Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A House For All Seasons

Our shelter system thrives on instability. Developers, builders, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and bankers profit when the market for shelter is in churn. For those too young to remember there was once a process called "block busting".

Move a black family into a stable white middle class neighborhood, excite fear that property values are going to be adversely affected, and watch the neighborhood change its complexion. The opportunity that arises for persons of less sophistication to now move up and out of the ghetto sets the stage for a sub-prime housing debacle. Lenders prey on people desperate to own a piece of the American dream.

The system requires demand. Natural disasters are pre-conditions for renewed housing demand. As are relaxed immigration standards for persons of means, or relocation programs on the part of employers. Nothing was as beneficial to the building industry as divorce. During the turbulent years in the later half of the 20th century new home formations generated by divorce drove the industry.

Looking to externalities to describe contributing factors of our housing crisis will not lessen the impact of cultural shifts regarding our shelter. In fact, when was the last time anyone referred to housing as shelter? We have commodified shelter. Housing is now an investment. The fact that at any given time a house is calculated as either a good or bad investment points up the cultural shift away from shelter as a necessity, to housing as something that is to be traded.

The idea of house as a tradable commodity is built into the modern system of shelter supply. We promote "starter" homes without giving a second thought to the implications of the process the buyer commits to once having "started".

As long as the industry could suggest that the buying and selling of housing was a good investment, then trading up was a positive social behavior. Up had many connotations. Up might mean bigger, showier, the trophy house. Up might mean our family is growing and we need a bigger house. Up might mean near to or within a neighborhood that has status. Here's a fun forum re. Beverly Hills as an example.

No matter what the motivation, the move occasions the loss of fundamental family values: The wrenching of the kids from school, the abandoning of friends, shifting of commerce from one set of stores to another, and most importantly the atomization of the family.

The re- release of the film Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) is heralded as contemporary in the VSL announcement:
With its rerelease on DVD (available 2/23), Make Way for Tomorrow has another chance to be appreciated. The film’s Depression-era plot couldn’t be more timely: An elderly couple must move in with their children after losing their home to the bank. Separated and out of place, these grandparents not only disrupt the lives of their children and grandchildren—they’re miserable themselves. http://www.veryshortlist.com/vsl/daily.cfm/review/1469/DVD/tomorrow-is-today/?tp
The reuniting of the family in the above scenario is portrayed as a negative.

Like so many facets of the new economy that have blown up, the housing bubble burst could be a precursor to a reexamined set of premises. What if we explored the millennium old tradition of multi-generational dwelling, not as a burden that one has to escape but rather a support network that can be trusted. I remember the first time I heard the phrase "home place". My auto mechanic in the Shenandoah Valley and I were becoming friendlier and he wanted to cement the relationship with a long pull of brew on the porch of his home place up in the hills. Five generations had been born and raised there and it was never to be sold. It served as a home base in tough times. Family could settle in and await the next opportunity without going homeless or uprooting.

Circumstances are creating similar situations for people who thought they had "outgrown" extended family. Boomerang adults are moving back in with mom and pop, children are assuming responsibility for the senior care of their parents, and grandparents are becoming day care providers. These are not negative practices. The key to the success of these activities is not to stigmatize them. Not to allow the media or the industrial housing barons to determine what is right for us. Some enlightened professionals can see the writing on the wall, but have yet to come up with solutions. We needn't wait for them.

I have addressed the possibilities of granny flats in this space.

That is but one form of housing modification that would work. It turns out that larger, higher end housing stock is suffering a slower recovery and is probably headed for steeper price adjustments. This could be the exact moment to pool resources and buy the homestead, a "forever house". The housing would have to be modified. Modifications to an overbuilt suburban McMansion might include child proofing, sound proofing, increasing accessibility, creating privacy zones, and reconfiguring common spaces to pool resources like computing power or entertainment centers.

I don't think the highest hurdle to such reconfigurations is physical. I think that a great many of us are victims of cool. We would rather die then live in a suburban setting. If we are going to create sustainable, stable futures for ourselves we are going to have to get smart about space, money, and a restored set of family values. Richard Florida isn't going to write a book suggesting creative types should live in a suburb, but the Coastal Conservation League may provide an example of context. They propose retrofitting existing suburbs into livable places. Theirs is but one example of planners trying to save what's left of the landscape by building up what already exists on the grid. Now its up to designers and builders to retrofit the individual house on that grid to make it livable.

No comments:

Post a Comment