Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Home to Call My Own

Over at Ronni Bennett's blog Time Goes By, she has a special subsection called The Elder Storytelling Place. Each weekday she posts a story written by someone 50 or older. There's a fair amount of poetry, stories ranging from the gut-wrenching to the screamingly funny, and everything you can think of between.

I've written several stories for Ronni's blog and one published a few days ago was one I'd written some years ago, but reworked to fit into Ronni's 750 word limit. If you are motivated you can read it here.

A paragraph's summary will suffice for those who care not to read the entire story. In it I describe how, in the depths of the Great Depression, my young father found a job which paid $1.25 a day, and on that supported a family of nine. They lived in a 12 x 12 tent with a wooden floor, and though it was not easy, they had their daily baths, and mother washed, starched and ironed their one change of clothes every morning without benefit of running water or electricity. Two #3 washtubs, a wooden stove made from an oil drum, and two "sad" irons, which were heated by sitting them on the stove top were her tools. The ironing board was a plank laid between two chair backs.

They were part of a huge virtual city of tents like theirs which stretched along the Sabine River and beyond, because when the oil boom hit the little town of Kilgore Texas, the population exploded from 200 to 10,000 within weeks. There were no rental accommodations to be had, even if the men working the wooden derricks could have afforded them.  Tent cities are not tolerated these days.  Many working poor couch-surf or sleep in their cars, families of four and five and the family dog huddled together on -30 nights, praying no one notices them parked at the end of a street, or in an alley.

We are in what is euphemistically referred to as a great "housing correction". There are no absence of buyers for the houses in the $750,000 - $16,000,000 range. One house listed at $16,000,000 here in Calgary sold within 24 hours of coming on the market recently.

What we don't have are houses that cost $40,000 - $50,000. Houses that the disabled, or minimum wage worker can afford. Building permits are $50,000 plus here, before you ever put shovel in ground. You have to give Calgary credit for its goal of eliminating homelessness in 10 years. They looked at the cost of supporting a person who uses a shelter, or lives on the street, and realized it's far more cost-effective to house people first, and bring stability to their lives than it is to rescue them again and again.

But what they haven't addressed, and are pointedly ignoring, is the need for homes for the thousands of minimum wage workers who are forced to spend 80% of their wages on rent, and as a result must depend on the Food Bank for food, and charities for clothing and for the gift their child gets at Christmas.

If a person works they ought to have the dignity of being able to afford shelter, clothing and food security. Our government resists raising the minimum wage insisting it is only a temporary launching pad to the high-paying jobs just going begging. Our government is willfully both blind and stupid.

No one wants shanty towns, but developers have encouraged ridiculous building restrictions. Under pressure from developers city councils have enacted building codes that say houses have to be big and rooms have to be this many sq feet. But developers conveniently lay aside these restrictions when they can make huge profits building tiny condos. Condos of 250-300 sq ft are extremely common here and in many parts of the world. But these are generally upscale, and in the $200,000 range, leave no room for a kitchen garden, playspace for children, and (believe me) do not encourage any sense of belonging to a community.

When I was a girl small houses were common. My earliest memory is from the age of eight months, being held in my father's arms, watching two men put shingles on the roof of our new two room house on Howard St. in Duncan Oklahoma. That little house had a front section divided into living room on the right and kitchen on the left. A door in the middle led to the bedroom. Off the bedroom was the bathroom, which had a shower, but no tub. It probably had 250 sq ft. It housed my mother, father, myself, and my elderly grandmother, who slept on a sofa bed in the living room. My most vivid memories are of the sun coming through the kitchen window onto the table and the beautiful black and white tile floors. I remember laughter.

We had what seemed like a huge back yard to a toddler. Mother planted a vegetable garden there. There were thousands of similar houses in small towns across the south. A small porch or stoop, windows on all four walls for cross-ventilation in the hot, humid summers. No one builds houses like that any more.  In 1950 the average family size was five and the average home was 800 sq ft. Now the average family size is less than two and the average house size exceeds 2000 sq ft.

We need to come to our senses and realize that the dignity of home ownership, the ability to raise a garden and keep a few chickens for eggs, could make a world of economic difference to the thousands who simply need a niche to get started. This could be accomplished through non-profit housing cooperatives designed to serve low income earners.

One design plan for a "Pocket Neighbourhood"
Homes do not need to be large, elaborate, expensive or elegant to be attractive or enjoyable to live in. Tony and I, with our large cat Salvadore, lived in a 119 sq ft travel trailer for a year and half, one of the most joyful periods of my life. Small homes, when well-designed can function as well as a larger one.

When placed in a "Pocket Neighbourhood" as described by Ross Chapin (link below) there is garden space, both private and in a centralized gardening area, there's space for outdoor play. A central hall is sometimes included with a kitchen, laundry facilities, a place for community activities like potlucks, meetings, perhaps recycling and a free-cycling areas.

Each of the small homes pictured on this page costs from $25,000 - $35,000 in materials to build. Like Habitat for Humanity, in a project like this homeowners should be required to put in considerable sweat equity, to reduce the cost of building and to create personal investment and pride in what their work has created. And there should be a provision placed so that when resold, prices stay at the same price ratio as when they were built, to discourage profiteering and keep these homes available to low-income families.  

A house needs to be well-built, insulated and environmentally sound, made of durable materials which are easy to keep clean, and accessible to the working poor, and this would make it possible, but it would mean that the city would need to work with the developer and reduce their development and permit costs.

One thing is for certain, when there's no home in the realtor's list selling for under $400,000 we need to give our collective heads, and our hearts, a shake.

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