What do you do when your house is worth less than nothing? Zoned improperly for farm stock and wild animals won’t bed there? Last week I made a review of a study done in the UK titled, “New Tricks with Old Bricks.” I mused then that the most interesting question that the study brought up was how we can make good use of empty homes. The census numbers on empty homes are a little misleading and not the most helpful for determining which ones have simply been abandoned. But, the percentage for the first quarter of 2009, 2.9%, is the highest quarterly percentage since 1956. For me that sufficiently says that there is a real problem out there with homes deemed worse than worthless by the market.
Reuse and core remodel projects are exciting, but there is a problem here that runs much deeper than the upgrading of an old home. Communities and codes and current thinking all need to be upgraded. Heaven forfend I sound old-fashioned here (never you mind the folksy sayings), but mobility and convenience have combined in the U.S. to mortally wound our sense of place. What happened to our obligation to neighbors? To the live local mindset?
Eric Morris of Freakonomics wrote last week about the top ten and bottom 10 walkable cities. Most notable was his observation that “Six of the 10 most walkable cities were among the 20 largest urban places in 1900.” At the same time, “None of the least walkable cities were among the 20 largest urban places in 1900, and five were not even in the top 100.” The U.S.’s walkable cities are well over 100 years old.
Our scale for life was different then. We knew the value and protected the value of our neighborhood because it wasn’teasy to often move in circles far abroad from it. Now I am not saying I think we should all hitch some oxen to carts and put on galoshes(or rubbers, depending on where you’re from) in order to slosh around our neighborhoods on rutted-out, mud roads. But I am saying that we should be challenging our local planning departments to pull there heads out of their proverbial 1950 asses. Modern is getting really old these days, and even back then newer wasn’t necessarily better.
I am glad to see Obama’s emphesis in volunteerism. I too agree, that if we want to help our nation crawl out of recession we should start with committing to the life of our neighborhood. If you have to load up the Lincoln Navigator to head the 30 minutes downtown for your stint of volunteerism then you are: 1.) not volunteering in your neighborhood 2.) volunteering in a means totally irrelevant to your lifestyle 3.) begging to be broken into and robbed. Really though, if we want to help the economy maybe we should consider volunteering dinner for the family living just next door. That means you may have to meet them first.
All of this to say that I don’t think there is an easy answer to our empty house problem. Some urban and rural neighborhoods probably don’t have enough champions left to survive. The ones that do won’t recover quickly. Relationships don’t form overnight. But I think if we hope to reuse many of the worthy but empty homes around the U.S. we have to do it a neighbor at a time.