Live the American Dream in a $180k, 375 square foot tiny home

Tiny houses could provide needed cheap housing and upgraded models might also appeal to people. Here is an example of a higher-end model:

https://www.yahoo.com/news/180-000-tiny-home-outfitted-173504352.html

David Latimer of New Frontier Design is creating tiny homes that are more luxurious and more expensive than most you’d find on the market today. His most recent model, the Escher, starts at $180,000 and is designed to fit a family of six full time. Latimer calls this “the future family home.”…

The Escher is unlike most tiny homes, nearing $200,000 and including high-end features. But Latimer said that doesn’t make this model any less of a tiny house.

“Minimalism means different things for different people,” Latimer said. “The bottom line is that downsizing is a tremendous life adjustment and sacrifice for anybody. This tiny house is still a minimalistic lifestyle. It’s still a tiny home.”…

“I believe micro-housing is going to be a substantial part of the future of residential housing,” Latimer said. “Millenials and Gen Z are going to live this way. I would bet my life on this. Micro housing will allow people to live out the American dream.”

I am not surprised there is a perceived market for more expensive tiny houses. At a basic level, perhaps this is just selling the same products to different parts of the market: some people want to pay less for a tiny house, others will pay more. Indeed, from what I can gather about who moves into or at least talks publicly about moving into tiny houses, it looks like there are some educated people with some resources who want tiny houses with upgrades.

More broadly, I am not sure how a more expensive house fits into “the tiny house movement.” Downsizing and having a cheaper home are often connected to anti-consumerist motives and behavior. Some people make the choice to acquire a tiny house in order to move away from having too many items or fixating on a large home or being so financially committed. Does a luxury tiny house try to have it both ways?

If this kind of tiny house – small but still nearly $200,000 – is going to become part of the American Dream, the definition of the American Dream may need to change. For decades now, the American Dream involves owning a single-family home, probably in the suburbs. The Escher could indeed technically fulfill this – provide a single-family home in the suburbs – but it is very different in substance. If anything motivates people to make this the embodiment of the American Dream, it may be financial realities rather than aspirations for a simpler, downsized American Dream. In other words, expensive housing markets and debt may push people toward more luxurious tiny homes rather than a true desire to ditch the big showy house for a high-status small house.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

Photo by Norma Mortenson on Pexels.com

Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

Comparing “five myths about the suburbs” in 2011 and 2020

The Washington Post has a new “five myths about the suburbs” that differs from its 2011 piece by the same name (though a different author). From my 2011 post, here is the older list:

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

1. Suburbs are white, middle-class enclaves…

2. Suburbs aren’t cool…

3. Suburbs are a product of the free market…

4. Suburbs are politically conservative…

5. Suburbanites don’t care about the environment…

From the 2020 list:

Suburbs are less dense than cities…

All suburbanites own detached houses…

Suburban workers typically commute to downtown jobs…

Today’s suburbs are racially integrated…

E-commerce killed suburban malls.

There is a lot of overlap between these lists including commentary on class status, who suburban residents are, and what suburban communities are like. There are also differences in the lists: the 2011 list discusses the cool factor and the environmental impact of suburbs while the 2020 list highlights retail.

Even with the overlap, it is notable that myths about suburbia are still viable decades after suburban changes have been in motion. This hints that the image of suburbia is persistent and powerful: the single-family suburban home where a nuclear family pursues the American Dream can still be found in both reality and in cultural productions. But, there is also a another/newer side of suburbia that features new kinds of residents, alternative forms of housing, tougher lives and disillusionment in the supposed land of plenty, and changing everyday life. This sounds like complex suburbia: the suburbs are more varied than the typical image.

Furthermore, there are a number of actors interested in researching and discussing the suburbs of today. From books like Confronting Suburban Poverty to Radical Suburbs to videos, there is still plenty to analyze and learn about in a geographic domain that many think is relatively easy to understand. The suburbs may not appear as exciting as other dynamic locations but with a majority of Americans living in suburban settings, what happens in the suburbs has the potential to shape many lives.

Historian Thomas Sugrue on the complex suburbia of today

In an interview, historian Thomas Sugrue discusses what the suburbs are today:

exterior of cozy house in evening

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

That said, while in the aggregate, suburbs are more diverse, the distribution of nonwhites isn’t random. Metropolitan America is not a place of free housing choice. It’s still very much shaped by deep patterns of racial inequality and a maldistribution of resources. A lot of the nonwhite newcomers to suburbia live in what I call “secondhand suburbs” — places that have become increasingly unfashionable for whites, often older suburbs closer to central cities, with declining business districts and decaying housing stock.

And just as the distribution of minority groups across suburbia is not random, the distribution of whites across suburbia has really significant political implications. We’re seeing a suburban political divide quite different from the one that played out after World War II, when well-to-do, middle-class and even some working-class whites living in suburbia found common ground by looking through their rearview mirrors with horror at the cities they were fleeing. By the early 2000s, you have growing divisions among white suburbanites. The whitest suburban places are often at the suburban-exurban fringes — places where middle-class whites who are attempting to flee the growing racial diversity of cities and nearby suburbs are moving. By contrast, many of the older suburbs, particularly those with late 19th-, early 20th-century charming housing and excellent schools, have been attracting well-to-do and highly educated whites…

But suburbs didn’t freeze in time circa 1950 or 1960; they continued to evolve and transform. And those transformations were largely overlooked by political commentators, journalists, social scientists, novelists and pop culture. You saw, for example, beginning in the 1960s and expanding in the ’70s and ’80s, the emergence of clusters of multifamily housing — apartments, townhouses and condominiums — in suburban places. And as the housing market opened, a lot of new immigrants chose suburban places as points of settlement because suburbs offered access to jobs. In the post-WWII period up to the present day, most American job growth has been in suburban places — office parks, industrial parks, shopping malls, stores, restaurants, the construction industry, all sorts of service jobs. And those changes are crucial to understanding the remapping of metropolitan America. They capture a more complex reality than the post-WWII image of the suburbs….

One of the consequences of that are the fierce battles over even modest or token efforts to bring diversity to predominantly white suburban school districts, and really significant opposition to the construction of multifamily housing. And it’s not even couched in the rhetoric of class. It’s not, “I don’t want multifamily housing in my neighborhood because I don’t want lower-class people living here.” Instead, it’s, “This is going to change the character of the neighborhood,” or “It’s going to jeopardize my property values,” or “It’s going to bring congestion.”

A few quick thoughts:

  1. For a definitive history of white flight as it played out in Detroit (and contributed to the current landscape), read Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
  2. See earlier posts on complex suburbia, the various visions Americans today have of suburbs., and suburban NIMBY arguments.
  3. This reminds me that the image of 1950s suburbia is so pervasive as part of the American Dream and yet it has only some connections to current realities. Why does this image live on? It was incredibly powerful (postwar success, baby boomers, tremendous growth and sprawl), repeated and critiqued endlessly (numerous cultural products on both sides for decades), and some would like to continue or recreate what happened then. History rarely works this way; even if it were possible to recreate similar conditions, people are now different and society has changed.
  4. There is a lot more here for academics and others to explore about desirable and undesirable suburbs. Now that suburbs are more diverse in race, ethnicity, and class, the sorting within suburbs is a powerful force. Do wealthier people primarily select places through personal networks? How do residents of a metropolitan region come to know about and regard other communities (and how do communities try to “subtly” signal what they are)?

What could lead to Americans considering what they want the suburbs to be

Yesterday, I wrote about competing visions of American suburbs. Under what circumstances might a national conversation, debate, and/or reckoning take place regarding what suburbs should be in the future? Here are a few possibilities:

photo of houses under starry skies

Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

  1. An election. As noted yesterday, elections can help to bring issues to the forefront. The suburbs are not a key issue in the 2020 presidential election but this does not mean they could not be down the road.
  2. Building concern about housing. The need for cheaper housing in certain metropolitan areas has led to local and state-level debate but this has rarely reached national levels. I am pessimistic about national level discussions about and solutions for housing – but it could happen.
  3. Some sort of crisis or unusual occurrence in suburbia that pushes people to rethink what suburbs are about. Perhaps it is ongoing police violence – like in Ferguson, Missouri – or an usual place like Columbia, Maryland that people want to emulate.
  4. Declining interest in living in suburbs among future generations. Whether millennials and their successors want to or can live in suburbs is up for debate.
  5. A redefinition of the American Dream away from single-family homes, driving, and private spaces to other factors ranging from different kinds of spaces (perhaps more cosmopolitan canopies?) to an inability or declining interest in homeownership compared to securing health care and basic income or a rise in AI, robots, and technology that renders spaces less important than ever.
  6. Black swan events or large changes beyond the control of the average suburbanite. Imagine no more gasoline or a disease that strikes suburbanites at higher rates or a collapse of the global economy rendering the suburban lifestyle difficult. (Because these are black swan events, they are hard or impossible to predict.)

For roughly seventy years, the United States has promoted suburbs on a massive scale (with evidence that a suburban vision has existed for roughly 170 years). With a majority of Americans living in suburbs, it would take work or certain events for a robust conversation to be had and then a wind-down of the suburbs and shift toward other spaces would likely take decades. At the same time, future researchers and pundits might look back to important conversations, events, decisions, or changes that started the United States down a path away from suburbs. Those precipitating factors could occur today, in the near future, somewhere down the road, or never. While the suburbs in the United States have tremendous inertia pushing them into the future, they do not necessarily have to continue.

What vision of the suburbs do President Trump and other Americans have?

With recent words, President Trump has suggested Joe Biden and Democrats want to destroy suburbs. To Trump, what are the suburbs? One columnist puts it this way:

frontyard at the village

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

Trump seems to have a suburb in his imagination, one that’s a remnant of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s populated entirely by white people, who came there to escape diversifying neighborhoods and are terrified that people of color might move in next door. These suburbanites can be pulled to the Republican Party with a proper dose of racialized fear.

Yet, the suburbs as a whole today do not look like this:

Trump seems to think it’s still 1973. But here’s his problem: The suburbs of today are very different than they were then. The suburbs are still majority white, but they’re more diverse than they were when Trump was refusing to rent to people of color. They have more immigrants, more people of color, more people with higher education — and critically, the white people who live there are rejecting Trump.

Suburbs have indeed changed – see this earlier post on complex suburbia. In multiple ways, suburban areas are now different. They have more nonwhite residents and more residents who are lower-class and working-class (as well as more who live under the poverty line). Some suburbs are classic bedroom suburbs populated by whiter and wealthier residents but there are also numerous suburbs that are more diverse and less well-off. Suburbs are now full of jobs, from manual labor and production jobs to elite white-collar positions.

While this story casts the issue in terms of voters and winning the 2020 election – and suburban voters are indeed crucial – there is a bigger issue at stake: what vision of American suburbs will win out? Here are three competing options:

1. The suburbs are the American Dream where anyone who works hard can purchase a single-family home, live with their family, and expect to live a relatively comfortable life and expect good things for their children. This is often tied to the mass suburbanization of the 1950s and 1960s – and this vision may have fully flowered at this point – but this ideology stretches back at least a few decades earlier.

2. The suburbs are the American Dream as they offer opportunities to all Americans who want to find the good life as defined by a decent job, a place to live, and peace and quiet. This would be a more multicultural vision of suburbs where the movement of minorities and those with fewer resources to suburbs in the last few decades represents progress and success as they too can enjoy a suburban lifestyle (and the dream of #1 was restricted largely to whites).

3. The suburbs are a dead-end for all Americans. According to critics of the suburbs, the emphasis on sprawling land use and driving, individual lives and private homes, and exclusion are not sustainable or desirable for future generations. While some people may want to live this lifestyle, we should encourage more Americans to live in denser communities.

No presidential election is a referendum on just one issue. At this point, the issue of suburbs is still not a front-burner issue: housing received limited attention at the Democratic debates and arguably Trump is more interested in discussing race and cities in ways to attract voters than he is in considering suburban life and its ongoing role in American life. Yet, this is an opportunity for Americans to think about what kind of spaces they want to encourage and inhabit in the future.

What if Americans stop buying things they do not need?

COVID-19 has helped slow retail sales and one writer suggests this could be a tipping point toward a society where fewer Americans feel the compulsion to consume:

We’re trained to buy often, buy cheap, and buy a lot. And I’m not just talking about food, which everyone has to acquire in some capacity, or clothes. I mean all the other small purchases of daily life: a new face lotion, a houseplant holder, a wine glass name trinket, an office supply organizer, a vegetable spiralizer, a cute set of hand towels, a pair of nicer sunglasses, a pair of sports sunglasses, a pair of throwaway sunglasses. The stuff, in other words, that you don’t even know that you want until it somehow finds its way to your cart at Target or T.J. Maxx.

In post–World War II America, the vast majority of things we buy are often not what we actually need. But they’re indisputably things we want: manifestations of personal and collective abundance. We buy because we’re bored, or because planned obsolescence forces us to replace items we can’t fix. We buy to accumulate objects meant to communicate our class and what sort of person we are. We buy because we want to feel something or change something, and purchasing something is the quickest way to do so. When that doesn’t work, we buy “an experience,” whether it’s a night at Color Me Mine or a weekend bachelorette trip to Nashville. We buy because, from the Great Depression onward, how we consume has become deeply intertwined with how we think of ourselves as citizens…

And yet we keep spending: As of 2018, the average household expenditure was $61,224. That’s rent and groceries, but also nonessential items: entertainment, vacation, clothes, plus all that other random stuff that ends up in your shopping cart.

That kind of spending is what our current economic model is based on: Americans of all class levels buying things and always wanting to buy more, regardless of their actual means. But when a society-throttling, economy-decimating pandemic comes along, what happens when that ability — and, just importantly, that desire — goes away? In April, retail sales fell an astonishing 16.4%, far more than the 12.3% economists had predicted. Clothing store purchases went down by 78.8%; furniture and home furnishings plummeted 58.7%. If you feel like you’re buying far less than at any point in recent history, you’re very much not alone. But will American identities and habits actually change, or will we just figure out a new and COVID-19–compatible way to consume at the same rate as before?

The argument makes some sense: many people in the United States have now had a few months where they could not consume in the same ways. And there have been plenty of people in recent decades asking Americans to slow their consumption or change their habits, ranging from sociologist Juliet Schor discussing downsizing or tiny houses or the popularity of Marie Kondo.

Yet, here are a few obstacles to a slow down in consumerism:

  1. As noted in the article, decades of messaging from politicians, advertisers, companies, and residents that consumption is good and acquiring items is a key marker of living the good life. The American Dream is partly about having a lot of stuff.
  2. The interest Americans still have in buying houses. And since the supply is not great, prices may stay high.
  3. The ever-increasing prices of new vehicles and the Americans who want to endlessly purchase pickup trucks and SUVs.
  4. New technology items will continue to emerge, particularly smartphones. But also think about new video game consoles, virtual reality units, home camera systems, electric cars, and so on.
  5. The large houses Americans have compared to the rest of the world. They need to fill all that space with something!
  6. Online ordering makes it very convenient to consume items without much effort. If retailers disappear in large numbers or shopping malls fade away (except for the wealthiest ones),

Absent many more months of staying at home or a large collapse of the American economy, it will be hard to transition away from consumption as Americans have known it to another system.

From self-help advice to living in a McMansion

Two authors looking at patterns in self-help books suggest they provide readers with aspirations and dreams of living in McMansions:

Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer are dedicated to finding answers to those questions. They are the authors of “How to be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books” and the hosts of the “By the Book,” a podcast in which they both follow the rules of one self-help book for two weeks...

On the aspirational nature of self-help books and their authors

Meinzer: A lot of these books are setting themselves up, or setting the authors up to be who we should aspire to be. We should be as exciting, as entrepreneurial, as organized, as worldly as this person selling dietary supplements and living in a McMansion.

Maybe some of us don’t want that. Maybe there are a lot of other ways we can be, and we can all be very content living what works for us.

And unfortunately, a lot of the self help books we’ve lived by do somehow create a world view that this is the one single way to be.

From The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 to today, Americans seem to enjoy looking for reinforcement regarding getting ahead and becoming successful in life. And it is not an accident that this often connects back to the suburbs. I take the reference above to “living in a McMansion” to be a reference to achieving the American Dream, often defined as living with a nuclear family in a suburban single-family home in a attractive neighborhood or community. This is a powerful ideology reinforced by decades of government policy, American values, race, and religion.

A lot of this came together in the 1950s: with postwar prosperity and change, numerous social forces – including self-help books – promoted a suburban lifestyle. This was not without its critics attacking the suburban good life from numerous angles, ranging from urbanists promoting city life to clergy decrying the abandonment of cities, but they could do little to stem the tide. (See James Hudnut-Beumler’s book Looking for God in the Suburbs has the best academic treatment of this subject.) After this, the American Dream was sealed: it was not just about getting ahead or making a better life but rather involved a successful suburban life.

It is also interesting to consider why a McMansion is a potent symbol of this suburban good life through self-help. Is it because it is a relatively new home? Is it because the external features of the McMansion – architecture, square footage, impressive facade – are meant to impress? (Critics of McMansions would argue that these are exactly the problems with McMansions: they appeal to particular tastes and hide all sorts of deficiencies.) Are there people who follow self-help principles, become successful, and buy tasteful older homes or live in mid-century modern suburban homes?

Seeing the nuclear family in a suburban single-family home as a historical blip

David Brooks argues the idealized American family in the suburbs is a historical anomaly:

For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy. In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.” Healthy people lived in two-parent families. In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”

During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.

Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.

In a sweeping historical perspective, Brooks is right (nor is he the first to make this argument): the American arrangement of small nuclear families in large private homes is unusual. It is even relatively unusual among contemporary living arrangements throughout the world. Fifty years from now, will this period look even more like a historical blip?
And yet, the idea has a strong hold on American life. This particular lifestyle became a significant part of the American Dream, supported by the federal government, promoted by films and television, and defining much of popular twentieth century sprawling suburbs. To move away from this ideal will take some work, even if there are reasons pushing Americans away from this life. Brooks proposes some different alternatives, from multigenerational dwellings to cohousing, but each will take time to develop. It is hard enough to get politicians to talk about housing, let alone discuss all the social arrangements and family life attached to it.
At the least, this is a reminder of how social arrangements can come together through a  confluence of forces and come to seem like normal – until things have changed.

Suburban dream: have a McMansion 12 miles from Times Square

A profile of Hasbrouch Heights, New Jersey in the New York Times highlights the variety of housing styles available in close proximity to Manhattan:

A mile-and-a-half square atop a hill, Hasbrouck Heights is hardly the boondocks. Times Square is 12 miles east, and the Manhattan skyline is visible from some streets. On the northern end, Interstate 80 swipes past and Route 46 cuts through. Route 17, with office buildings, hotels and chain restaurants, runs down the town’s eastern edge, and Teterboro Airport is just on the other side.

Driving through Hasbrouck Heights on Route 17 offers little inkling of the residential community up the hill or beyond the cliff to the west. Bordered primarily by Hackensack and the boroughs of Lodi, Wood-Ridge and Teterboro, Hasbrouck Heights has an eclectic housing stock of Capes, Victorians, ranches, split-levels, boxy contemporaries, Tudors, McMansions and colonials of all stripes, many on 50-foot-wide lots. The architectural variety, spanning the late 1800s to the current decade, is evident on nearly every block.

“With the new construction, builders have done a good job adding style and character,” said Susan LeConte, the president and chief executive of LeConte Realty, in Hasbrouck Heights. “The homes are not cookie-cutter.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This kind of real estate profile, a staple in many newspapers, tend to be very positive about each community or neighborhood highlighted. This profile is no exception: it has the feeling of a small town (bikes can stay unlocked!), there is a little noise from a nearby airport but not too much, and residents can commute to New York City. If this is not an advertisement for the American Dream – single-family home in a quiet suburb not too far from the big city – then I do not know what is. (Thinking more about these profiles: it would be funny to follow them with the opposite perspective of each community.)
  2. The paragraph on different housing architecture is interesting in two ways. How would a suburban community end up with an “eclectic housing stock”? Perhaps development took place in fits and starts. Perhaps the community has a mix of housing needs (with McMansions sitting on the more expensive end). Perhaps the community is more open to different kinds of development.
  3. The second interesting part of the housing paragraph is that the mix of architectural styles only hints at two more modern styles: “boxy contemporaries” and McMansions. Neither descriptions are endearing. Boxy and sleek homes are not preferred by many. McMansions are often viewed as taking up too much space and having poor design. Does this hint that home styles have hit a dead end in recent decades? Would more buyers prefer an older, more established style that they can then update to fit their own needs?
  4. For all the density and glamour of Manhattan, there are plenty of McMansions in the New York City region (including famously in New Jersey and elsewhere).