Not For Sale
Figure 1. Listing 77-03 Living Room from NFS Real Estate, 2023
Artist Jody Wood’s project NFS Real Estate aims to raise one month of rent for a handful of Houston tenants at risk of eviction, through the sale of artworks depicting those homes. Let me confess—I’m a real estate addict. My attraction to images of housing for sale is part anthropological—I’m fascinated with how people create environments to live in. I know these images are staged to balance showing off the nice things the current inhabitants have and creating an open space into which potential buyers can imagine inserting themselves. As anyone who has ever put a dwelling place on the market knows, the constant refrain from the agent is “declutter.”) My addiction is also part restlessness—a sense that if I move I can restart my life in a more satisfying way.
Both play into my fascination with NFS Real Estate, Wood’s response to the housing crisis taking the form of a real estate website (http://NFSrealestate.org). But rather than seductive photos of homes that people’s agents seek to rent or sell, the website features images of Houston rental homes whose tenants are not moving by choice but rather by being forced out.
Most telling are the ways in which this website is not like its commercial twin. First, these images are anthropological in a way that “real” real estate sites are not. They poignantly reflect inhabitants’ efforts to make homes out of modest spaces through color, fabric, pets, and plants. In one, the bed is unmade; in another, what appears to be everything the person owns is forced into a space that is clearly too small. It would be parasitic to imagine this as my home. Neither is the goal of this website to stimulate a restless desire to have them. Quite the opposite: my attention is drawn to the people who will have to move to something most likely less desirable. One of the images shows an about-to-be-evicted tenant’s possessions in trash bags. What does that say about what she has?
Figure 2. Listing 77-02 Bedroom from NFS Real Estate, 2023
I experience the focus of this project as the people who have made the homes that the art makes visible, not the homes per se. Some directed Wood to what they wanted photographed, one tenant arranging areas of the house for that purpose as they walked through, also telling Wood what to leave out of frame. Others took photographs themselves. One tenant told Wood that she chose the shots so the viewer would see from her perspective and feel what made her home so special. Wood elaborates:
There was a desire that the purchaser of the artwork understand why it’s important for her to stay in that particular home. It wasn’t about getting the ‘best’ shot that would look aesthetically nice and sellable, it was about wanting to feel understood.
I have to look at the images differently to appreciate the beauty the tenant sees, which is different from that constructed by interior designers and reliant on deep pockets.
Wood’s art is in a tension between the symbolic and the concrete. The crisis in housing is made palpable through the images of dwellings that particular people are at risk of losing. The very name of the project, NFS Real Estate, references Not For Sale—the utopian desire that the people can stay there, by making enough money through selling the art work displayed online. The images are priced in relationship to a person’s rent rather than an arbitrary pricing scheme of the art market. Wood takes a step towards the operational in her effort to sell enough art to buy those tenants one extra month, providing a little breathing room for renters to figure out their next step. Even that, Wood admits, may or may not be successful.
Most of the tenants Wood encountered experienced shame around their inability to make the rent, which they told her they do not discuss with their friends. But they spoke at great length with Wood, a stranger, who met them through a fellowship she had with the art/housing initiative, Project Row Houses. Indeed, the project is an effort to establish a relationship with other strangers. Each image is framed as if through a window that the inhabitant and outsider are both looking through. The distance between what they each may be able to see is partly bridged by including tenant stories about their situations on the website. The distant between me and them, as a housing activist told me, is that I have many choices and they have very few. The person experiencing the kind of poverty, she said, that leads to eviction may have gotten there from one of many roads—job loss, health crisis, family issues, etc. But once there the road out is narrow and seldom within reach. To me the project asks, what do we with choices do?
Jan Cohen-Cruz was director of field research for A Blade of Grass and an evaluator for NYC’s Public Artists in Residence. With Pam Korza, she researched artist/municipal agency partnerships. She and Rad Pereira wrote Meeting the Moment: Socially Engaged Performance, 1965-2020. She is an art guide with the Brooklyn Museum
Copyright: © 2023 by the author.
Statement on Funding Sources
NFS Real Estate is supported by a University of Houston Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts – Project Row Houses Fellowship, made possible in part by Suzanne Deal Booth.
The artist wishes to acknowledge the following additional project supporters: Tod Lippy, Becky Finley, Jack Suggs, Todd Barry, Mark Menjívar, and Michael Henderson. To become a supporter, purchase artwork from https://NFSrealestate.org or donate any amount to the tenant of your choice.
© 2023 Jody Wood