousy Republican!” spat Mister West.
“Now, now,” admonished The Free Agent, “there is no reason to get nasty.”