Covering the mortgage through the long emergency

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For snarky, mildly academic news commentary on the long finance meltdown the country is in the middle of, my reading of choice is Salon's How the World Works. Combine that with a Salon feature today on oil prices, and you start getting to immediate questions for my profession:

The bottom line: Oil prices are high today, not due to a temporary disruption in the global flow of petroleum as in 1980, but for systemic reasons that are, if anything, becoming more pronounced. This means news headlines with the phrase "record oil price" are likely to be commonplace for a long time to come. ...

What, then, will be the lasting consequences of higher energy costs? For the ordinary American consumer the answer is simple, if grim: A diminished quality of life, as discretionary expenses disappear in the face of higher costs for transportation, home heating, and electricity, not to speak of basics like food (for which, from fertilizers to packaging, oil is a necessity). For the poor and elderly, the implications are dire: In some cases, it will undoubtedly mean choosing among heat in winter, adequate nutrition and medicine.

While the past decade's ludicrous and irresponsible attitudes towards homebuying and the rising cost of oil aren't necessarily directly linked, they're both contributing to squeeze the typical American household to a degree that hasn't been seen in my life. Personally, I still expect it to get worse before it gets better - with everyday bringing more "unexpected" news off trouble, it would seem irresponsible to expect "recovery" in the near future. In fact, it's pretty questionable whether we'll ever see "recovery", if you're looking to the past decade for your model of normalcy.

So let's look to the excerpt above. Looking at oil costs alone, the author discusses higher costs for everything from home heating and electricity to food and medicine. Add in the effect of people losing (or willfully giving) their homes to foreclosure, losing their jobs, and having their retirement portfolios evaporate out from under them through corporate implosions, and you can start to envision people looking desperately for new ideas.

Personally, I don't think they're going to find new ideas. I think it's time, instead, to dredge up some old ones. While the American idolization of the detached single-family home may be almost as old as America (thanks, Kenneth Jackson!), the sweeping, near-universal realization of that ideal is a much more recent phenomenon. (We'll count the typical residential condo as "close enough".)

"Modern" land use zoning shares the credit-slash-blame for this - nearly every community in the country has vast tracts of land where the only legal use is stand-alone, "single family" homes, with the term "family" used to limit the number of people who can legally inhabit the home. Yes, it may be ridiculous to have 5,000 square foot homes housing only 3 people, but, in most places, you couldn't legally have any more than that, if those people aren't a nuclear family.

As the twin crises of mortgage meltdown and steadily climbing oil prices continue to turn the screws (Kunstler was wise to stake claims to "The Long Emergency"), I think we're going to see widespread violation of these ordinances. People will be quietly moving in with each other not only for help paying the mortgage, but for help paying the heating bills. Houses everywhere will be "over-occupied", with individuals or families doubling up for the sake of finances. Really, this will be as much of a "recovery" to "normalcy" as anything else that's being hoped for - the city guides for my neighborhood for the early half of the century show "boarder" as a very common designation for residents, as well as what appear to be adult offspring living at home. If professional planners try to squelch this, we'll find ourselves snowed under by the sheer volume (not to mention frustrated with the fact that we're being distracted from projects like, say, economic development).

This could be an opportunity. People who have the ability to be creative - to take on boarders or add a "mother-in-law suite" or "granny flat", for example - will be better able to hold on to their homes, and to keep them well-maintained in the process. Communities that allow (or encourage) this flexibility will have an advantage over other communities: communities that allow people to find ways to stay in their homes can expect to see fewer foreclosures and more stable residency than communities that forbid these means of making ends meet. (Similarly, communities that encourage household food security will have an edge.)

The problem is getting from here to there. American homeowners tend to have a deep emotional investment in the idea that a detached, single-family home in a neighborhood comprised of the same is the only safe living situation, where "safe" is defined in terms ranging from crime to return-on-investment. Even when - or especially when - their neighbors start losing their homes, they will cling to the "protection" of the "single-family neighborhood" as the way to right the ship. When detached, single-family homes are the ideal, proposing to loosen regulations on occupancy will be met by opposition, and likely anger, even if the loosening can objectively be expected to preserve owner-occupancy, prevent foreclosure, and otherwise maintain stability in the neighborhood. Homeowners and neighborhoods will need to be wooed into such a proposal, with any loosening of blunt occupancy regulations balanced by effective performance- or nuisance-based standards tailored to address the particular fears expressed.

But here, of course, we run into a problem. To paraphrase Dale, a community's cutting its planning department is a way of saying, "We have no future," yet planners are all too often among the first casualties of hard times. (Not surprising - it tends to be us against cops, and cops can offer crowd control now, while the planners are talking about five years down the line.) The planners are the folks trained to gather and analyze data, consult with community stakeholders, generate and evaluate various potential solutions, and craft policies and regulations to implement these - which you might think would be exactly the skillset that communities need in down times - but we end up declawed by budget cuts to the point where the best we can offer is to only fall behind slowly rather than quickly on the mere bookkeeping tasks. It's like being on a plane that's suffering engine failure, and asking, "Is there a mechanic on board?" - and then throwing those people out the hatch to lighten the load, rather than asking them to fix the engines.

I'm sure all this sounds quite fatalistic, but, believe it or not, I don't consider myself pessimistic. If I were being pessimistic, I wouldn't be blogging right now - I'd be hiding out on a homestead in Montana, re-learning marksmanship skills I haven't used since middle school boy scout camp and trying not to catch botulism while teaching myself how to preserve meat. This isn't me being pessimistic; this is simply part of my ongoing internal contemplation of my profession's role in the world - and the role we should be striving to play.

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***The opinions expressed in the blog posting are in no way meant to be interpreted as an official position of the blogger's employer, supervisor or elected officials. Furthermore this blog posting is, of course, in no way making direct reference to the bloggers current employer or place of residence, nor is it making any inferences about current and/or pending decisions by elected officials in the bloggers community of residence. It is merely theoretical in nature for debate purposes only and is in no way meant to sway the opinion of the city's elected officials.***

You may now return to your regularly scheduled programing of ROIs as they pertain to historically appropriate renovation and energy efficiency...

"regularly scheduled programming"

Right. As if I haven't spent five years on geeky blog posts about present, if abstract, planning issues...

Granny Flats are the new Marijuana

If things get too much worse, we'll trend towards accessory dwelling units and urban chickens regardless of whether or not cities formally allow them. It'll be interesting to watch the informal economy grow if and when we start sliding into a new normal.

I wonder if there's a way to use planning to guide the emergence of healthy informal land uses? Once you reach a critical mass of people breaking the law, maybe folks will start to get reluctant to rat out their neighbors for renting out the garage to a college kid. Cities might take a more explicitly selective approach to enforcement, only going after the 'big time' offenders like slumlords. Community activists could help people creatively circumvent land use policies. Or maybe they'll be better off without us.

Now I'm all interested in planning & zoning during the Great Depression. Zoning was still a fairly new idea then, and planning certainly was in its infancy, but I'm sure there were interesting things going on at the community planning level, beyond the macro-level federal intervention in housing we learned about in school...

Site note, from my new favorite blog:

this post has been overrated

AAiO picks up the post, adding,

"It can’t really be said to be a positive thing when people who would rather own and live in single-family detached houses are forced by economic circumstances to rent or live with larger groups. But at least it may bring on the reform of zoning laws and anti-dense development attitudes that penalize renters, students and people in nontraditional living situations."

That's well summarized: currently, single-family detached housing is heavily subsidized, on top of its preferential treatment under the law, while any other housing arrangement is (socially and legally) treated as suspect. There's plenty of bad to go around in the nationwide financial meltdown and foreclosure epidemic, and this doesn't even constitute a silver lining - but the silver thread in the dark, stormy lining is that maybe we'll reexamine some of our land use laws and economic policies that have either run out their useful life or were simply discriminatory to begin with.

Spokane is doing it

Are you proposing Ypsi do something like Spokane?

Think bigger, man!

I'm not proposing that Ypsi do something like Spokane.

I'm proposing that EVERYBODY do something like Spokane.

Within the general category of "everybody", though, I think that Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor are both well positioned. We've got a temperate climate, fresh water, high-quality agricultural land, good urban cores and town centers, and engaged citizenry - all these are powerful assets that the average thirstbelt city doesn't have nearly enough of.