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We’re So Screwed That Jimmy John’s Free House Giveaway Sounds Like a Viable Idea

With all other paths to homeownership disrupted, a sub restaurant’s essay contest might be a millennial’s best shot

A house with a “sold” sign in front of it, and a moving truck in the driveway.
Welcome to your Jimmy John’s home.
Photo courtesy of Jimmy John’s

Between a rising cost of living, wages that have remained stagnant for decades, a staggering national $1.5 trillion student loan debt, and a critical shortage of affordable housing, the American dream of owning a home has become little more than a laughable fantasy for many millennials, who are becoming homeowners later and at lower rates compared to previous generations.

Enter Jimmy John’s. The sandwich chain, known more for its speedy delivery than for particularly memorable subs, has promised to buy one fan a real house as part of its new “Home in the Zone” contest. From now through October 4, would-be homeowners can enter by submitting a 250-word essay. From there, 500 entries will be chosen at random, and from that pool, the essays and other criteria will be used to whittle finalists down to award a single winner up to $250,000 to go toward the purchase of a house within a Jimmy John’s “sandwich delivery zone” (within five minutes of a Jimmy John’s store).

The sole catch, it seems, is that entrants are only eligible to win if they live outside Jimmy John’s 2,800-plus delivery zones, which actually isn’t as limiting as it seems — the nearest Jimmy John’s location to New York City, for example, is across the Hudson River in Jersey City, meaning that essentially all of Manhattan is outside Jimmy John’s delivery zone.

It’s another sign of these strange, dark times that achieving homeownership by way of a sandwich chain’s marketing stunt actually sounds … pretty appealing? The scheme is reminiscent of Burger King’s campaign earlier this year to get people to download its mobile app with the tantalizing promise to erase $250,000 of student loan debt, and KFC’s pledge last year to give away a $11,000 college tuition fund to the first baby born on September 9 — the birthday of KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders — and named after Harland. As Joe Pinsker wrote for the Atlantic, a child’s “naming rights were effectively purchased by a company that sells fast food.”

No one can fault the ordinary people who enter these kinds of sweepstakes — hell, there’s even a game show in which contestants compete to pay off their student debt — for grasping onto the faintest possibility of easing financial burdens for which there seems no relief. But the fact that such stunts even exist — and show no signs of petering off — is an indictment of the larger political and economic forces that have governed our society to this bleak conclusion of growing income inequality and an eroding hope that each generation will do better than the one that came before it. What does it say about our institutions when a sandwich chain’s offering of a house sounds like less of a moonshot than the notion of becoming a homeowner through one’s own savings?

These contests by Jimmy John’s, Burger King, and KFC are cynical, capitalizing on desperation and financial hardship to capture eyeballs for the sake of eventual profit. What we need are policies and systemic change, not corporation-run zero-sum games favoring just a few, arbitrarily selected, lucky saps. But until that happens, why not try and get that free sandwich house?

Correction: This article originally contained a typo citing $1.5 million in student loan debt. The correct figure is $1.5 trillion.