Closing on a house feels like…

Based on my limited experience and scholarly interests, here are some possibilities for what closing on a house can be:

Fulfilling the American Dream of homeownership. On the positive side, owning your own property and providing space for a family. On the less positive side, establishing your class status.

-Agreeing to a sizable debt to a large financial institution. On one hand, you probably couldn’t buy that home without a long mortgage (thank goodness for the 30 year loan). On the other hand, you don’t really own your property for a long time and those mortgage payments just keep coming. Overall, a home is going to be the single largest investment/outlay of money for many.

-The end of a complicated process. I’ve seen several surveys suggesting many Americans dislike applying for mortgages (here is one example). It is one of those things in life many people don’t do more than a few times and it often requires a lot of paperwork (both to submit and to read).

-The start of a new era. (1) Even with the mobility of Americans and our relatively low attachment to places, we get used to the physical structures in which we live. (2) A new home often means new social arrangements as we navigate changing families and new neighborhoods and communities.

-Keeping another house occupied. Obviously, no one wants a lot of vacant properties – with lots of discussions of this in recent years involving foreclosures and particular locations like Detroit – but we can push the idea further: just how long will American homes last? Will post-war suburban homes be worth rehabbing when they hit 40-80 years of existence?

-Helping a community continue to exist. With your home purchase, you are making a commitment, if not socially (you could just retreat to the private world of your new home), then at least through your taxes. Even if we put too much emphasis on high population growth as a sign of success, communities can’t afford to lose too many residents and taxpayers.

Should Trump promote a third wave of American suburbanization?

Walter Russell Mead suggests Donald Trump could help usher in a new wave of suburbanization:

What President-elect Trump has the opportunity to do now is to launch a third great wave of suburbanization, one that can revive the American Dream for the Millennial generation, produce jobs and wealth that can power the American economy, and take advantage of changing technology to create a new wave of optimism and dynamism in American life.

There’s a confluence of trends that make this possible. In the first place, the Millennials, like the Boomers, are a large generation that needs both jobs and affordable homes. Second, the shale revolution means that energy in the United States will likely be relatively abundant and cheap for the foreseeable future. Third, both financial markets and the real economy have recovered from the shock of the financial crisis, and, whatever hiccups and upsets may come their way, are now ready for sustained expansion. Fourth, revolutions in technology (self-driving cars and the internet) make it possible for people to build a third ring of suburbs even farther out from the central cities, where land prices are still low and houses can be affordably built.

For national politicians, this is a huge opportunity. Creating the infrastructure for the third suburban wave—new highways, ring roads and the rest of it for another suburban expansion—will create enormous numbers of jobs. The opportunity for cheap housing in leafy places will allow millions of young people to get a piece of the American Dream. Funding the construction of this infrastructure and these homes gives Wall Street an opportunity to make a lot of money in ways that don’t drive the rest of the country crazy.

This approach meshes very well both with the President-elect’s economic instincts and with the economic interests of the people who voted for him. It also works for the Republican dominated states around the country. It capitalizes on one of America’s distinctive advantages: less densely-populated than other advanced countries, the United States has the elbow room for a new suburban wave.

There are all sorts of fascinating things going on with this argument. Let’s just pick out a few.

To start, this argument suggests Eisenhower and Reagan were great because they helped make the suburbs happen. How much did they do in this regard? By the early 1950s, suburbanization was well underway with a postwar housing shortage and lots of developers and local officials interested in building out. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 certainly helped the process and is often credited for helping urban residents flee cities (even though highways were already under construction in many places). This is a good example of presidents getting credit for things that don’t have much direct control over.

Second, this equates Republicans with suburbs. There are certainly patterns here: suburbanites have tended to vote Republican for a long time (particularly the further out one gets) and both Republicans and Democrats have argued more sprawl leads to more Republicans. At the same time, not every conservative loves suburbs nor does every Democrat love cities. If you had to summarize Republicanism since World War II, would suburbs come to mind or other things?

Third, it sounds like this argument is in favor of government spending to promote a certain way of life. In other words, the federal government should subsidize more suburban growth because it helps generate jobs and housing. While this may fit older images of moderate Republicans (Eisenhower was one, Reagan not so much), it doesn’t fit well with more libertarian/small government Republicans. Why should the government promote certain ways of life?

To conclude, it is clear that all of this requires an optimistic view of suburban life. It is the fulfillment of the American Dream. This is a common American image. Does it match all of reality? Are the suburbs open to all? Would the new spending even further from cities open new opportunities for non-whites, immigrants, and the lower class (who are increasingly in the suburbs) or would it allow whiter, wealthier residents to flee even further from urban problems? What are the environmental costs of another ring of suburbia? What does it do to civic life to continue to promote automobile driven culture (even if those self-driving cars are safer and more environmentally friendly)? These are not easy questions to answer even if many Americans would enjoy a third wave of suburbanization.

Whether driverless cars will benefit suburbs or cities

Some are wondering what kinds of places will benefit most from driverless cars:

Two op-eds published Thursday make the case one way and the other for the driverless car and the American settlement. In Bloomberg View, the economist Tyler Cowen argues that new technology—not just cars, but also virtual reality and the Internet of Things—has advantages that favor the suburbs. In the Wall Street Journal, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick posits that new technology will create “a more livable and less congested” city.

Cohen’s argument is in some ways convincing. He’s right that driverless cars and on-demand delivery could bring perks to the suburbs—a commute spent reading a book, say, or the quick purchase of that one-percent pint—that have traditionally belonged to urbanites. It’s also true that new technologies, like a smart home heating system, are more readily installed in the modern, spacious suburban home than the older urban apartment. (Ask a New Yorker if she’s ever had a garbage disposal.)…

But Kalanick makes a great point in his piece: autonomous transportation is actually the less important component in creating “a city that lives and breathes more easily.” The more important concept is… sharing. Not the bullshit low-paid menial labor that has long characterized the sharing economy, but actual sharing, where two people get in the same car together.

The most radical future is one where self-driving cars are shared, both on a single trip and between trips. A slightly less radical future is one in which individuals are willing to use a car someone else has just used, but prefer to ride alone.

All interesting points. But, I have two larger concerns with either argument:

  1. What if driverless cars allow both suburbs and cities to thrive? In other words, it would allow some to live outside major cities and others to further enjoy city life.
  2. Point #1 is connected to another: transportation technology alone does not dictate choices about where people live and work. It can certainly open up new possibilities. But, the American suburbs in general are not solely the result of the automobile; suburbs were growing before this, partly due to newer technologies like trains and streetcars but also due to solidifying cultural ideas about cities, suburbs, and social life. I could see driverless cars both giving justifications to those who want to live a car-sharing life in the big city while others will make the choice to buy a cheaper yet bigger home further away and let the car handle the longer commute.

It is difficult to make predictions in this case. As the article notes in the final paragraph, regulations and policies could help tilt the scales one way or another. We have seen this before: a variety of policies in the early to mid 1900s helped make suburban living more affordable and palatable to many Americans. The results included white flight, disinvestment in major cities, the creation of new infrastructure such as interstate highways, and the development of the suburban American Dream accessible to many (whites).

“It’s part of the American identity to have a grill”

This is the final line in a story on grilling. Here are some updates on the American grilling industry:

Grill sales in America are growing only by low single-digit percentages each year, and the market is nearly 20% smaller than it was a decade ago, according to the research firm IBISWorld.

U.S. grill manufacturers — led by Weber-Stephen Products, maker of the iconic Weber grills — also face stiff competition from imports, which now account for 56% of U.S. sales, up from 46% a decade ago, the IBISWorld data show.

Grill sales are closely tied to changes in the U.S. economy, especially the housing industry. So, not surprisingly, the grill business was hammered between 2008 and 2010 when the housing crisis and severe recession took hold…

The Fourth of July is the most popular day of the year for outdoor grilling, with 76% of grill owners planning to fire up their barbecues on the holiday, the HPBA says. Those summer bookends, Memorial Day and Labor Day, tied for second place at 62%…

And in the heated debate between gas and charcoal, gas has the edge. Gas grills outsold charcoal grills, 57.7% to 40.1%. The remaining 2.2% of grills sold were electric.

Based on this article, then grilling is tied to the single-family home, the lawn and backyard, eating meat, and American holidays. Perhaps it is a symbol of having the leisure time to cook slowly outside. We can add the grill – perhaps the distinctive Weber grill in particular – to other consumer goods that supposedly symbolize the American Dream (McMansions, SUVs, large sodas, fast food, big TVs, etc.).

Yet, other people in the world use grills or outdoor cooking spaces. Are Americans really that unique in this regard? Bon Appetit takes a look at grilling around the world after this introduction:

For Americans, firing up the Weber and grilling up some meat has a distinctly patriotic vibe–we barbecue on the 4th of July, after all, and no image of the American Dream would be complete without a cookout-friendly lawn behind that white picket fence–but we’re not the only ones who pride ourselves on our skill with charcoal and tongs. From satay in Singapore to asado in Argentina, there’s a whole world of grilling out there. You can always find regional variations from city to city, town to town, and family to family, but here are some of the world’s great grilling traditions.

So, perhaps Americans just do the grilling in distinct ways: often in private spaces (backyards of owned homes) at particular times (summer holidays).

The common uniformity of prison and suburban design

In A Burglar’s Guide to the City, a reformed bank robber describes a realization he had while walking through the suburbs of southern California:

For Loya, linguist George Lakoff’s book Metaphors We Live By took an unexpected spatial resonance, revealing ways in which the built environment could be read or understood as a series of metaphors or signs. He said that after being released from prison, he spent a lot of time taking long walks around the suburban landscape of Southern California. He began noticing that every twenty-five feet, he would hit a driveway; he’d then walk eight feet across the driveway before hitting another stretch of grass; then another twenty-five feet to the next driveway, and so on, seemingly forever, “and the uniformity of that totally echoed the uniformity of the prison environment,” he said to me, “where I had my cell and my seven feet of wall and then a door. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, man.'” He laughed at the utter despair of it all, having gone from one system of containment to another. How would you get away or escape from this?

This is a common image of suburbs: prisons of conformity and tedium, laid out every twenty-five feet by developers to maximize profits while misguided Americans snap up the properties thinking they have found the American Dream. Yet, sameness in lot size doesn’t necessarily mean sameness in lives. These regular spacing could be a very good sign of a tract neighborhood but even then, the homes – like those in Levittown over the decades – could be altered as various owners put their own mark on the dwellings. Or, the neighborhood could be quite diverse, particularly in older suburbs.

Additionally, prisons are built with very different purposes in mind compared to suburbs. Developers and local officials are not scheming to control people in these homes (except maybe through a capitalistic system that keeps them focused on their own properties and blinded from larger issues). In contrast, prisons are all about surveillance – just think of Bentham’s Panopticon.

American homeownership was originally not about an investment

One writer suggests Americans have bought into the lie that houses are good investments:

Would it surprise you to know that if there are two equally expensive houses—one for rent, one to buy—the person who buys will pay 40 percent to 50 percent more each month? That’s what happens when you factor in property taxes, insurance, maintenance fees and assorted fees like repairs—which almost nobody does…

The truth is, most of what we’ve been raised to believe about owning a house simply isn’t true…

Run the numbers. Yale economist Robert Shiller found that from 1890 to 1990, the return on residential real estate was just about zero after inflation.

ZERO.

This trend toward seeing homes as a good return on investment is a recent development. Perhaps it hints at the commodification – and a need to see a potential return on investment – of everything.

But, if owning a home is not a great investment, why do Americans still privilege homeownership? Here are some historic reasons:

  1. Land is valuable. In the past, people needed land to some degree to survive. Think of all those tenant farmers in the Middle Ages who always had to pay someone else. Or think of sharecroppers in the United States. Land equaled food or the ability to run a business on your property. Additionally, having your own piece of property meant that you could get away from others as well as the government. It is that the home is your castle thing.
  2. Owning a home is a sign of material prosperity. When you are a homeowner, you have made it enough to be able to own and maintain your own property. In other words, you have the resources to waste it. This is the realization of the American Dream as George W. Bush once put it.
  3. Additionally, homeownership is a sign of dedication to your local community. Renters are assumed to be lower-income, transient, and not committed to civic organizations. Homeowners have a stake in their community because they (1) will be there for an extended time and (2) want to protect their property values (though this is also a more recent development).
  4. Combining #2 and #3, homeownership was assumed to keep people invested in capitalism as opposed to socialism. Again, if you own your own property, you want to see it do well rather than hand it over to an outside manager (the state or a landlord).

CNBC: owning a home may be “the new luxury item”

CNBC suggests the dream of owning a home is becoming less attainable:

Almost half of those people who don’t own a home said their financial situation is standing in the way, according to a report by Bankrate.com released Tuesday. Additionally, 29 percent said they can’t afford a down payment and 16 percent said their credit isn’t good enough to qualify for a mortgage…

“A lot of people could be feeling traumatized by what happened to the housing market and are counting themselves out,” she said…

These days, first-time homebuyers, who are primarily in their 30s, are spending a bigger chunk of their incomes to buy their first house — coughing up about 2.6 times their annual pay; in the 1970s, first-time homebuyers purchased homes that cost only about 1.7 times their yearly salary, according to Zillow.

Tighter lending standards and hefty down payments have further deterred some buyers.

Economic conditions and reasoning can go a long ways to determining who can access parts of the American Dream and when they may do so in life. This reminds me of other analyses I’ve seen in recent years suggesting the delayed age for marriage as well as a decline in marriage is also tied to economics: people want to be more financially secure before they marry. Similarly, buying a home is now being put off – not because Americans don’t want it but because they just aren’t set and the conditions have imposed particular restrictions.