The Really Big Housing Picture

11 thoughts on “The Really Big Housing Picture”

  1. Count me in as another fan of your writing, Johnny. Great stuff.

    Not sure if the abandoned strip mall is one from my town (Fairfield), but it does look like it. That property is now being completely redone-with stores serving the lower working classes and middle class (under construction now)

        1. LOVE Gin and Tacos! Thanks for the link.

          Most chain stores have a particular look that identifies them. I’m pretty sure the photos from Lancaster was an old KMart too. It’s like the dead Pizza Hut, the dead McDonald’s, and the dead Jiffy Lube. They all have a signature profile. I often wonder when a new store is proposed (and in many locations given a tax break or “incentive” to do so) if people just don’t notice the dozen empty versions of these same stores on the same sad stretch of highway in town that all got similar subsidies fifteen and twenty five years ago.

          City council: “Our town really need these thirty two part time no-benefits minimum wage jobs. We have no choice but to give XYZ Corp a $300,000 handout.”

  2. Witty and insightful as usual. I did have to laugh, though, when a post that started out by pointing out the lack of continuity and stability in American culture (“Everyone wanted to throw off the yoke of conformity”) ended with a call for, well, throwing off the yoke of conformity: “Or we could create a new social, political, and economic national compact that restructures absolutely everything.” Ha!

    Of course I understand that you mean two different things here. But the point is that America has always been very, very wide open–and this has been our blessing and our curse. I remember reading Henry James’s book about his trip back to the US in the early 1900s and being struck by how horrified he was by the changes in the built environment. He went on about the huge ugly buildings (with too many windows, if I remember correctly) that were going up on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. And last week I was in the French countryside, amazed by the density of the place–little paved farm roads everywhere, with a beautiful village every 2 or 3 miles, it seemed–and in nearly every village was a church that had been built long before Columbus sailed. THAT is continuity! Not saying it’s better, just that our problems stem from the given situation… as you pointed out, of course. Anyway, thanks again for making me think.

    1. My point is that there’s a cycle of events in America. We crave independence from the old system, run with that freedom for a good long time, then eventually experience the shortfalls of too little structure. The national mood changes as we hit a crisis and we all crave stability and order. The reassertion of conformity pulls people back together for the common good. But over time society becomes stifling. People rebel. The cycle repeats. I’m not calling for an overthrow of anything. I’m simply pointing out how history tends to unfold in a predictable rhythm.

      For the record, the last three times we as a nation pulled together and radically restructured society (The Great Depression/WWII, The Civil War, and the Revolutionary War) we didn’t coalesce around an egalitarian ideal of material equality. Instead, we acted on a wartime footing of collective sacrifice. That’s what I see coming in the next decade.

      Remember… it was a seriously conservative Republican administration in the 1950’s that maintained a 91% marginal tax rate for the rich. It was Kennedy – a Democrat – who lowered taxes in the early 1960’s as people felt more relaxed about the economy and the national mood began to change.

      As we move forward I see old, predominantly white, reasonably wealthy Baby Boomers calling upon young Millennials to defend the nation from fill-in-the-blank national threat. But those Millennials are overwhelmingly poorer, deep in debt to student loads etc, unable to afford middle class housing, and not-so-white. Something’s going to give… I don’t know what that will look like. I’m not even sure I’ll like it very much myself. But that’s how things will play out in my opinion.

  3. Cotati Grade? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotati,_California#Transportation

    As for all the society falling apart stuff, I don’t have any answers. However, I see signs of both hope and/or doom. For example,

    1. Most smart U.S. tech firms long ago realized that Indian offshoring requires intense management ($$$) on the U.S. side and produces an inferior product. Therefore, the savings are negligible. The current wisdom is pay anything for top Valley talent and get them in the same room for “synergy”. Hence, bubble.
    2. For heavy manufacturing, as China costs rise, it’s moving to Mexico or Alabama and other “nearshore” spots. Detroit even.
    3. A significant chunk of Gen X/Y generation totally rejects the big box lifestyle and can survive & even thrive without this whole lifestyle that we’re all so worried about losing.
    4. People are rediscovering the blue collar trades that cannot be offshored, like metalworking, etc. This dovetails nicely with the Maker movement, which combines blue and white collar technology in creative ways that are not easily offshored.

    The problem, of course, is that these are niche things and I’m not sure if any one positive trend is going to scale. What’s gonna happen to the mass of people who are currently sending a couple emails today (or reading a few x-rays, etc.) and making a comfortable living? It’s a slow motion unraveling, decade by decade.

    1. You hit on an important part of the big picture. Too many people moved to too many far flung places with the expectation that their income would allow them to live comfortably. For some people that move to the periphery has worked really well. But for others it’s a trap when the economy moves on without them. Winners and losers all around.

  4. I entirely agree with your thesis: the increasing atomization of society has made it incredibly difficult to forge the political consensus necessary to tackle the housing affordability crisis. As a ‘millennial’, I hope you’re right about our generation’s ability to see past the fakery and shallowness of the ‘red-blue’ political straightjacket. It’s going to take a lot of patience, empathy, talking and listening.

    1. Peter – While older generations are desperate to prop up speculative real estate prices and stock values in order to maintain a comfortable retirement, the absolute best thing that could happen to people under thirty is for the market to sharply correct. A market correction would bring prices back down to a level that is in line with average salaries. Obviously this would hurt some people, but greatly benefit others. Sort of like how some generations paid for their college tuition for bachelors, masters, and PhDs by working part time and in the summer, while other generations graduated with $85,000 in student loan debt for an English degree.

  5. Johnny
    Once again I really enjoyed reading one of your posts.
    It seems to me you offer an outline of a real politics about reciprocity between people, buildings and streets, society and locality. You have to say something about cheap imports, middle-class mobility, precariousness, self-selection and value hotspots, and de-emulsification. I think I recall rightly there’s a sketch at the end of The Adventures of Augie March when he returns to his childhood haunts: that reality has gone completely. There’s a sad remark from Underground by Delillo which summarises the world-view of everyone who wants nothing to do with the world of the suburbs, middle-class flight, common-cause with property protecting NIMBYs:

    “And you want to ask me why I’m still here. I see your mother in the market and we talk about this. We want nothing to do with this business of mourning the old streets. We’ve made our choice. We complain but we don’t mourn, we don’t grieve. There are things here, people who show the highest human qualities, outside all notice, because who comes here to see? And I’m too rooted to leave. Speaking only for myself, I’m too rooted, too narrow. My mind is open to absolutely anything but my life is not.”

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