21 October 2010

In Every Dream Home, a Heartache

Just finished reading this piece from the New York Times Magazine on the trend toward smaller house sizes. In summary, the jury's still out. Houses aren't selling hotly as a rule, and buyers don't seem to know what to make of a "small house" of only 1700 square feet--the average new home size thirty years ago. This got me thinking about the spaces that we live in. My parents' house (which seems huge to me when I visit) was just a shade bigger than average when they bought in 1980. My girlfriend and I reside in a circa 1905 two-story house, which we estimate around 1500 sq ft. That would have seemed palatial to the average Chicago tenement dweller; not as glamorous as the boulevard mansions being erected a few blocks east, but within much closer reach. The later bungalows are even smaller, yet they too represented a huge increase in personal living space for families cramped in minuscule apartments.

To understand how a house that sometimes feels too big can be considered smaller than "small", we have to look at what has become the new normal. The Times piece cites pre-crash model houses topping out at over 6000 sq ft, and a 2007 average of about 2500. By contrast, the average new house in Denmark is only about 1400 sq ft and only 825 sq ft in the UK. The American psyche looms large in these statistics. Our nation's identity is closely linked to a frontier mentality, a notion that there is an inexhaustible supply of both land and resources. This would have made perfect sense to early settlers who happened upon seemingly endless tracts of virgin forest and vast herds of bison. Of course, we hit the west coast 200 years ago and have been steadily populating the gaps ever since, but the myth still lingers. Buy a house for your 2.5 kids, tend a chemically-treated lawn, drive everywhere even if you don't need to, before eventually succumbing to suburban ennui. This is what "normal" people have done for fifty years in this country. (Interestingly, one nation which has kept up with American home sizes is Australia, which I would argue possesses a similar frontier mindset.)

At some point, things went topsy-turvy. I remember as a kid in Southern California, before the real estate bubble that burst in the early 90s, lots of new construction homes going up near where I lived. When my parents bought, the area was the very definition of "exurb", but the suburbs kept on their steady march. As I've alluded before, the subdivision was zoned to keep horses, so the yards were quite large. I grew up on a half-acre lot (it's very unpleasant to mow that much grass in the midst of an Inland Empire heatwave), while new houses were going up with double the square footage on a fraction of the land. The yard...the psychological "land" that ordinary people had envied for centuries, was now a postage-stamp afterthought to a hermetically-sealed living space, replete with formal dining room and four-car garage.

What really bothers me is that I can't even imagine what people do with that much house. As the minimalist aesthetic has never had many American adherents, having a lot of empty space leads to a desire to fill it with stuff. This is turn, drives overconsumption. The bigger the house, the more stuff you need to buy to make it look like it's inhabited. Furthermore, I would suggest that the "breakdown in family life" decried by many social conservatives has less to do with rap music or video games, than by giving kids too much of their own space. When large families lived together in one room, they couldn't avoid spending time together. It's also no coincidence that these sprawling exurban locales are the seat of right-wing support.

But who am I to tell people what kind of house they should want? The house-buying public will, eventually, understand that bigger is not always better. I think that it's a generational shift which is only beginning. If cities are serious about attracting a supposed "creative class", much attention needs to be paid to the state of public schools. It's one thing to get childless twenty-somethings to move in, it's quite another to get them to stick around when they start having kids. The schools are not unfixable, but it will be expensive. South Koreans sacrificed an entire generation of prosperity to invest in their education system, I doubt we could ask the same of the American public. It may be possible to enact such targeted austerity measures on a local scale though.

It's difficult to see the world outside of my liberal urban bubble sometimes. I know it's out there. I've lived there, I know the people. I also feel like I escaped.

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