As participants in a modern industrial society, most of us have grown accustomed to a certain level of abstraction and “artificial” constructs in our lives, a byproduct of the conveniences we take for granted. If we need a loaf of bread, we head to a grocery store and hand over paper currency or conduct an electronic transaction that sails through the ether on its way to a brick-and-mortar bank somewhere.
This market economy saves us the trouble of stuffing our pockets with, say, fur pelts or fish, and then seeking somebody with a bushel of wheat to trade. But if bakers or grocers suddenly clamped down on the quality or availability of that bread, or its cost skyrocketed beyond our means, wouldn’t we re-think the convenience factor?
That scenario has already played out, according to author Jessica Kellner — not with our baked goods, but in something much bigger: the economics of homeownership. Builders and lenders control the process, Kellner maintains, and the rest of us order off their menu. The result is bigger and costlier houses, along with a growing number of people for whom homeownership is becoming an impossible dream.
This is headier stuff than we’re used to seeing in books on home design, but Housing Reclaimed is a book on a mission. It digs at the why and how of homeownership, not just the what.
The nutshell historical perspective comes first: During America’s early years, Kellner says, our average homes had been modest in size, fashioned from natural and mostly local materials, and often built by the owners and occupants. People had direct personal ties to these structures because they themselves made them happen. Were they impressive, magazine-cover homes? Hardly. But they met basic needs, and more important, owning one didn’t require decades of financial obligation. Land ownership was another matter, but federal expansion and the Homestead Act of 1862 solved that problem for those willing to venture westward.
Enter the Industrial Revolution. While it alleviated scarcity of some items, the efficiency and specialization it brought were not without their tradeoffs. Mass production and marketing techniques eventually led to housing that was larger, more standardized, and more expensive. Building was done by specialized tradesmen, and financing the purchase involved large down payments, high risk of foreclosure, and individual owners dancing to the tune that banks and insurance companies played. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) balanced that equation somewhat, but the trend toward housing as a pricey commodity continued.
Except for low-income populations excluded by the price of admission to the housing market, most of us accepted the market terms and signed on the dotted line. This worked out fine while prices kept heading upward, but the 2008 economic downturn sent home values crashing, leaving many owners underwater on their mortgages. The sound of that wreckage, Kellner insists, was a wake-up call we should answer.
So, what’s her alternative? For starters, we simplify our wish lists, embrace smaller homes that are environmentally sustainable, and participate more in building them. This is easier said than done, obviously, but Kellner provides a template for tackling a home-built home, as well as a number of case studies that show the results other intrepid owner/builders have gotten. Here are some of her key guidelines: