Friday, February 16, 2007

Worth the subscription

Metropolis (February) has an essay by Andres Duany about housing in New Orleans that applies in great part to housing in Austin, I think, and so do others who've had a look at it. Fortunately, this complete piece is available on line; a relevant portion follows.

The lost housing of New Orleans is quite special. Entering the damaged and abandoned houses, you can still see what they were like before the hurricane. They were exceedingly inexpensive to live in, built by people’s parents and grandparents or by small builders paid in cash or by barter. Most of these simple, pleasant houses were paid off. They had to be because they do not meet any sort of code and are therefore not mortgageable by current standards.

It was possible to sustain the unique culture of New Orleans because housing costs were minimal, liberating people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure. There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life.

This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. The higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.

What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated. The hurdle of drawings, permitting, contractors, inspections—the professionalism of it all—eliminates self-building. Somehow there must be a process whereupon people can build simple, functional houses for themselves, either by themselves or by barter with professionals. There must be free house designs that can be built in small stages and that do not require an architect, complicated permits, or inspections; there must be common-sense technical standards. Without this there will be the pall of debt for everyone. And debt in the Caribbean doesn’t mean just owing money—it is the elimination of the culture that arises from leisure.

To start I would recommend an experimental “opt-out zone”: areas where one “contracts out” of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing—solving a problem that it created in the first place.

However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently this was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option. Of course, this is not for everybody. There are plenty of people in New Orleans who follow the conventional American eight-hour workday. But the culture of this city does not flow from them; they may provide the backbone of New Orleans but not its heart.
This is an issue of affordable housing. So often, when a householder attempts to bring one part of a dwelling up to code, the building code is invoked in every aspect, requiring updating of everything at once if lawful occupancy is to be maintained. Many parts of Austin were built when there were no such code. Duany's remarks about housing staying within a family and not passing by mortgage-financed purchase also apply to large parts of Austin, particularly east of IH-35. Duany doesn't mention the problem of clouded title when properties pass informally in such a manner, but he does discuss so-called "mortgageability." His remarks on the importance of minimal housing costs as a factor freeing people to engage in creating various kinds of art rather than becoming wage-slaves also seem to apply. When Austin was considered to have perhaps the lowest cost of living in the nation, it was in large part true because rental (and other) housing was so cheap. Austin music, theater, and visual arts flourished when that was the case.


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