The Mortgage as the Most Important Part of Modern Housing

What is a home and what purpose should it hold for our lives? In our modern society, our homes are designed and built to offer us comfort and separation from the world around us. The homes we live in are like tiny bubbles of convenience, comforts, and luxuries that make us forget the places we inhabit. Once in our homes, we completely forget about the world around us. With the help of a thermostat and some gas or oil powered heater, we can walk barefoot in the dead of winter or feel pleasurably cool during the hottest summer day. If we´re not near a window, we may not know that the rain is falling, even our roofs are heavily insulated to protect us from the sounds and activities of life around us.

Boxes and cans of food filled with preservatives give the illusion of abundance. The water that comes from the faucet always runs clear and plentiful, though we have no idea where it comes from or how it gets to us. The unpleasant things that we bring into our home, buckets of trash or our own feces, are quickly gotten rid of, out of sight and out of mind, with the aid of a sewer system and the garbage truck that shuttle our waste into some anonymous place that doesn´t concern us. And when we enter our homes, we also leave behind the tangible communities that could exist around us. How many of us know our neighbors, not just by name and sight, but intimately as friends and companions. We return from home or school and huddle up inside our homes which also are almost always filled with screens of every type and dimension.

Recently, the technology giant Samsung came out with the concept of a “Smart” Home, which basically means automating your home so that computers and the “internet of things” can make your life easier. When you´re out of milk, your refrigerator will send a message to your smartphone to let you know to pick up another gallon at the grocery store. If you accidentally left your garage door open, instead of calling your neighbors to ask them to close it for you, your garage door will close itself. Our homes, then, are increasingly becoming isolated islands that keep us separated from the outside world and our physical community.

At the same time, the comfort and isolation that we have come to expect from our homes also come with a price. A typical home in almost every part of the industrialized world today costs anywhere between $250,000 and $500,000 dollars. To pay for the luxuries of 4,000 square feet, thermostats, air conditioning and the rest of the comforts that characterize today´s homes, most people are pressured into taking out a mortgage. Most first-time home buyers will take out their first mortgage anywhere between the ages of 22 and 30. Many of these young people are still saddled with extensive debt from student loans, but the financial “wisdom” of our day encourages people to begin building equity through taking on a 30 year (or more) debt burden.

In order to pay for the comforts and luxuries of modern housing, many people find themselves tied to a job that might not bring fulfillment and meaning. Spending 40-50 hours a week away from the place you call home just to be able to pay for a house reinforces the separation from community and place. In a sort of vicious cycle, we spend more than half of our lives to pay for a place where we only go to eat dinner and sleep. Of course, economists will tell us that mortgages are good for the growth economy. Banks will willingly lend money that they don´t have an understanding that through the interest payment on a mortgage (which often are 200% of the original loan), the economy will “grow” and all will be well in our little world.

In other parts of the world, housing is much less of an issue than to us westerners. We may look at mud huts with thatched roofing of African villagers and feel sorry for their “poverty.” Or perhaps we can´t imagine how Mayan farmers living in the mountains of Guatemala can handle the close to freezing temperatures without central heating and thermostats.We have been sold on the idea that any sort of housing that doesn´t conform to the standards of western affluence is synonymous with poverty and misery. One of the most tangible and visible symbols of our affluence and power is the enormity and luxury of our houses that set us apart from the rest of the world who still live in antiquated shacks without refrigerators that tell them when they´re out of milk.

But, what if we look at things from the underside of history. The African villager who lives in a mud hut and a thatched roof is completely unburdened by any idea of long-term debt. His house is his and his alone. Instead of receiving a monthly bill from a mortgage lender, he lives in relative freedom knowing that his economic livelihood only has to provide sustenance for his family, not interest earnings for some foreign bank.

His house, though simple by our standards, is also beautiful and functional. Functionality is an idea that is completely lost on the modern day housing industry. The thatched roof and mud walls of the African villager is designed to be comfortably cool during the long hot African days.
They Mayan farmer in the cold mountains of Guatemala might not be able to go barefoot around her dirt floor home. However, the wood fire in the kitchen that is perpetually burning offers a warmth that is truly appreciated. It is a place where the family gathers together several times during the day; the cold of the outside obliging family to come together around the warmth that they share.

And though these farmers don´t have a refrigerator that tells them when the milk jug is empty, they do have a herd of goats whose early morning bleating alerts of full udders promising abundance in their own way. The central aspect of the modern day housing industry isn´t a minimum square footage, “smart” gadgets, central heating and cooling, or the like. Rather, the mortgage as a modern-day form of indentured servitude is what defines the homes we live in. In search of the false “freedom” that comes with a supposedly nice home, we move into isolated castles in anonymous neighborhoods. We willingly take on a debt burden that keeps us enslaved to a job and a monetary economy that doesn’t add joy and purpose to our lives. And worst of all, we separate ourselves from the communities and the natural world that surround us.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.


  1. As someone who has owned homes, and their attendant mortgages, for more than 40 years I have never felt like an indentured servant or a slave to a financial institution. When I lived in the urban core I knew my neighbors and I worked with them to enhance our physical environment. Now that I live in the woods of northern Montana I know my neighbors, even those who live acres away from me. I work with them to protect the forest and the wildlife both close and distant.

    Overall I appreciate that I have been considered financially reliable enough to buy the money I needed to pay for a comfortable place to live. I have chosen engagement rather than isolation as did, do, most of the people who live around me. This is not to say that I have not, on occasion, had to stand up for myself when dealing with financial institutions. I have refused to allow them to devastate my retirement savings and have demonstrated that I am capable of, and willing to, repay my loans.

    Therefore I find your bleak illustration of society as nothing more than a herd of indentured sheep who are blind to their enslaved condition at best misinformed, and at worst a slanted and politically self serving lie.

  2. In reply to Roberta McCanse, I am glad she didn’t feel burdened by her mortgage and disengaged from her community. I know other people who have had similar experiences with different impressions. I believe the way one feels about a situation depends on their personal values and what they were taught about that situation. Also what one feels does not have bearing on what is. One can be a slave and yet feel free, and one can be free and yet feel enslaved. It is a matter of mindset.

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