So wouldn't building smaller houses be perfectly logical? Homebuilders think so. If folks can't qualify for as big of a loan as they could have four years ago, you start taking nooks and sunrooms and third garage stalls off the blueprints. You start thinking that maybe 2000 or 1500 or even less square feet and a nice open basement is really all the space you need. You realize that a smaller house will take less time to clean, less energy to heat and cool, fewer light bulbs, less paint or wallpaper for renovations... holy cow! Why aren't we all buying small?
Because, your "neighbors" and your local government will tell you, we all want higher property values. We don't want your dinky little house dragging down the neighborhood or the property tax assessments. That's the "wrath" referred to in this Reuters report about the opposition some developers face as they scale back the size of houses they want to build to keep costs down and attract sensible buyers in a tough market:
Jackie Lopez, 37 and a mother of four, is angry. She and her neighbors are fighting a move by the largest U.S. builder, D.R. Horton Inc, to build smaller homes in their neighborhood in Vacaville, California, north of San Francisco.
"I've lived here in Vacaville since 1976 and we moved from a neighborhood that was a cookie-cutter neighborhood," Lopez said. "It wasn't a bad neighborhood. But you kind of move up that ladder" [Helen Chernikoff, "Homebuilders Shirnk American Dream, Spark Wrath," Reuters via Yahoo News, 2008.12.03].
Oh, the selfishness. "Move up that ladder," then yank it up so no one else can climb.
Perhaps some of my lake neighbors looked with disdain on the 1232-square-foot Madville Times World Headquarters that we built three years ago, even before the housing bubble burst. A bank, a builder, even my folks seemed to think we needed to build more house (or at least garage) than that. Our house is smaller than the average American home in the 1970s, not to mention this indulgent decade (average house size in 2004: 2,330 square feet).
We remind ourselves that our house is also double the worldwide median house size (657 square feet) and even beats by half the median house size for all industrialized countries (807 square feet—more stats in Shlomo Angel, Housing Policy Matters: A Global Analysis, Oxford Press, 2001, p. 261). We also remind ourselves that we don't need any more house than this!
Perhaps the push for bigger houses explains some of the "wrath" Randy Schaefer has experienced over his tax increment-financed residential development. The original figures he floated for the affordable working-class housing he envisions were $110K to $150K. To me, that still seems high (our affordable working class house cost $100K to build). But to the banks, neighbors, and City of Madison, that may still seem low. As one real estate consultant told Reuters, local governments "favor the bigger homes and fancier facades that attract upscale buyers and their tax revenue."
We are in the current recession because our entire economy is built on driving people to make irrational decisions and buy more than they need. People bought houses as commodities to resell, not as permanent, meaningful places to spend their lives. Banks looked at mortgages as saleable assets, not investments in neighbors and community. Local governments look at houses as tax generators, not safe, warm places for their citizens. From that perspective, small is bad, bigger is better, and foolish extravagance is your civic duty.
Neighbors, banks, governments, it's time to get real. Mortgages went toxic because people bought too much house. One of the most patriotic things homebuyers and homebuilders can do right now is build smaller houses. Cities should remove minimum sizes from their building codes. Banks should float those small loans. And good neighbors should bring a casserole to their new downsizing neighbors and say, "We love this cute little house! Small is beautiful!"