A “sociological record” of inside all of Poland’s homes

One woman aimed to photograph every Polish home and create a “sociological record”:

In 1978, there were 35 million people living in Poland, but that didn’t stop Zofia Rydet trying to photograph the homes of every single one. That summer, the 67-year-old began the monumental project she called her “sociological record,” travelling the length and breadth of her country on foot and by bus.

By the time she died, in 1997, the series, which is currently on show at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, comprised nearly 20,000 images from more than 100 villages and towns…

Over the years Rydet perfected a particular method for obtaining the best portrait possible. “I knock on the door, I say ‘hello’ and shake hands. I enter the home, look around carefully, and I immediately see something beautiful, something unusual, and I compliment it. The owner is pleased that I like it, and then I take the first photograph. Everyone has something in his house that is most precious to him. If I manage to notice this, then this person submits at once.”…

Rydet preferred photographing rural homes to those in the city, whose interiors she found sterile and uniform. She believed wholeheartedly in the socio-historical value of her endeavour, convinced that her pictures of personal objects and private spaces defined the people who owned them, and “revealed their psychology.”

Sociologists may often be associated with large-scale surveys but there are creative ways to obtain sociological data in everyday life, whether walking all the streets of a city or photographing thousands of homes. Of course, taking the photographs is not enough (even with the massive effort it would be to travel around and interact with all the residents): sociologists would want to look for patterns which might include things like decorations, spatial arrangements, markers of social class, the setting of the home, and so on. If this Warsaw museum put out all of her images – nearly 20,000 according to the article – it would be interesting to walk through them all several times to see what pops out.

Exactly how many American homes are vacant?

Two bloggers have a disagreement about how many vacant homes there are in the United States. Check out the debate and the comments below.

The moral of the story: one still needs to interpret statistics and what exactly they are measuring. The different between 11% and 2% is quite a lot: the first figure suggests 1 out of 10 housing units are vacant while the second figure suggests it is 1 out of 50. If you look at Table 1 of this Census Bureau release regarding housing figures from Quarter 4, it looks like the vacancy rate is 2.7%. But there may be confusion based on Table 3 which suggests the vacancy for all housing units is roughly 11% for year-round units. And later in the release, page 11 of the document, gives the formula for the vacancy calculation and an explanation: “The homeowner vacancy rate is the proportion of the homeowner inventory that is vacant for sale.”

There are some other figures of note in this document. Table 4 shows that the homeownership rate is at 66.5%, down from a peak of 69.2% in the fourth quarter of 2004. (It is interesting to note that this rate peaked a couple of years before the housing market is popularly thought to have gone downhill. What happened between Q4 2004 and the start of the larger economic crisis? Table 7 has homeownership rates by race: the white rate has dropped 1.1% since 1Q 2007 while Blacks and Latinos have seen bigger drops (3.2% and 3.3%).

Fitting a new home into an older neighborhood

Teardowns are an issue in communities across the United States. In older neighborhoods, particularly in wealthier suburbs, new homes are contentious: their style and size may change the character of a neighborhood as well as impact property values. In this report from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago area architects talk about how they try to alter the design and appearance of these new homes in order to fit in with the existing neighborhood:

Anyone who’s driven around the city or its surrounding suburbs likely has seen plenty of examples of homes that just don’t fit. The modern masterpiece in a subdivision full of stately Colonials. The 7,000-square-foot behemoth casting its shadow over a block of tiny post-war ranches.

Size is often one of the most challenging elements of a new-construction project in an established neighborhood, Lindsay said. Those who build typically want to max out on square footage, requiring a variety of design tricks to make structures appear smaller their more modestly sized, older neighbors, such as placing much of the square footage to the home’s exterior…

Some municipalities aren’t willing to gamble that new construction will be in good taste. In Park Ridge, for example, a five-member appearance commission considers architectural style, size, site plans, as well as renderings of roofs, windows and doorways to judge whether a proposed residence will enhance an existing neighborhood. Though most construction projects get the thumbs-up, the commission helps preserve the community’s character by setting some basic guidelines, said City Planner Jon Branham.

But fitting in needn’t mean choosing cookie-cutter designs or doggedly preserving every existing structure on a block. “Some neighborhoods are outdated,” Lindsay said. “You’re not going to build a shabby house next to an existing shabby house just so it will fit it. You want to capture the best features of a neighborhood and not the worst.”

This is often a tricky situation – one architect suggests in the story that a new home is a sort of “public project.”The idea that private homeowners should inform all their neighbors about an upcoming teardown or major renovation seems to be a popular way to attempt to change perceptions.

Although homeowners have some choice over their own property, communities often have some regulations and nearby neighbors can also make their opinions heard. The community’s thoughts on this issue can make a big difference. Some communities are more conservative politically and economically  and this leads to more leeway for property owners. Others are more open to the thoughts of the neighborhood as opposed to the individual homeowners and have more restrictive regulations. All of this can come through a number of methods, including historic districts or preservation areas, but any of these measures often prompt public debate.

The wood-burning fireplace is on the way out, not green enough

Wood-burning fireplaces are more decoration than heating apparatuses in modern homes. But the New York Times reports that even its decorative or symbolic value may not be enough to counter the arguments against their use:

Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace — long considered a trophy, particularly in a city like New York — is acquiring a social stigma. Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, it is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses…

Organizations like the American Lung Association are issuing warnings as well: the group recommends that consumers avoid wood fires altogether, citing research that names wood stoves and fireplaces as major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States.

Wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, as well as known carcinogens like aldehydes; it has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children…

Perhaps not coincidentally, sales of wood-burning appliances dropped to 235,000 in 2009 from 800,000 in 1999, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

Fireplaces are akin to McMansions? I would be curious to know how much effect a wood-burning fireplace has on the average person or how much pollution wood-burning fireplaces across the US release into the air. Then some comparisons could be made between the polluting effect of fireplaces and other objects (like McMansions or bottled water). In addition to the pollution, we could also consider how much wood is burned yearly in fireplaces and where this wood typically comes from.

Beyond the ideas about health and being green, the article fails to discuss several ways to keep a fireplace without burning wood. One option: have a gas fireplace. This may not be too green as well – it does burn gas. But you wouldn’t then have the release of particles into the air. The second option, which seems to be gaining in popularity: purchase an electric heater that looks like a fireplace. I see numerous advertisements for these all the time. Lots of benefits here: you still get the heat, nothing is burning (wood or gas), they are relatively cheap, you don’t have to worry about a chimney and keeping that clean, and you can move the “fireplace” around fairly easily depending on where you want it. There are some electricity costs but you can still retain the decorative or symbolic value without burning wood.

What Gen Y wants in a home

This is a headline that immediately caught my eye: “No McMansions for Millennials.” Some discussions at the recent National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) conference focused on the needs of this younger group of homebuyers. Here is a quick summary of what Gen Y wants:

A key finding: They want to walk everywhere. Surveys show that 13% carpool to work, while 7% walk, said Melina Duggal, a principal with Orlando-based real estate adviser RCLCO. A whopping 88% want to be in an urban setting, but since cities themselves can be so expensive, places with shopping, dining and transit such as Bethesda and Arlington in the Washington suburbs will do just fine.

“One-third are willing to pay for the ability to walk,” Ms. Duggal said. “They don’t want to be in a cookie-cutter type of development. …The suburbs will need to evolve to be attractive to Gen Y.”

Outdoor space is important-but please, just a place to put the grill and have some friends over. Lawn-mowing not desired. Amenities such as fitness centers, game rooms and party rooms are important (“Is the room big enough to host a baby shower?” a millennial might think). “Outdoor fire pits,” suggested Tony Weremeichik of Canin Associates, an architecture firm in Orlando. “Consider designing outdoor spaces as if they were living rooms.”

Smaller rooms and fewer cavernous hallways to get everywhere, a bigger shower stall and skip the tub, he said. Oh, but don’t forget space in front of the television for the Wii, and space to eat meals while glued to the tube, because dinner parties and families gathered around the table are so last-Gen. And maybe a little nook in the laundry room for Rover’s bed?

A few thoughts about these findings:

1. Proponents of smart growth, such as New Urbanists, should be happy. It sounds like the younger generation wants to live in more urban areas with more amenities and less sprawl.

1a. Is this want they will want in the long-term or is primarily an after-college thing? What happens when they have kids? What happens when they have more money?

1b. Are there enough housing units that fit these descriptions? I could see these falling into two camps: expensive places in trendy neighborhoods or cheaper places in rougher or neighborhoods earlier in the gentrification process.

2. Putting the word McMansion in the headline to describe the homes of a previous generation is an interesting choice. What exactly is meant by “McMansion”? Overall, it seems to be used as a term for all suburban homes. But then we get some subtleties of the term: cookie-cutter design, yards, jacuzzi tubs, lots of space, spread out. But to suggest that all suburban homes are McMansions seems to betray more of the headline-writer’s thoughts on suburban homes than it does to actually reflect reality. Just how many suburban homes are McMansions anyway – we don’t really have way to count this.

3. People at the conference discussed features of a housing unit that would allow it to be more social: bigger interior entertainment spaces, using outdoor spaces as entertainment spaces, etc. Does this suggest that this generation is blurring the line between the community and the home more so than previous generations? The characterization for decades of many suburban homes is that people drive out of the garage in the morning, drive back in at night, and barely interact with anyone else. Will these sorts of denser spaces lead to more community among Generation Y or will they simply use their entertainment spaces to interact with already-established friends?

Deciding whether to buy or rent

One of the New York Times blogs discusses whether residents should buy or own. The decision could be based on a ratio for metropolitan areas that gives some indication of whether owning or renting is a better choice:

A good rule of thumb is that you should often buy when the ratio is below 15 and rent when the ratio is above 20. If it’s between 15 and 20, lean toward renting — unless you find a home you really like and expect to stay there for many years.

While the metropolitan average is 15.1, 17 metro areas have ratings over 20 (led by East Bay, CA, Honolulu, HI, San Jose, CA, San Francisco, CA, and Seattle) and 14 metro areas have ratings below 15 (with the five lowest being Pittsburgh, PA, Cleveland, OH, Detroit, MI, Phoenix, AZ, and Dallas – Fort Worth, TX).

The blog writer come to this conclusion about the data: “It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. The country has suffered through a terrible crash in home prices, yet buying a house remains an iffy proposition in many markets.”

While this may be true, what is even more remarkable is that homeownership is still such a widespread goal. If this measure is reliable and valid (meaning that it is consistent and it really tells us something about buying vs. owning), then homeownership might never really be about an economic improvement over renting. Rather, Americans have made owning a home an important cultural value and then use economic rationales to justify their decisions.

What exactly is it that appeals to people about owning their home? They get to make their own decisions, they don’t have to pay a landlord or wait for them to take care of repairs, they get some separation from their neighbors, and overall, they feel like they have made it on their own. If renting was a cheaper option but people could still afford to buy a home, how many Americans would decide to rent?

Large “shadow inventory” lurking behind foreclosures

While foreclosures have drawn a lot of attention, there may be yet another threat: the “shadow inventory” of homes where owners are at least one month delinquent on their payments.

In the eight-county Chicago area, 19 percent of mortgages — representing nearly 1 in 5 residential properties with a loan — are delinquent by at least one month, helping create an inventory of almost 204,000 homes at risk of reverting back to lenders, according to data provided to the Chicago Tribune by John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Irvine, Calif. That “shadow inventory,” as experts define distressed homes not yet put up for sale, is the largest in absolute terms for any metropolitan area in the country.

Based on its calculations, the firm believes that 80 percent of those homeowners eventually will lose their property, either through foreclosure or a short sale, in which the lender permits the home to be sold for less than the value of the loan.

If these figures are correct, or even close to correct, the housing crisis will continue for years to come as they properties eventually come up for sale. This will continue to have a strong effect on housing values and new building starts.

This could also have specific effects for the Chicago region. While most of the foreclosure attention seems to be focused on the Southwest and Florida, this data suggests many homeowners are teetering on the edge of keeping their homes.