Wednesday, January 04, 2006

How We Got Robbed Pt. 2

There are several ways in which the cost of housing and transportation got jacked up. The most important of these is the deliberate creation of suburban sprawl. But before I go into that, what is the reason people want to live in the burbs as compared to the city? I suspect the reason is that they want space - a yard to grow flowers and vegetables, to have barbecue parties and for some, a swimming pool. Can't blame anyone for wanting space, seems a natural enough desire. But must the need for a yard be met only in the present wasteful and therefore costly way?

In a contemporary suburb at least half the lot is unnecessary. Houses are plunked in the middle. If they were near the street as most older houses are, you could have the same size back yard on a lot maybe one-third the length. Ranch style houses make no sense in a climate that is either cold or damp, but look at how many of these sit lengthwise, parallel with the street, making the lots wider than need be. Build one and a half or two stories if you want floor space and your lot can be that much smaller. Suburban streets are now as wide as what highways were back in the 1950's. The larger the lot - the more it costs. The greater the sprawl, the more it costs for municipalities to install utilities and therefore the greater the taxes.

There is also the tendency to overbuild. The big families of the late '50's-early '60's were raised in 1100 sq. foot dwellings. This was jacked to 2000 sq ft in the 1980's. Today you have the imbecility of the mini-mansion. People with one child are rattling around in 4000 sq. ft. barns. Every addition square foot is at least another $150 added to the cost. Smaller, older houses are often bulldozed to make room for these future white elephants.

The insane way these new "communities" are designed also makes for expense. Work and consumption are separated from living space - often by many miles. Shopping centers are surrounded by acres of parking lots, as are the "technoparks".

Rather than integrating apartment buildings and condos into the street along with the duplexes and SFD's, they are set down in the middle of vast windswept lawns, and the inevitable parking lots. Sprawl makes it too expensive for municipalities to run an efficient bus system, so people must rely on cars, which accounts for the high cost of transportation. Much of the wealth spent on transit is wasted. Rather than expensive expressways, rather than unnecessary tunneling for rapid transit, they could run light rail at ground level, but don't.

Consider an alternative - much denser, integrated villages outside of the city connected to the center by light rail. One car per family and dwellings at half the price. If you wanted to put a "house and a yard" into virtually everyone's hands, you could factory built 1000 sq. ft. two story plus basement row houses having a 1000 sq. ft yard. This works out to 22 houses per acre, rather than 5 to 7 in your typical burb.

Everyone knows that if you buy a house for $200,000, you will end up shelling out at least twice that before your mortgage is up. The unnecessarily high cost of mortgages is another feature which jacks up the price of housing. If you artificially inflate housing costs, as mentioned above, then slap on a 4-10% interest rate, it will be difficult for most people to afford housing. There is no reason why loans for a primary residence for the average income person should not be granted at cost - say a maximum of two percent. (1)

1. This figure would break down to one percent to cover handling costs and one percent to help build the fund for future loans. Wealthy people and the purchasers of secondary dwellings would get bank rate. Average income and below would get loans at cost. Those between the average and the wealthy would be assisted on a graduated income scale. To stop speculators no one could sell a dwelling purchased at cost loan for five years without a financial penalty. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Association, a government institution, already assists mortgages, a more radical or “Proudhonian Peoples Bank” type institution, could put dwellings in everyone’s hands.

For further reading see: "Room For Thought - Rethinking Home And Community Design" by Avi Friedman


Blogger Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

I was hoping you would try your hand at housing. I have always felt kind of bad about the size of the place I bought years ago. It is only a little above the 1100 sq. ft. you mention as being an olden days house. My partner and I could not find a smaller house that was not built in that bygone era. We hope to search out a smaller place for our later years.

The size of some of the places I see sprouting up like poisonous toadstools is enough to give me neck pain I shake my head so much. It is too bad people are so hungry for visible status symbols like houses the size of the apartment buildings I lived in years ago.

I am glad I bought as small as I could, though I guess our lot is on the large size. I have a life - lots of people in their piggy palaces do not.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Alberto said...

Hi Larry. You are in Spanish Wikipedia! Hehe.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Battlepanda said...

Bravo. There are too many libertarians who somehow stop their questioning of the state at things like roadbuilding. I happen to be a believer in government, but I deeply question the decisions that lead us to tear up light rail in favor of tarmac. It is an artificial subsidy for our carbon-guzzling lifestyle (not to mention producing ugly and socially deadening sprawl).

I don't think the government is the whole problem. People have bought into the suburban megahouse as the ideal manifestation of the American dream. Don't think the house plunked down in the middle is a bug -- people look down on houses not set back far enough from the street.

I despair when I talk to my friends and they simply don't see how development pattersn can be any other way.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Thanks Mr. Beer and Hockey and Angelica. Thanks Alberto too for pointing out that I am in the Spanish Wikipedia, something I wasn't aware of. One thing. I suppose it is understandable since I have written some stuff on individualism that I should be listed as an individualist, but I am not one really. If I had to label myself it would be as an anarcho-syndicalist.(Its just that I am rather fond of individualists!)

6:17 PM  
Blogger Alberto said...

OK Larry. I changed it. You are listed as individualist anarchist at English Wikipedia too, here.

Excuse my English.


8:57 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Jim Kunstler (Geography of Nowhere) says that postwar suburban design plattes actually make Brady Bunch-style setbacks mandatory. He mentioned one old Georgetown neighborhood with sidewalks and front porches, and houses close to the street, where an old house burned down. The old houses were grandfathered in, but the new one had to be built with a golf course in the front yard, and stuck out like a sore thumb next to all the others.

When you think about it, those big empty front yards are useless. There's probably more privacy in a screened front porch behind a couple of big elm trees than there is in one of those giant lots (where even the chickenshit bradford pears and crabapples they plant take twenty years to reach full size). And you can't put them to any practical use, like planting a garden, without the neighbors complaining about the Beverly Hillbillies living there.

One reason for the inflated size of single-family housing is that, once the cost of moving all the equipment to the lot is paid, it doesn't cost much more to build a 4-br house than a 2-br one. But shifting the property tax to site value alone would put a stop to the grossly inflated speculative value of the lot. In a nearby bedroom community, the sixth-acre lots alone cost around $80,000. About the only way a middle class person can afford that is to take a very long-term mortgage, and refinance every few years to squeeze out what little equity there is for grocery money.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

The only thing that those big front yards are useful for is lawns - which means some poor SOB has to cut it. The other thing they are useful for is parking half a dozen vehicals - one for Mommy, one for Daddy, one for Big Bro, one for Sis and an RV for week ends. Sometimes thesee more moneyy tied up in cars than the value of the house...

8:44 PM  
Blogger pman said...

Hey Kleitus,

Good article. I've also noticed that instead of delivering mail to your home, they have now built one collective mail box in the middle of each of these new developments. More cutbacks?

1:33 PM  

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