Durable Growth

Do we have too much elbow room?

120504004 Home on LaurelI know a family who undertook an extended European vacation a couple of years ago.  With their children nearing the time when they would take wing, it was a final family fling.  And they flung well, with stops in several European countries, an extended visit with the family of an exchange student they had hosted, and a stop in the small Italian village from which the wife’s forebearers has emigrated.

Shortly after their return, I chatted with the husband, who was still exuberant over how well the trip had gone, how much fun his family had experienced, and what great insights they had all gained.

As the conversation waned, the husband grew pensive for a moment and then offered, “I couldn’t believe how little space in which the Europeans live, even those who are affluent.  And they seem quite content with it.”

I won’t touch the contentment element of his comment.  Charles Montgomery in “Happy City” has already covered that topic sufficiently well and perhaps conclusively.  But the husband’s home size observation fit into a topic on which I’d been giving some thought.

The U.S. leads the world in home size, and we lead by a comfortable margin.  Why is that?

Some will argue that the U.S. has been phenomenally successful in the past 75 years, first turning the tide of World War II, then jumping onto the post-war opportunities to build an industrial behemoth, and then leading the world into the era of technology.  One can make a case that never has a nation had a more successful 75 years.  And the argument follows that giant homes are part of the spoils from that success.

Except that we don’t portray that success in other aspects of our lives.  More than half of all working families have less than $10,000 in retirement savings.  We’ve reduced the funding of government to the point that critical infrastructure isn’t being maintained.  We worry obsessively that an income gap is eroding the middle class.  We’ve reduced public support for college education to the point that many young adults are beginning their working lives with a crushing load of student debt.  And all those concerns are circling about us as we sit in our giant homes.

Rather than big homes being the result of national prosperity, it seems more likely that we’ve made the choice to live in big homes to the detriment of other aspects of our lives.

(Lest anyone think that I’m pointing fingers at others, let me note that my wife and I also live in a home that’s too big for our needs.  It’s a fine house and we enjoy living in both the house and the neighborhood, but we could have sufficed with fewer square feet.

We purchased the house because it was in a part of town that we enjoyed.  Initially, we had the goal of creating a rental unit out of some of the extra space, but the challenges of the architecture, building code, zoning code, and municipal fees eventually quashed that hope.  So we now join most Americans in rattling around.)

I have a theory about how we became prone to gigantism in our dwellings.  Not surprisingly, suburbia has a role.

As we began to sprawl, we choose to support the spread by subsidizing roads and gasoline.  An interstate freeway system that was originally conceived for defense, commerce, and vacations was converted into a bird’s nest of commuter routes.

Moving to the far metropolitan fringes to get a little extra space began to seem a reasonable alternative, largely because we weren’t paying the true price.

The mortgage industry, by considering family housing expenses but not transportation costs in determining mortgage qualification, further facilitated large homes far from work.

Finally, a growing sense that a spacious, if underused, living room meant more than a thriving neighborhood and a false belief that homes were good investments, when the stock market has actually outperformed housing over time, led us to homes that we didn’t need at the cost of other elements of our lives and that often don’t make us happy.

Combining this hypothesis with the suburban musings of my previous post leads to a combined hypothesis that the national successes of the U.S. led to a hubris-based belief that suburbia was a valid solution to our land-use future, which led to subsidizing suburbia, which led to giant homes on the metropolitan fringe where we live vaguely discontent and wondering why we don’t have money for the other priorities in our lives.

The insight is almost Zen, “In the bloom of our creation were the seeds of our discontent.”

None of this is meant as a call to torch the McMansions, to don hair shirts, and to march downtown to live in tiny concrete cubes.  But changing the rules so there are more options for frugal housing options and alternative household spending priorities would seem a reasonable approach.  Personally, my wife and I would happily swap our home for a home half the size and several blocks closer to downtown, but too few options exist for that change.

However, I’ll admit that I may be piling up hypotheses into a teetering tower.  If others wish to ponder these thoughts during their holiday travels and to offer alternative suggestions, I’ll be happy to listen.

Next time, I hope to return to the great streets topic.  I had the ill-timing to propose a series of North Bay roadtrips just as the heaviest December rainfall in a century approached the coastline.  Weather permitting, I’ll take a Napa County roadtrip in the next couple of days and then write about Calistoga and St. Helena on Monday.  Weather not permitting, I’ll find another topic.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

Comments are closed.