Beware: Approach with Caution: Preachy Girl on the Loose!
When I started this blog, I had in mind to look at buildings I like, make the occasional observation from the ‘look guys, this does not work for me’ POV and mostly just have fun with cool buildings, mostly of yore.
I still want to do those things, but now I have a different objective in mind. I want to change the housing market for the low end – those without 20% down and whose employment is retail/service oriented which means a 30 year mortgage isn’t a good option – if it’s an option at all.
I want to explore why housing costs as much as it does – and how we can bring down costs not for the middle class (they have their own concerns and I don’t want to sound like I object to reducing their costs but they also have more resources than the folks most likely to end up homeless – I’m a big believer in both/and – I don’t see why we can’t reduce the costs on both ends of the housing market – but I want to focus on the low end here) but the lower class.
Radical concept alert: a minimum wage earner, working forty hours a week, should be able to buy, NOT rent, a home that is adequate, comfortable, and secure.
No, that’s not possible in the mortgage model. But mortgages are not the only model of home buying, either. Mortgages, due to the need to protect the bank’s investment, discourage or prevent innovation in housing (and to a degree, in most modern architecture – can you imagine Wright getting a mortgage on Falling Water or the Johnson building?). They need to insure resale value – often without consideration of possible added value (try buying Falling Water at its build price – ha!) because it is so hard to project (hey, let’s be fair here).
But homes built at a cost low enough to give the low end access have resale value to that same end of the market. Here consideration has to be given to location – a LOT of consideration. Building inexpensively in Detroit is foolhardy in today’s market – but Huntsville is desperate for low cost housing to provide for the service workers the city is begging for.
Low cost need not mean low quality – IF we use alternative methods of construction that have proven track records. Cob is literally dirt cheap, impossible to burn down, and there are 5 and 6 hundred year old buildings still used as residences – that’s a track record! Concrete has been in use longer and if the aqueducts are any indication, wears pretty well. Modern three D printing has brought a new twist – the printed concrete home – which harkens back to Edison’s poured concrete home. The material cost is still fairly low – tech needs to prove itself a bit – but the possibility of making a livable, inexpensive home from concrete that isn’t a bad block construct is real.
Auburn’s Rural Studio has been doing experimental architecture for decades – student driven. Granted, they get some mixed results – the 15 foot paper retaining wall coming immediately to mind. I don’t know what happened with the giant planter project -but as the support for several tons of wet dirt was to be provided by nailed in shakes – nailed from the outside – I don’t imagine that went well.
But at least they had the guts to try. And more of their projects have worked than not: houses constructed of concrete and whatever happened to be on hand; houses constructed of carpet; pretty much anything they had enough of, they gave it a try – and a lot of them worked.
That’s not a model for housing a large number of people – but it is a resource of materials and constructions that might be more useful than believed. So are the many ‘do-it-yourself’ folks – tons of projects that have been constructed and can be examined (with the owner’s consent, of course) to see how well the materials/methods worked and what, if any, corrections/alterations need be made to make them work better. There are probably other organizations/schools out there that have done similar experiments/constructions – the point is we need not re-invent the wheel in order to scale up!
I am not a believer in the ‘entry level job’ – take a trip down to Wal-mart. Are most of the faces you see young? Sometimes – and sometimes you see a heck of a lot of older, middle aged and even elderly doing a lot more than saying ‘Welcome to Wal-mart’. Your entry level job is whatever job you land first. That’s the one that teaches you what the work world is like – and it makes no difference if it’s minimum wage or Fortune 500. The days of working your way to the top of one company are gone – most employers are looking for people who have left jobs in the last three to five years and wonder what’s wrong with those who work for a single employer longer.
So, if the employment model is changing, then the housing model has GOT to change with it. Let’s look at Huntsville. Hit Indeed and you can find thousands of available service/retail jobs – many offering decent pay and benefits because it is very much a seller’s market. But look over at the classifieds – housing rentals are astronomical. The jobs might support them – most probably not – but they absolutely won’t support the moving into the area that the job market desperately needs. No one working for Wal-mart in Troy is going to be able to afford the rent/down payment on a house, even very low end, in Huntsville.
Employers remain desperate for workers. Outlying communities take up some of the slack – but that requires a good car. Workers want to move there – they want the jobs – but you can only commute so far and Huntsville is not likely to fill its employment needs any time soon.
What would happen if workers could buy houses instead? Now they have equity toward a move if the job market fails. Starter homes – not the cheap nonsense we think of today but real homes – make it easier to transition to new job markets, even if the house they are leaving can’t be sold right away.
More to the point, buying a home begins the process of building wealth.
Imagine a minimum wage worker who buys a home and has it paid for in five years. Unlike the car, it won’t need replacing unless the job market becomes unworkable. Now he has a little expendable income. Part of that no doubt goes into other necessities, little luxuries and household expenses – but it opens the possibility of actually saving money, too. Over time, as income increases and savings accrue, investment becomes a real option.
Maybe our guy never becomes manager at Wal-mart – maybe he just happens to be the best danged stocker they ever have – or maybe he moves on to a series of similar jobs – so what? He works for his living like anyone else – why shouldn’t he have the same options, if not the same resources? So he never buys a yacht – few of us ever will – but he should be able to house, clothe, feed and grow his family and his wealth so that the state doesn’t have to support him. We need a model for housing that starts him on his way.
With a concrete mixer, a dump loader, a few tons of clay, straw and water, I can build a house that will be structurally stable, comfortable to live in and roomy enough that the bathroom isn’t under the staircase. With the same mixer, a really, really big three D printer and a lot of concrete, I can build a house more quickly with the same features.
There are even more ways than those – what we need now is a way to take them off the drawing board and build houses normal people, college kids ($350 a month for a bedroom is INSANE), minimum wage workers, and anyone who is has an income can afford to buy.