I’m not a “fight City Hall” kind of guy. I can’t be bothered with the imperial intrigue of Washington or state politics. I avoid anything done on a large complex scale. Instead, I look for local affordable rational work-arounds that get the job done under the radar in places that the big boys just don’t care about. There’s a good life to be had on the margins at bargain prices. I’m especially interested in ad hoc incremental urbanism which historically has allowed ordinary people of modest means and no political power to thrive on their own terms.
Throughout most of human history people built their own homes as best they could with the resources they had on hand. Most families had no access to bank loans and could never afford a home that someone else built for them. That mandated a slow incremental approach to self built homes for the majority of the population. Pioneers set off for the territories and built a log cabin or sod hut. Over time they saved and built a more substantial home. In many cases the transition from cabin to respectable farm house took more than one generation. Their neighbors were all busy doing the same thing and together the community built churches, schools, fair grounds, shops, and a Town Hall. This approach is pretty much illegal and socially unacceptable in most places today. But there are obscure outposts where it’s still possible .
This self built mortgage free home is in rural Hawaii. Contrary to the image of Hawaii as a fantastically expensive place full of luxury homes for the very rich, there are many islands at a variety of price points. The farther away from airports, employment centers, and the tourist economy you go the cheaper things become. This home for a bachelor is almost exactly the same size as a frontier cabin and is organized in a similar fashion. Over time it could be expanded and improved to accommodate a wife and children.
Here’s the progression of a different home in the same neighborhood. The initial structure was a simple 12′ x 12′ room with a wrap-around porch that cost $15,000 to build. The structure provided basic accommodations without debt. The owners had arrangements with the neighbors who extended a garden hose and an electrical extension cord over to the property and let them use their bathroom as needed. Gradually the building was enhanced and enclosed and evolved into a more spacious home. This approach is less convenient than buying a ready made home with a mortgage, but that isn’t necessarily an option for everyone. Many people don’t have the minimum income or down payment to qualify for a bank loan or simply don’t want to live with debt hanging over them. The physical limitations of the house in the early days were compensated for by a kind of freedom that comes from living without monthly payments. The end result is a beautiful comfortable home that allows this family to enjoy a life that’s organized around something other than work and debt repayment.
Here’s another example of how homes in the area are built incrementally. The owner of this property lived in a little garden shed while resources were gathered for the construction of a larger home. Life in the shed may have had its drawbacks, but living without rent or a mortgage greatly speeded up the process of saving for the bigger house. And once the big house is done the shed can be used as a guest room, home office, or rental space for someone else in the neighborhood who needs affordable accommodations while they pursue their own dreams.
Here’s another example of that same strategy.
And here’s another.
And here’s another.
And here’s another.
For some people (perhaps you’re one of them) everything about this arrangement is repugnant. Not only would many people never consider living in any of these homes, but they could never tolerate any of their neighbors living like this either. Their refusal to live in this kind of environment is actually one of the most important parts of why his community works so well. People voluntarily self select in or out. It’s the opposite of the private gated community where everyone is obsessed with property values, security, and maintaining a very specific type of order. Because the people here opt in they cut each other a great deal of slack. That slack is the primary “amenity” that people seek and struggle to maintain specifically because it’s so rare.
That takes us to the next stage of incremental urbanism. When a community is successful and enough homes are built and improved to a high enough standard the place becomes more desirable and property values rise. The original pioneers have made the community safe for more conventional (shall we say less adventurous) types who build larger more expensive homes. These new folks very often have mortgages and jobs in the mainstream economy. Inevitably there will come a time when there are too many buildings too close to each other for the old laissez faire attitude to survive and more rules will have to be introduced and enforced. That’s probably as it should be. But it’s important that there be a new cheap lightly regulated place somewhere down the road where a new group of pioneers can stake a claim and start the process up all over again. And that’s where America comes up short. We just can’t tolerate the messiness of the early stages of incremental urbanism. We want everything to be neat and perfect right from the beginning. And this is at the heart of our housing crisis.