Archive for the 'adapting in place' Category

Adapting In Place - And When Not To

Sharon March 3rd, 2009

Welcome to the first day of the Adapting in Place class - most of my posts this month will focus on the theme of how to get along where you are, with what you’ve got.  I love this class, and enjoy doing it.  I would note that some of the registered participants have not yet subscribed to the discussion group - please do so, so you don’t miss anything!

 I thought I’d start out with the question of who *should not* adapt in place.  The very first activity we do in both classes is to sit down and make a list of what your alternatives are if you have to leave your present place.  The reason we do it is because things like that could happen - people lose jobs and homes, they have fires, they are forced out by climate changes or environmental crises - sometimes you can’t stay where you are.  And as much as we’re going to focus on staying in place, we should also make sure we never lose sight of the fact that we do have other choices, even if we don’t much like them,

And for some people, getting out of Dodge is the way to go.  That is, I think that some people should absolutely consider leaving where they are, and doing sooner, rather than later, because they have little or no hope of successfully remaining in place. 

Now some of this comes down to long vs. short term issues - and there are balances to be struck.  For example, let’s say you live in a place that may be underwater in a couple of decades.  You love it, you are in your 50s or 60s, your kids are here.  Do you have to leave?  No, you don’t have to, but you might want to think about your choices.  For example, do you want to have to evacuate your location regularly due to coastal storms in your 80s?  Do you have a support network that will make that possible, that will help you?  If you plan to move when things get more acute, how likely is it you will be able to sell your house, as areas look increasingly difficult to inhabit.  Do you need to sell it?  If you have family inland who would take you in,  maybe risking that you might have to walk away is ok - or maybe it isn’t. 

Our homes are our homes, and our right to stay and choose them sometimes seems inviolable - but it isn’t.  In the next decades there are going to be a lot of migrants - and you  may be one of them.  Migrating and settling in a reasonably liveable place might be better - or it might not, and you might want to wait and see.  But don’t do it in ignorance - find out all you can.  The reality is that many people do more research on what movie to see than we do about our future, and the risks and benefits of the locations we choose.

 So here’s my list of when to think seriously about getting out.  There will be exceptions in every case - my claim is not “you definitely must go” but “think hard about what you are choosing.”

 1. If you have an ARM and can’t reset it, are already facing foreclosure or have no reason to believe you’ll be able to pay for your house, or if your current house was bought near the market peak and you require two ful incomes to pay for it. 

 The odds are good you aren’t going to keep your house in those circumstances - and the worst possible scenario for you may well be that you go into debt frantically trying to keep your old way of life open, which closes off other options.  If you have a better choice, one that can provide some stability, or there is hope of selling and getting out from under, seriously consider it.

 If you do end up in full foreclosure, remember the magic words - “Produce the Note.”  Rerquire that the company do full due diligence and stay in your house as long as you can - you might as well save up rent for the future.  And unless your loan is a recourse loan (be very careful with state assisted refinances, since many of these turn no-recourse loans into recourse loans - you do not want to be paying for this forever)  But do me a favor, and don’t trash the place on the way out - someone else, even you may eventually end up renting a foreclosure, so don’t trash what assets we’ve got indiscriminately.

 2. If you have young children or are elderly, have close ties somewhere but are living far away from them in a community that you are not invested in.  Not everyone has people (family biological or chosen) who will give you a place at the table, thin the soup to make it stretch, let you sleep on their couch and otherwise cover your back.  But if you do, recognize that these people are the beginnings of your tribe. Not all of us have tribes in one place - and some of us have multiple tribes.  But if you aren’t rooted where you are in some deep way, if you live there primarily for a job, and you can get back to your people think about it seriously.

The people who will most need the support of their family are young families themselves struggling to make do and older people who may need some help.  Sometimes these peopel are related to one another ;-) .  Not all family is good, not every friendship can go this far, but if you have these ties, they matter, and they are essential.

 3. If you have children or parents you need to care for far away.  Again, this is ymmv, but if you are going to be dealing with your parents’ decline, or if you don’t have custody of your kids but want to spend time on them, you need to set it up in a way that doesn’t make anyone rely on airline or other expensive long distance travel.  That means that if they don’t come to you, you go to them. It was once perfectly viable to live across the country from your kids, and say, have them spend summers with you - it may no longer be viable.  I realize this will be enormously painful and disruptive to families, but if you are the resource for people very far away over the longer term, you need to find a way to be closer to one another, or accept that you may not be able to take on that role.

 4. If you live in an extreme climate, likely to become more extreme with climate change, but you are not particularly and unusually well adapted to it.  That is, unless we check climate change, which at this point seems unlikely, if highly desirable, at some point, many places are going to be uninhabitable for many of the people who presently live there.  Some may become literally uninhabitable over time, but more likely, what we’ll see is that small populations, extremely well adapted to their environment, and extremely attuned to it, become native to many places as long as they are even marginally inhabitable.  But the question is, are you one of them?

 That is, if you live in a very hot, dry place, and are an expert desert farmer, gifted at retaining and using every drop of water prudently, and comfortable living without lots of input or air conditioning, and happy to live on the diet that grows there well, great, you and your descendents will probably do very well there if anyone does.  But if you are fond of long showers, keep the a/c on six months a year and think that hamburgers are a right, you might want to think about somewhere else.  Moreover, if you need income from the sale of your house, you might want to think about it sooner, rather than later, because there will probably come a point at which the number of people who want to live there declines dramatically, and it will be even tougher to sell than it is now.  Now even if some places do become uninhabitable, they probably won’t do so immediately - you might well be able to live out your life where you are.  But remember that it will probably become gradually and increasingly hard - the summers will be worse, the storms will be stronger, the ice pack will be smaller.  Are you prepared to be that adaptable?   

5. If you live among people with lousy values.  I’m on the record saying that most of us can probably get along in most places with at least some people. I don’t think everyone in your town has to be like you, or that ecovillages are the only way to find community. That said, however, there are exceptions.  And even if you can find some small community in a larger culture of rotten values, you may find that it wears you down. 

 Thus, if your neighborhood is chronically ridden with violence and crime, maybe it is a good idea to fight it - but maybe you’d be better off somewhere else.  If you bought in a gated community full of self-centered rich assholes, and now you regret it because they are pissed about your garden, sometimes, if you can, living somewhere else might be nicer. 

If you belong to a minority community, you might want to live where people like folks like you, or at least tolerate them, rather than a place that is hostile to them.  If you rely on a religious community, you might want to live where you feel that the cultural values reflect your own. 

Personally, I’ve always had a lot of luck finding allies where I went, even if we didn’t share faith or experience.  But there are root values we did have in common - integrity, kindness, a desire for community.  If those things don’t exist, you might seriously have to consider another choice.

6. If you don’t think your children (and by your children, I mean the children in your family, even if they aren’t your own)  have a future where you are.  Now this is somewhat speculative, and may partly contradict what I said above - you may, for example, simply not be ready to leave a place, even if you don’t think it will be sustainable in the long term.  But it is worth thinking about the larger consequences of committing to a place that may not have a future.  If your children have to leave to get work, if your children have to leave because it isn’t safe or is underwater, are your prepared to part with them?  Are you prepared for your family to be parted in circumstances that might not be conducive to cross-country travel?  More importantly, if you have land or something you hope to pass down to your kids, are you prepared not to be able to do so?  Is it an asset that they will be able to do without?  Again, you can’t know all this for sure, but it is worth thinking about.

 7. If you plan to move anyway.  That is, if you have a family place or somewhere you have always planned to return to, if you can, now is probably the best time.  It takes time to build soil. It takes time to get to know people. It takes time to see fruit trees come to maturity.  If you were planning on going anyway after a few more years of earning, or something, now might be the right time.  That said, however, I’d be awfully cautious about buying, and only recommend this *if you can* leave - either by selling your current place or if you’ve been renting.  But building roots is important.

8. If you aren’t prepared to live in the place you live as its culture demands.  That is, as we get poorer and travel and transit become bigger issues, living in the country is going to be a lot different than it is now - instead of living essentially a suburban life, commuting to activities not available and relying on trucked in supplies, you may have to shop occasionally and mostly stay home in the country, making your own entertainment.  Are you prepared to do that?  Urban dwellers may have to make do in tougher conditions as infrastructure problems come up.  My own analogy is this - if you’d be ok living in the worst neighborhood in your city as most of the people there live now, you’ll probably be fine.  But if you’ve been affluent and comfortable and might not be forever, be sure you can afford the city and like the life.  I believe strongly that city, suburb (most of them) and country all have a future - but the differences between them are likely to become more acute.  If you aren’t prepared to deal with those differences, you might consider moving.

9. If you live in a outer suburban housing development, particularly a fairly new one.  This is the one exception I make to the question of whether the suburbs are viable.  Generally speaking, I think a lot of suburbs will do fine, others will adapt in different ways - some may become more like small cities, others may be more country like.  But the ones that I think the least hope are the larger developments that were built in the “drive ’til you buy” model of the last few years, where lower income families have to move further and further away from urban or suburban job centers.  If your suburb was built on a cornfield forty miles from your job, think seriously about how you will get along either in an energy constrained world or one where energy is much more costly because of carbon limitations.  Do you really think anyone is going to run public transport out there?  Is there topsoil?  Is it a place worth maintaining and farming?  Are there neighbors?  Are there going to be?  If you are already in a half-finished development, you really might want to get out.

10. If you are native to another place.  By native, I mean that many of us have a strong sense of place, and a strong sense of belonging to a place.  My husband once went on a job interview at UIL Champagne-Urbana.  He recalls looking across the land and seeing the horizon and thinking “oh, there’s the ocean.”  But of course, there was no ocean there - his misperception lasted only a second, but revealed something about his ability to live in that place - he comes from people who live on hilly land around water, and know the flat horizon as the space of the sea.  It is possible that he could have adapted to the flat open land of the midwest and learned to love it - but it is also possible that one’s sense of place should be respected if possible.  I know people who have never fully adapted to their place, in the sense of being truly native to it - desert born people who could never breathe comfortably in the humid air of the southeast, warm climate people who found the cold of northern winters unbearable, city folk who find the country abnormally empty and silent, water folk who can’t imagine life away from a boat.

Not everyone is tied to a place - some people can live anywhere, others in a wide range of places.  Some people can take their sense of place to wherever they go, and find a new home.  But some people can’t.  And it is simply the case that your body, and parts of your soul are shaped by your experience - a college friend of mine once spoke of people who grew up by the sea has sharing “water thinking” and noted that she who lived in Hawaii and I who lived in Coastal Massachusetts had that in common in our way of viewing the world.  More mundanely, people who grow up in hot climates develop more sweat glands, and a better ability to cool themselves than people who grow up in cold ones - our physiology is shaped by our place.

And our native knowledge of our place is valuable - in fact, it may be the most powerful tool we have.  Now some of us will have to leave our native places, to journey again as people so often have.  But if we can stay where we are, knowing our flora and fauna, knowing what grows where and how things smell when the seasons change and how to heal or feed or tend with what is native here is absolutely valuable - as is the ability to adapt that knowledge as our places change.  So if there is a place where you feel at home, and no other constraints bind you, perhaps you will want to go there, and be there, and help other people be there.

Again, all of these examples will have exceptions. No one, especially me is saying “move now!”  And some people who probably should leave will not be able to for reasons of family and obligation, underwater housing and job commitments.  But do think about all your choices.


Facing the Zoning Monster

Sharon February 12th, 2009

Over the last 50 years, food and zoning laws have worked to minimize subsistence activities in populated areas.  Not only have we lost the culture of subsistence, but we’ve instituted legal requirements that make it almost impossible for many people to engage in simple subsistence activities that cut their energy use, reduce their ecological impact, improve their food security and improve their communities.  In some cases, these laws were instituted for fairly good reasons, in many cases, for bad ones that associate such activities with poverty.

In fact, scratch most of the reasons for these things, and you’ll find class issues under their surface in the name of “property values.”  There are ostensible reasons for these things, but generally speaking, the derive from old senses of what constituted wealth - and what constituted wealth was essentially having things that don’t do anything of economic value, but show that you can afford.  It is important to remember that many things we think are ugly because of their class associations are not inherently ugly - that is, a lush garden is not inherently more ugly than a lawn (quite the contrary), nor are colorful clothes on a line inherently unattractive.  What we find beautiful has to do with our culture and our training, otherwise how could anyone have ever found a 800K McMansion beautiful?

Among the basic subsistence activities legislated against by towns, cities and housing developments are:

1. Clotheslines instead of dryers.  Reason: Looks poor.  Might suggest you can’t afford a dryer.  Plus, you might see underwear that isn’t your own.  This is a major cause of sin.

2. No livestock, but large pets are acceptable. Reason: Ostensible reasons are health based, a few even broadly grounded in fact, real reason is that pets, which have no purpose other than companionship and cost money, are broadly a sign of affluence, while livestock are a sign of poverty, because they provide economic benefits.

3. No front yard gardens.  Reason: The lawn is a sign of affluence - you have money, leisure and water enough to have a chunk of land, however tiny, that doesn’t produce.  It creates in many neighborhoods a seemingly contiguousm, but basically sterile and safe seeming ”public” greenspace that is actually privatized and not very green.  Gardens, on the other hand, have dirty wildlife and bugs in them, and might grow food, which is bad because it implies you can’t afford it - even if you can’t. 

4. No rainwater collection.  Reason: This is mostly in dry places in the Southwest, for fear that the tiny amount of available rainwater might not reach people who can’t afford to pay for it, or strangely believe that water that lands on their roof might belong to them,  and who would like to have gardens anyway.  A few other municipalities do it for fear of west nile disease because they seem never to have heard of screens or mosquito dunks.  Oh, and barrels look like you can’t afford to water your lawn with sprinklers, even when it is raining.

5. No commerce of any kind. Reason: This often does not include white collar telecommuters who can make money out of their homes all they want, or upscale white collar professionals with home offices.  Instead this means people who want to sell food, do hair, fix things, etc…  This is deemed ugly and bad - and it is a visible reminder that people might not have enough money to keep warm burning it, and might need to earn some.

Now I realize I’m being a little bit unkind.  People have real aesthetic concerns - but a law that outlaws even tasteful gardens or small tasteful signs that say “eggs” on them, or a town that tries to keep its “traditional” “colonial” or “small town” feel without actually allowing any of the characteristics of traditional, colonial or small town life is creating a sterile Disneyland as well as destroying long term environmental, economic and food security.

The reality is that clothes on the line aren’t empirically ugly.  Neighborhood cats carry more diseases than backyard poultry.  If you can put a political sign on your lawn, you should be able to put a sign that says “fresh baked goods” on it - hell, food security is political!

That means that these laws can’t be allowed to stand.  And that means that one of the first things you or your community, your transition group or your neighbors can do is to push to change your zoning laws or your neighborhood covenants.   

That means you need to get involved.  Go to the town meetings.  Get to know you zoning board.  Talk to your neighbors.  Strategize - can you find some people who want chickens to get together with?  Find out what the objections are and address them - if people are afraid of bird flu, remind them that bird flu is largely a problem of industrial production.  If people think that lawns are beautiful and food gardens are ugly, show them otherwise.  Show them that other towns are doing it - remind them that Seattle allows chickens and that there is a national “Right to Dry” law. 

If the law won’t help you, consider whether you are willing to consider civil disobedience.  Unjust laws need to be overturned - you don’t have to go to jail to be Thoreau, sometimes you just need to plant some kale.  But before you do that, do know the price you may have to pay - make sure you are willing to pay it.  Someone with courage who is willing to pay a price may have to go first - and if you have the willingness to be the one to fight that battle, well, all honor to you.

The reality is that some of the zoning restrictions and covenants will fade as times get tougher, but we really can’t afford to wait for things to be really bad to get our chickens - because it will likely to be harder to come by diverse stock then.  We can’t wait to grow food until we’re already hungry.  We can’t wait to collect water until our well is dry.  It is worth fighting these battles right now - particularly since many of them truly are rooted in ugly prejudice against the poor,  and separation from our agrarian past.

Well, most Americans couldn’t get much more separate from our roots, so that’s sort of silly. And bit by bit, people are bringing clotheslines and front yard gardens back, and making them cool again.  But we can’t wait for that to happen - because the reality is that many of us will be poor, and the utility of these activities will be needed to soften our poverty.

We can’t wait until everyone sees a garden full of food as beautiful and lush.  Instead, we’ve got to make sure that even those who still think it looks old fashioned and dirty don’t get to control something so basic as our future anymore.


Utility Shut-Off Deaths Begin

Sharon January 27th, 2009

I’ve been worrying for a long time about what is going to happen to many of us when we can no longer pay our utility bills - and urging people to put what resources they can to being able to live without their utilities.  I’ve written about this a number of times.

 Now a reader (thanks, Edward!) has sent me this, the story of a 93 year old World War II veteran who died of hypothermia in his home because he couldn’t pay his electric bill.  Marvin Schur’s death is the first case I know of during this Depression that involves someone freezing to death in their home due to a utility shut off, but it will not be the last, I fear.

Bay City Electric Light and Power, which is owned by the city, said a limiter was placed on Schur’s electrical line.


The device limits the power that reaches a home, and it blows out like a fuse if power consumption rises past a set level.


The manager of Bay City said the limiter was tripped sometime between the time of installation and the discovery of the man’s body.


The city manager said city workers keep the limiter on a house for 10 days, then shut off power entirely if the homeowner hasn’t paid utility bills or arranged to do so.


A medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Schur told TV5 and that Schur died a painful death due to the hypothermia.


Dr. Kanu Varani has done hundreds of autopsies, and he said he’d never seen a person die of hypothermia indoors.


A neighbor who lives across the street from Schur is angered that the city didn’t personally notify the elderly man about his utility situation.


Schur’s neighbor, Herndon, said Schur had a utility bill on his kitchen table with a large amount of money clipped to it, with the intention of paying that bill.”

This is, of course, a horror and a shameful thing to allow to happen.  But a life with few or no utilities is probably in many people’s future - already families are unable to fill oil tanks and are making do with electric space heaters.  What happens when the electricity goes as well?  While many states have limits on utility companies shutting off during the heating season, some places have suffered chronic violations of these laws, and the pressure to shut off is likely to rise steadily as more and more Americans are in debt to their utility companies.  At last check 26% of all Americans were overdue on at least one utility bill.

This is one of my older articles - I’ve written about this a number of times - but my own conviction is that many, many of us will live without utilities, not because the grid crashes (which might also happen), but because we will increasingly be priced out of basic services like lights and heat.  I don’t want this to happen to anyone else - so find ways to live comfortably without power if you can, and please, please keep an eye on your vulnerable neighbors.  The elderly and disabled have the fewest recourses and are the most likely to die - and they may be ashamed to ask for help.  Don’t make them ask, be there offering, so that no one will ever die this painful death again. 


You Got to Let Go of Remote Control: The Wake-Up Call is in Your House!

Sharon December 18th, 2008

Don’t ever doubt the power of just one mind.
Or the world-wide power of just one rhyme.
Don’t ever doubt the force of the bassline.
Or a record gone round to burn the house down.
You got to let go of remote control!  You got to let go of remote control!You got to let go of remote control!  You got to let go of remote control!

Hey world, you know you got to put up a fight
Hey world, you rumble in the jungle tonight
Hey world, keep bringing it the rest of your life
You got to put up a fight, You got to put up a fight!

- Michael Franti and Spearhead

(Ok, you don’t have to or anything, but I’d strongly recommend that you listen to the song while you are reading this blog post - sometimes things just need the soundtrack.  This is one of them - you can see it on youtube actually: and the song is downloadable in various places. We need the sound to go with the ideas here, and who better than Franti?)

Ok, folks, time for our wake up calls!  Today is the end of the year preparedness wrap up.  This is not your normal blog post, this a party, and like all the best parties it has a soundtrack, some singing and dancing, some call and response.  Because this is the year that normal started to go to hell, and we got our wake-up call!  But that doesn’t have to be bad news - knowing that we have to be responsible, that our future is in our hands can be empowering too.  Time to let go of the remote control, to let go of all the things we let operate on remote control, and time to take charge of our futures.  We got to put up a fight on this one - we’re not going gently into any kind of night.

Who’s out there now?  How many of you got your wake up call this year that we can’t count on everything working the way it always has? By my count there were 14 states that had a significant portion of their population lose power for more than a day or so: Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire (some of y’all are just logging back on), Texas, Indiana, Iowa Minnesota, Michegan, Ohio, Alaska.  I’m probably underestimating the number, too.  Ok, report, who am I missing??  What was it like?  Were you ready - would you have been ready if it lasted longer?

What about the places where a large number of people had to grab their bug out bags and run?  Iowa, right, and Minnesota, Californians from the Wildfires, and Lousianans and Texans from the Hurricanes.  Name your states, folks!  Call out loud!  Did your plan help you?  What will you do next time?

And time to sing out, all those folks who weren’t part of any official disaster, but feel like they got hit by an earthquake anyway - you lost your jobs, you lost your homes, you are still sitting in your homes, but what you had ain’t worth nothing and you know that all the things you assumed would keep you secure, well, they aren’t so solid anymore.  Time to find some small measure of security in all this bad.  What can you do now to insulate yourself from the next little earthquake?

What about the 1 in 5 Americans who ended last winter in debt to their utility companies, struggling to pay for increasingly unaffordable heat, light and power?  One out of every 20 Americans got shut off last year - that’s more than five million households who had to live without a major utility! Anyone want to bet that number won’t go up?  Can you manage without them?  We’ve got to get the coal fired electric plants closed down - are you ready to make do with less energy?

And yes this was a rough year for America, but it certainly isn’t just America.  Check in, all of you from the 91 countries that the CIA notes had serious shortages of oil, gas or electricity.  What about the victims of floods in Britain, riots in Greece, the Earthquake in China, or any of the other disasters that hit around the world?  Anyone here reading from those places?  Don’t stay silent!  Sing out and tell us how you do, how you did, and what you’ll do next time.

Ok, so you survived.  How’d it go?  Were you safe, were you strong?  So you made it through - were you ok, were you ready?  What did you learn in your trials this time - what will you change for the next time?

 What about those of you who had no trials - do you think you won’t ever?  Time to practice, because three days without power will teach you more about what you need to get along than all the reading you can do on the internet.   

All of us who had our wake-up calls, either because our basic systems failed, or because we saw our neighbors lose theirs - it isn’t just enough to shrug and go on - it is time to resolve that next time you’ll be ready, you won’t be stuck, you won’t be powerless, just because you are without grid power.  There isn’t any getting off easy in this life, unless you are rich - and most of us will never be that. 

 Do you have an evacuation plan, a bug out bag, a little cash in reserve and enough gas to get where you need to go?  Do you have a way of finding your loved ones if you have to get out? 

 Are you set with light, heat, cooking and anything else you need to be secure and comfortable at home in a power outage?  Don’t rely solely on a generator - getting gas out of the ground takes power, and widespread enough outage will mean you still need those no-power backup systems.

Are you talking to your neighbors, talking about how to manage systemic problems?  How will you deal with waste, with food, with the elderly and ill in the neighborhood?  

Most of all, are you set to take care of yourself and your own needs, maybe to help others, or are you likely to rely on safety nets?  There’s no shame in relying on a safety if you really need it - but I think there is some shame in making use of a safety net you could have avoided requiring.  The safety nets are most likely to catch those who need it if those of us who can take care of ourselves as much as possible. 

 It is so easy to live in the world and trust that the systems will keep you going on remote control, that it is enough to do nothing, or maybe to do a little.  But if you haven’t had your wakeup call, it is coming.  We have no choice but to let go of the remote control, to take responsibility for ourselves and our future.

What will you do this year to be more prepared? Remember, there’s no getting out of it - we’ve all got to put up a fight, because no one is going to make it easy for us.


What Is Your House Worth? Both Less and More than You Think

Sharon December 16th, 2008

Yesterday’s big news included the fact that Americans lost two trillion dollars in housing wealth last year.  That’s one heck of a big number - except that like most of the big numbers we actually see in the news these days, it radically understates the reality.

You see 2 trillion is just the amount that they claim you could have sold your house for in 2007 vs. 2008.  But that doesn’t really tell the whole story.  Because, of course, this assumes that most of us could access the value of our homes if we wanted to.  But for many people, that’s no longer possible at all.

For example, for many thousands of people who plan to stay in their homes and  would like to access the equity in their homes through home equity lines have seen them revoked.  Millions of people cannot sell their homes at any price, because they are now underwater, and the banks will not permit a short sale, or because they can’t afford to lose their downpayment, but can afford to keep paying the mortgage.  Still more simply could not sell their homes at any price they are willing to accept, because nothing at all is selling, and they cannot find a buyer who can get credit.  The functional value of many homes in the US is very low or negative - that is, the house will continue to cost you mortgage payments and taxes, but you cannot functionally extract any value from them.  Realistically, many, many trillions are now tied up in housing as functionally “lost” value.

For many aging folks who had relied on their housing as an “investment,” and for the many elderly who had most of their wealth tied up in their houses, they will find that not only can they not cash out, they may no longer be able to trade their housing for care in their old age - assisted living depends on high valuation of homes - right now, it seems that few companies wish to take this in trade.  

Is the whole story of home ownership unremittingly bleak, however?  If you are underwater, is that the end of home ownership for you?  My own take is that it isn’t, that there are several ways to shift the economic situation so that homes move from the debit column to the asset column. 

The first is to shift your thinking.  Until not too long ago, people rarely thought of their homes,  primarily as assets.  Your home is, well, your home.  Its value lies not in its potential sale price, or your ability to trade it for something, its value lies in its function.  Now only you can evaluate whether you will be paying too high a price for that home - and this is something we all need to think through.  But if your house is worth the price to you, too tight a focus on its “official” value distracts from the reality - one’s home is one’s home.

But that’s not all there is to it.  Right now most of us with mortgages are pouring money into our houses.  None of us can afford a money pit right now - we might as well at least pay rent, and receive basic services and allow others to take the economic risk and make the repairs if we are simply going to pay out (please do not mistake me, I don’t think renting is a bad idea, in fact - but this post my primary focus is on the present homeowning majority).  So your house has to not just shelter you, but either help you produce money or enable you to reduce other costs.

That means that you need to evaluate your home for what else it can do for you.  Can you grow a garden, and reduce food costs?  Plant fruit trees, nuts and berries?  Raise chickens, rabbits or bees to provide food and fertility?  Raise larger livestock?  Produce some of your home heating or cooking energy in the form of anything from coppiced firewood to twigs and dried grasses for a tiny hot rocket fire to stir fry over?

Could extra rooms in your home enable you to produce additional income or reduce total costs.  Could you rent out a room, make an apartment and rent that, or take in a housemate?  Could you consolidate with your family or with friends? Do you really need all the space you have?

Do you have a workshop that would enable you to do home repairs, fix your own appliances and otherwise cut back on new purchases and hired labor (you may have already done this, but if you don’t, it is time?). Do you have the equipment to mend and repair your own clothing, rather than replace it, or perhaps even make new? 

Could any of these things (or something else) be adapted into an income stream?  That is can you make, build, repair, mend, cook, tend or do something else that is needed in your neighborhood?   There are hundreds of small businesses that can be run from your home part time - everything from small scale programming to selling bulk foods, from daycare to mending and handyman work.  These have the dual effect of offering you an economic fallback position, making your home into an asset (and potentially reducing your tax burden in some cases), and also by engaging with the people immediately around you, improving local economies and communities.

Suburban and rural garages and barns offer the possibility of even more than cottage industry - a business that might eventually employ others in your neighborhood.  Think about what you depend on, and what will be needed in your community - is it possible that your garage might be the new general store?  That your small greenhouse operation might employ your neighbors eventually?  That yours might be the neighborhood bakery or restaurant?  Those of us who live in areas away from commerce might start thinking in terms of establishing local businesses - these may need to stay under the table until enforcement of restrictive regulations is reduced - that is, you might start baking for a couple of neighbors by barter, while also gradually working on finding the equipment to expand eventually.

What about community as an asset.  If you stay put in a place where you have ties (and this presumes we have done the work of making those ties), can they provide a measure of security, of safety, of assistance that we once relied on economic assets for - that is, the neighbors who watch out for you, who help out during illness, who will work with you, who send over a pot of soup when they have extras - those are assets of economic value as well, and must be considered in the calculation.  Staying put can enable us to keep those assets in place.

In many cases, if you are committed to keeping your home - because it is near your family, because it has an ideal yard to grow food in, because you are tied to your community - you will need several of these strategies.  And they may be hard to enact at first - for example, it may be hard to decided who gets to keep their house when the need for family consolidation comes up. Who moves in with who, and how do we protect the interests of those who don’t own?  How do we handle multiple parties working out of the same house?  How do we get used to less privacy and less personal space? 

The other calculation we need to make is the truly long term value of these homes.  Wealth in the US  is disproportionally concentrated in the hands of older people - high housing prices and rapidly inflating educational costs along with stagnant real wages mean that those who bought into markets decades ago got most of the actual wealth.  Older people and younger ones have a shared crisis - the elderly and aging baby boomers who relied on financial investments and housing to ensure security in their old age no longer can rely on either of those things.  Younger people who couldn’t get into the markets, or couldn’t do it without extortionate rates and minimal downpayments have either had no opportunity to own a house or will lose that option rapidly.  So we have older folks with houses, but with declining investment income and a declining number of years of employment, and younger people who can work, but who can’t get into the housing market, who can’t afford a mortgage and who soon, by defaulting on student loans and mortgages, won’t be able to for a long time.

You may not be able to trade a house for assisted living anymore, but you might be able to trade a future in your home for help in your old age - it might be as bluntly mercenary as that, but in most cases, it won’t be, it will be a familial relationship.   But aging baby boomers and the elderly in the US are facing an economic crisis - and they are going to have to start thinking of their homes as a long term asset to be passed down to children and grandchildren - and those children are going to have to start seeing themselves as stewards of a resource, the people who care for the family home, so that their own posterity can inherit it, and who in turn, care for their own parents and relations so that someone will do the same for them.

The shift of housing from a salable asset to something worth holding, a source of income and reduced costs, the place where you live out your life, and the place where your children grow up, come to adulthood, and come home to is going to be the great psychological and economic shift of our times, I suspect.  And any calculation of the value of our homes must begin from this complex question of what our homes are worth - as I say above, I think many of us will find that the answer is both less and more than we ever expected.


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