Addendum on Non-Transient Spaces

17 September 2010


Eeny, meeny, miny, moe... it doesn't really matter which one you choose because they're all the same anyway. Pure fungibility embodied.

Further to yesterday’s post on The Spaces in Which We Live — in which I noted that while we intend to live in non-transient spaces (in contradistinction to the proliferating transient spaces that have come to dominate our lives), the time pressure on our busy lives in industrialized civilization means that we often unintentionally spend a greater part of our time in transient spaces — I have a few things that I would like to add in regard to non-transient spaces.

In so far as residential property is the paradigm of non-transient space, space primarily intended for settled living, the contemporary suburb, sometimes called a “bedroom community,” constitutes a locus of non-transient space. Suburbs represent a spatio-temporal compromise: close enough to a city to be convenient, but not so close that one must live in dense urban housing developments such as apartments or condominiums; spacious enough for single-family homes, but not so spacious that one has real elbow room; a reasonable commuting time from a city, but a commuting time compromised by thousands of other commuters that create a rush hour. The compromises to one’s space and time end up boxing in the suburban dweller on his 5,000 square foot lot. The resulting bedroom communities have proved wildly popular, but are also as notoriously alienating and as soul-destroying as any urban environment.

Money buys fewer compromises, or less severe compromises. Today, space is largely a function of wealth. Capitalist economies must put a price on everything that can possibly be exchanged, and so just as interest is the price of time, real estate prices are the price of space. Our existential matrix in space and time can be cashed out in terms of interest and real estate: in other words, the mortgage that most Americans carry, and the mismanagement of which were in the recent past the occasion of a financial panic, determines the cash value of our living situation. More than anything else, the mortgage symbolizes life in capitalist civilization.

Despite the recent turmoil in the real estate market, and declining prices in some areas, real estate prices are quite high in historical context. It is not unusual for a family to spend more of its income on housing (whether rent or mortgage payment) than any other budget item. This especially effects the coasts (in contrast to inland areas) and more especially effects densely populated urban areas. On the west coast of the US, San Francisco is especially known for its high real estate prices, as it is also known for its rent-controlled apartments. Though less well known to those outside the Pacific Northwest, housing prices in Seattle are outrageously high. One of my sisters recently purchased a modest house in West Seattle for more then $400,000.00. This is essentially the “entry level” price for housing in Seattle, and, needless to say, if you’re earning minimum wage it is going to take you some years to save up enough to get into a house that costs a half million dollars.

The largest houses and the largest pieces of properties go to the wealthiest, along with proportionally large property tax bills that support local services and schools. It is easy to see, within even a smallish urban area like Portland, the differences in public facilities made possible by different real estate valuations and therefore real estate tax rolls. If you walk in the public parks of Lake Oswego (a wealthy area to the south of Portland), you can see the level of spending that has gone into these public areas. Go to a less wealthy part of Portland, and it is obvious that much less money is available for public services and public spaces.

Lake Oswego has some of the most expensive housing in the greater Portland Metropolitan area, and property taxes to match, though I now have a dim view of the area as my computer was stolen in Lake Oswego last June.

The large “McMansions” of the well-to-do on their large lots are reserved for the wealthy as though kept behind velvet ropes. And, in fact, they are sometimes shown in exactly this way. Up until the recent housing crisis Portland home builders used to hold a “Street of Dreams” event each summer, in which builders would put up enormous homes along a given street, and the public could pay to walk through and gawk at spaces in which they could never afford to live. It was sort of like the person who buys a copy of the DuPont Registry or the Robb Report just to look at the pictures of automobiles they could never afford to buy. Here conspicuous consumption runneth over and creates an industry based on the consumption of conspicuous consumption.

But there are limits to all of this. The upwardly mobile middle class who still (as ever) aspire to and wish to emulate the condition of the truly wealthy settle for cheaply built large houses that are on small lots, so that the wall of their neighbor’s similarly large house on a small lot is about six feet away. If both houses have windows facing each other, you cannot help but being witness to the intimate family life of your neighbor unless you close the blinds and never open them. I find such neighborhoods to be remarkably ugly, especially the houses built during the past twenty years, and I wouldn’t live in such a neighborhood even if I could afford to do so (which I can’t).

All of this is frighteningly similar to the house that Tolstoy describes in his great story The Death of Ivan Ilych. After a long paragraph describing the wonderful house that Ivan Ilyich found for his family and the effort he put into its decoration and furnishings, Tolstoy continues about the same house in the next paragraph:

“In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes — all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.”

My mother’s house — the house where she grew up and the house where I grew up — is an exception to the equation of money and space. It is a large traditional farmhouse on ten acres in rural Clatsop County. Most old farmhouses in Oregon have been subjected to brutal remodeling that has deprived them of their character, but my mother’s house looks essentially as it did when it was built about ninety years ago. Precisely the same untouched character of the house that has preserved its authenticity and its genius loci has made it worth very little in absolute financial terms. On the tax rolls, the house is worth little more than its lumber could fetch for scrap, though to my family it is a treasure beyond price.

My mother's house in rural Clatsop County, Oregon.

My mother, who is not wealthy, has more space and far more peace and quiet than those with enormous mansions recently built in close-in suburbs. But living in a house in the country requires patience and skills that no longer even apply to recent houses. You must build fires to stay warm, and in order to build fires you must put in sufficient wood before the winter begins. And this is only the beginning of the demands of living in a country house. If you were born to it, you know what I mean without any explanation; if you weren’t born to it, no amount of explanation would be sufficient. In this respect, country people represent an aristocracy of birth to which no amount of money can buy entrance.

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Life in the country at the house where I grew up.

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One Response to “Addendum on Non-Transient Spaces”

  1. aha said

    This is a great article for anyone that’s looking to acquire real estate and hold it for the long-term. Quite a few years back, I was in the same boat and I went out and acquired a portfolio of approximately 20 residential properties.It might be worth some discussion here

    Thanks for the well thought out and well-written articles!

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