A local landslide makes international news because homes are involved. A real estate market is bubbling up along the west coast. Friends are making tiny houses. People are downsizing. Estates are being settled that involve magnificent houses. And of course, my home for sale, alas. Housing is on my mind, and I think housing is being redefined.
Fans of word play may be disappointed because I am not going to make puns and metaphors from the houses affected by Wednesday’s massive landslide. Sorry, but it is too serious – but I’m sure someone is making jokes when the microphones aren’t pointed their way.
The papers and the people easily handled and described the previous slide in downtown Langley because it was within our easy understanding. Five dump trucks of dirt slid and covered and closed a street. Take a few days, be careful, and it becomes a temporary inconvenience, and maybe eventually only a story – even while being a harbinger. The Ledgewood slide was tens of thousands of dump truck loads, or as another put it, a football stadium filled ninety feet deep. (My mistake. Originally I thought it was about ninety football stadiums of dirt, though I am sure that has happened somewhere.) Before others chastise them for building along a bluff, many of the houses were built far from it. It is hard to remember but, Mother Nature measures earth movements in terms of continents, and regularly scours continents with planetary glaciers or drops them into subduction zones.
Housing is stability. A home is a castle. One of the reasons to own is to no longer be obligated to another person for where you sleep. Given enough land, it is even possible to become self-sufficient. Depending on the land and the household, that’s anywhere from a couple of acres somewhere properly watered to entire desert valleys. But houses aren’t stable. They can be part of slides, swallowed by sink holes, shaken by quakes, washed away by waves, buried under ash, picked up by tornadoes, blown away by hurricanes, and floated away by floods. Each event seems as temporary as its time in the news cycle. Yet, watch for a while and see Whidbey (and much of the West Coast), Florida (and anywhere aquifers are depleted), Japan (and the rest of the Ring of Fire), Indonesia (and any tsunami-prone coastline), Iceland (and any place near a volcano), Greensburg (and any town in tornado alley), New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy (and the rest of the hurricane, cyclone, and typhoon prone world), and Katrina which is now synonymous with New Orleans (though floods happen anywhere there’s water, ask someone downstream of a monsoon.)
Okay, I just spooked myself there. Let’s also keep in mind that houses last a long time. There are probably millions that have stood for centuries. There may even be some that have stood for a millennium.
Houses built for 1000 A.D. were built for a different society and culture, and provided different functions. Self-sufficiency was assumed. Everyone was off-the-grid. That was largely true even a hundred years ago in America. The Rural Electrification Act wasn’t passed until 1936, ten years after my Dad was born. Homes built since World War II gradually became more dependent on infrastructure, became more ornamental than functional, and grew even after family sizes shrunk.
Housing is entering a new instability.
Families are smaller. People are more likely to live alone. There is less formal entertaining. There is less time for home maintenance. A lot of spare time is spent within arm’s reach of a computer. Houses don’t have to be as big. Smaller houses can actually be more fun. This house is the smallest I’ve owned, and it’s the only one I consider home.
Financial pressures are encouraging less expensive houses. Whether caught in the real estate crunch or not, people are taking on less debt. They’re also less likely to see real estate as a stable investment. Of course, the last few years have shaken confidence in almost every style of financial instrument. Smaller houses are cheaper to buy, maintain, and heat. Get rid of a lot of extraneous stuff and find a few hundred square feet work better than a few thousand. Owning a mortgage to own a house is now viewed as risky, and dealing with any upsets in the arrangement reveals a list of negative reinforcements. Some people are building tiny houses simply to be debt-free. They’re willing to give up aspects of their lives rather than have to deal with bureaucracies that control that most vital aspect of modern life, where a person lives.
My money and subsequent housing troubles have sparked fascinating discussions. I live in a creative community, and it looks forward to finding creative solutions. The current favorite, and we’re serious, is for someone to buy my house, and then rent it back to me as a “rent with an option to buy”. Interested? Give me a call. That conversation sparked another. I’m not the only one in this situation. Maybe we spread the risk by getting five owners to buy five houses in the same fashion. Mutual support and motivations result.
There’s more creativity to come. My house is small, and I could live in smaller. But what about the big houses? Estates are being settled that involve houses that are thousands of square feet. People are living in only select floors or rooms because their houses are larger than their needs. A house that raised a family with one child per bedroom and a bath for every bed may be a bit large for empty-nesters but the extra room can be rationalized as guest space; but after one of the partners dies it can become a large empty space that has wonderful memories but a lot of dusting. Who do they sell to? One creative solution is to turn large houses into intentional communities, which sounds innovative but which is really the incarnation of communes of the sixties and communities like the Quakers and the Pilgrims. Maybe a new trend in home renovations will be turning rooms into storage, or studio, or apartments, or even being sealed for later use.
Our society is bifurcating. The majority of the population is moving into the cities where life is much more interdependent. Others are retreating or returning to relying on smaller communities, less dependent on large infrastructure, with smaller obligations to centralized institutions, and a greater resourcefulness. In between are the ever-larger houses built over the last few decades, that may become a suburban vacuum. Too many people have witnessed too much natural and societal instability to lock back into hose large traps. No wonder tiny houses are being built on wheels. You never know why, where, or when you’ll have to suddenly move – and move to something better.