The Difference of 435 Square Feet

When the equation of my life yielded what I thought was a lesser sum, I gained in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Two years ago I left my position with a Fortune 500 company—along with the security, respect, and salary—to work for a nonprofit. Like any good martyr, I expected I would have to cut back on eating out and shopping, so I braced myself and took on the challenge with gumption.

Months later, I became a first-time homeowner of the best I could afford—435 old, creaky square feet in an area of the city where safety is, let’s say, a toss-up. Just weeks after relinquishing years of savings to the bank, I noticed the wall above my front door had swelled and blistered, and eventually burst. Though I was relieved to discover the roof is covered by my Homeowners’ Association, it was just as troubling to hear that repairing subsequent damages is my responsibility. And shortly thereafter, my car refused to turn off when I pushed the supposedly innovative push-button ignition. I felt as though one more unforeseen expense would send me crawling back to my parents.

Since then, I’ve been logging transactions in a budget app, tracking spending patterns, bypassing social events, and eating at home before meeting friends for dinner. It’s a privileged problem to have—and I wouldn’t compare it to someone struggling to meet basic needs—but I do feel a pang when each no reminds me of my limits.

One night after work, my best friend and I headed over to a friend’s house—and by house, I mean luxury 11th floor condo that overlooks a prominent street in the heart of the city. In the lobby, the concierge looked directly at us—mostly at my sweatpants—and asked in his buttery voice whom we were visiting. Then he buzzed our friend and promptly sent us through halls and elevators that smelled of fresh linen.

I had just plopped onto my friend’s kitchen bar stool when he mentioned he’d lost his job. With the city twinkling through the floor-to-ceiling window on my left, I listened to his plan for the upcoming months—how to make the most of his severance package, what do to when his health insurance expires. And after a pause, he admitted he could sell his home if it came down to it, deflating like a balloon with a slow leak.

Normally I would have feigned sympathy while hushing sarcastic digs like Life will be so hard without a concierge and How will you go on without a balcony on which to sip your morning coffee? But after swimming in my own financial distress, I felt for him. It didn’t matter that my friend made good money—his expenses were proportionate. I had always been quick to write off the problems and stress of more fortunate people as if they weren’t real, but they are; they just exist on a different plane.

On the way home, I scoured my network, trying to think of potential connections and job opportunities. And when I crossed the threshold into my condo, passing underneath the stained and swollen drywall, I wondered if I would have ever felt compassion for someone so fortunate had my introduction to homeownership gone differently.

I had always been quick to write off the problems and stress of more fortunate people as if they weren’t real.

Much in the same way, I wonder if I would have chosen these neighbors. The people who live nearby are not the white, middle-upper class, educated, neat and polite, Christian cookie-cutter families I grew up with. There are single people—some floundering, some focused. Executives rushing to the office. Nations upon nations upon skin colors. Friends who are more like family. Nomads passing through. Old money aging in their historic homes. Those without homes. Artists, immigrants, dads, people living in transitional housing. There’s even a community here solely because it’s rejected elsewhere in the city.

There are also former inmates and recovering addicts who live in the halfway house that backs up to my condo. I didn’t realize that’s what the building was until I had scribbled my last signature on the closing documents. For a brief second I wondered if I would have bypassed the property had I known earlier.

But what happens if I get a promotion or a significant raise—will I leave? Will I look for a home in a district with fewer echoes of gunshots, fewer shards of glass lining the street? Will I look for more square feet so that I can store 12 rolls of toilet paper instead of six? Buy more clothes to fill a roomy closet? Will I have a yard that buffers the rattle of my neighbor’s cough and never wonder about his health? Would he be white like me? And if I have children, will I move them to better schools?

All understandable concerns, no doubt. But I can’t help but think every decision swayed towards my comfort would thicken the insulation around me, inadvertently push other socioeconomic classes and varieties of people—and my sensitivity towards them—away. What happens if I do make these decisions and they accumulate over the years? Might I go weeks without seeing someone in homelessness or communicating with someone whose first language isn’t English? I’m almost certain I’d rarely be asked to love people who are different from me—much like my experience growing up in a homogeneous culture.

I can’t help but think every decision swayed towards my comfort would push other varieties of people—and my sensitivity towards them—away.

Sliding from comfortable to just enough, I discovered an intimacy that comes with joining the ranks of people nothing like me, including those who once validated my “community service.” I used to make these people sandwiches and call it compassion, claim I didn’t have any racist tendencies because of my black friend. But by living with my neighbors, as my neighbors, it’s clear the most important thing I can do is be their equal—not by pulling them up but by jumping in with just as much of my livelihood at stake. This means their protest is my protest, their polls are my polls, their potholes are my potholes.

If I truly think of this place as my home, these people my equals, how can I see it as a stepping stone into my more prosperous future, their livelihoods something to graduate from? What I do with my leverage as a white, educated woman says something, and if money is the only factor keeping me in my neighborhood, then moving on says “Now that I have more power, I don’t choose you.” I recognize this same attitude when I think of my friend who lost his job. It’s the other side of the same coin—both situations help me understand money tempts us to dehumanize people in both directions—those less fortunate and those more.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to stay here in these 435 square feet if I could afford more. To continue buying six rolls of toilet paper, to forever write off walking alone after dark, to know my kids could have more opportunities at another school. It’s too radical. I’m here now because of circumstances and resources—could I ever choose that on my own? Willingly deny privilege? Part of me hopes I’ll never have the opportunity to choose, that I’ll always have margins thin enough to feel compassion for people who are different from me.

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