Friday, May 25, 2012

On "Building the Dream" by Gwendolyn Wright ***

This text is a history of the American home starting with the simple and plain residences of the Puritans back in colonial times. Although the work is a social history, Wright focuses most of her attention on the architecture and its meaning for people. The book is short on anecdote, making this a good summary but at times surprisingly dull for a work issued by a commercial publishing house.

Each chapters focuses on a unique type of home as it comes into being in the United States, be it the slave quarters, the country cottage, the tenement house, or the apartment.

It was when Wright hit the tenement house that my interest began to pique up a bit, for it is here that I first began to see the beginnings of our current housing situation. And my personal interest grew especially prominent once I hit the period in which government began to take a very active role in American housing, largely during the Depression.

The tenement house was a building created to house many a tenant and that often housed many more than it was supposed to. It's where the poor came to live when then immigrated to the city. I think of such homes as apartment, and yet, in Wright's book, the apartment is actually the tenements diametric opposite. The apartment was for the rich who wanted to live in the city. Although a rich person would have to give up the space allowed in a larger country home, the apartment offered a slew of amenities not available anywhere else: running water, bathroom facilities, and kitchen facilities (the latter usually in the form of a communal kitchen and dining hall). They were more like live-in hotels than today's apartments.

Government begins to take a role in the housing of the population with the coming of the Great Depression (and continued during the 1950s, when returning GIs led to a shortage of housing). The same arguments that continue to our time were present even then. Give needy people too nice a home, and you're interfering with the private sector and making people lazy. Hence, some policymakers attempted to make homes sponsored by the government into places no one would want to live for long. At the same time, some, trying to take advantage of the system, actually did build places that your average nonpoor person would have been jealous of. Where's the balance?

Construction firms and other well to dos began to game the system and got legislation passed that allowed them to build the new housing rather than the government outright. Government money transitioned from building homes for the poor to rebuilding rundown areas of town. Often, only a small portion of these "rundown" areas was actually blighted, but business interests could get the area condemned anyway and build newer, fancier places for the residents. Only, of course, they were the same residents. Lower-class (but not necessarily poor) people who might have had a decent home but were near a blighted area might now find themselves on condemned property and unable to buy a place in the newly refurbished neighborhood.

Also discussed are "community standards" for homes in suburban areas (the way that so many homes look the same or that in-home businesses are banned). And finally, there is a section on the contemporary housing problem. By contemporary, however, I mean the problem of around 1980, when Wright wrote her book.

And that in itself was very interesting. In 1980, of course, the interest rates would have been skyrocketing, as well as home prices, and the average home would have become more and more something an average American couldn't afford. In fact, as the author notes, most "turnover" (at this time at least) is among a very small segment of the population. People aren't buying homes for the first time; rather, the same people (about 15 percent of the population buy 90 percent of the homes) are selling one home and trading up to a new one (or, as it turns out, "down" to an old one in a gentrifying area).

Wright proposes various solutions to the housing problem, where rents and purchase prices are both increasing at an alarming pace. Of course, in 2012, we know what happened. Interest rates came down, and new forms of low-income loans came into being, right about this same time or just a few years before Wright penned her history. Such would lead to further price increases but also to a larger segment of the American population owning a home and being able to afford it--until, of course, the bubble burst, and we get what we have today: a time when homes no longer accrue value as they once did and where many a poor owner has been unable (or unwilling) to pay back the enormous debt, in turn damaging our banks and our financial industry and by extension our everyday businesses.

If there's one lesson that Wright's history poses for us, it's that there's no shortage of greed in the system, going back all the way to the early history of our housing.

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