The Past Is Prologue
Government Interventions Make Home Ownership Less Affordable
MAY 01, 1994 by K. MAUREEN HEATON
K. Maureen Heaton is a freelance research analyst and writer living in Bellingham, Washington.
Time was when owning a home of one’s own was not an impossible dream in America. Then, a determined young couple could find an affordable lot and build their dream themselves. I know. My husband and I did just that.
We had a small nest egg and a very sizeable dream. We paid for the lot with war bonds, and, on the strength of that equity, purchased a prefabricated house, which we put together ourselves. (Never mind that no nails—which were in short supply after the war—were included in our “package.” A trip to San Diego and back from Redondo Beach where we lived at the time, stopping at every hardware store on the way, supplied enough to put the house together!)
When the parts were assembled, a roof over our heads, a living room and kitchen, two bedrooms and a bath were ours for about seven thousand dollars, including the lot and the trip to San Diego.
Young people today can’t do that.
Even if such a lot could be found today, it would be expensive, and the average young couple wouldn’t be able to save enough to pay for it, anyway.
Our little house wouldn’t have had the approval of a “planning commission.” (Fortunately, there was none in those days!) It didn’t have enough floor space for one thing (we thought it did). We moved in before the interior walls were installed, because they didn’t come with the package, either, and we didn’t have enough money then to buy them. (Today’s Planners wouldn’t let us do that.) I used the firebreaks between the studs to display my treasures, and missed them when the walls were finally installed.
We didn’t have a garage, or even a carport, and the lot was so narrow we had to turn the house sideways to get it to fit. As a result, the front door didn’t face the street. (Would that be permitted today?)
A few years later we built an addition on the back for my folks. There was no “zoning” then to say we couldn’t, and no neighbors ran to the city fathers to object.
There were other ways as well for young folks to get their dream house then. Maybe the old folks had more property than they needed or wanted, and would cut off a piece for their kids. Many did that.
Those were happy days—but it was just about then that the foolishness started and, surprisingly, found support among the general population. Just about then, the Planners moved into Our City. Their presence was not announced, but it was obvious—only we did not know it then.
The first any of us knew they were there was the night the city council held its first discussion of a “city plan.” In short order, Our City had a “city manager,” who quickly produced a Plan, and scheduled a “hearing” to present it to the citizens.
The citizen reaction was mixed. Disbelief was probably the strongest response from those present, because the Plan was so far removed from the projected layout of the city that had grown over the years. You couldn’t call those early projections a “plan”—they were simply logical extensions of expected growth, sensibly preparing for a need which was already visible.
But with this Plan, the whole area within the City boundaries was to be metamorphosed.
The visionary maps of a reconstructed City showed that the second high school planned for North City had, as if by magic, become a public park. Around our existing high school stood substantial homes—silent witnesses to the competence of those who had pioneered the City. On the Plan, those were gone. In their place, additions to the old high school spread out like a university campus.
City Hall (where the meeting was held), a lovely relic of a past era, was missing from the map. It was replaced by a “government center,”’ which was shown in an area then occupied by hundreds of small homes.
The heart of the business district, situated at the waterfront, became a utopian dream of a marina—the businesses miraculously removed to outlying areas of the City, where small clumps of stores were surrounded by huge parking lots.
Someone asked what the reason was for all this transformation. The answer was almost mechanical: “We must have planning.” “Why?” the citizens wanted to know. “You don’t want a pig farm next to you, do you?” was the response. Well, of course no one did. But none had been proposed, either. How a pig farm might be set down in the middle of an established city was never explained.
The year was 1948. Despite strong opposition from the majority of citizens, despite an attempted recall of three of the members of the City Council (which, sadly, was unsuccessful by a slim margin), the Plan began to take on a life of its own, and Our City was never the same.
About Thanksgiving time, it suddenly became “necessary” to put new sewers in the downtown area. Main Street was blocked off, and merchants who had already put in their stocks for Christmas, found themselves isolated from their customers, who had to park outside the business district to do their Christmas shopping. It was a long uphill walk, especially with arms full of packages, and many regular customers found it more convenient to shop at stores elsewhere, which had parking close by.
Several merchants closed their doors after the holidays, and never reopened. Other businesses moved to the planned “shopping centers.”
Awaiting the pleasure of Congress and federal funds, it was 20 years before the “marina” became a reality. By then, most of the downtown stores stood empty, or were occupied by fortune tellers, shady promotional entrepreneurs, tea-leaf readers, and the like.
And grass grew in the sidewalk cracks on Main Street.
The rest of that story unfolded just before the Fourth of July, 1988. The evening TV news had dramatic pictures of that marina going up in flames and smoke. It was reported completely destroyed. So much for Planner’s plans!
A Man’s Home . . . ?
The homes around the old high school, grand relics of a happier past, with their beveled-glass windows and door lights, beautifully planted yards, and huge graceful old trees, and those little homes in the way of the “government center” were condemned and demolished.
Gradually, the former owners disappeared from their usual haunts. So many of these were old folks, who had lived there all their productive lives, close to schools and shopping. Most had paid off their mortgages, and were looking forward to their “golden years,” with only taxes to worry about. It was not possible for them to find housing they could afford for anything near what the government paid for their homes. Some went to live with their children, disrupting two families’ lives. Some found apartments, and some just up and died, perhaps of broken hearts, frustration, or sheer anger at being put out of their own property.
A New Order?
This was the beginning of a new era for California—and the rest of the world, though few knew it then.
This was the activation of the National Resources Board Plan developed during the Roosevelt years.
Resistance was minimal, because citizens in one area did not know that what was going on locally was being repeated all over the country. The resistance met by Planners in the pilot areas was used by them as a lesson, to gain control in other areas.
There was a growing acceptance of the “planning idea.” There was a growing body of opinion which was receptive to “government” taking control of such matters. There was a growing belief that no one could “live” in a one-room house—unless it had been there forever. Why the older one-room dwelling could be allowed and the other proposed structure not, was never explained. To an innocent, a new one-room house, surely seemed better than an old one!
Even a one-bedroom house was not to be countenanced, unless it met arbitrary standards: so much square footage; so many windows per room; the bedroom couldn’t open off the kitchen; the rafters had to be so far apart; so much yard area to so much house; so much set back from the street, so far away from the lotline; and so on and on and on.
All these things added to the cost of a house, and the American dream moved further from reality for many people.
Then came the pressures for “urban renewal” and “modernizing the cities.” Little houses from the past were in the path of the bulldozers everywhere.
All these interventions in the use of private property have resulted in many larger problems—no homes for the young folks just starting out on their own, no place for the oldsters to go when the children moved away, the emergence of the “street people”—and the also inevitable “necessity” for “government” to “solve” these problems.
The list of foolish interventions has grown exponentially. With each one accepted, new ridiculosities are concocted. They are made to seem so practical—no, desirable—that it would be considered quixotic to oppose them. It was all for our own good, you know.
Well, today, the birds have come home to roost. The way things are going, the birds may well be the only creatures with a place to call home.
I have no idea what that first home of ours would bring on the market today. I’ve heard that the “veteran’s housing” which was built across the street from us a year or so later (which sold new for four, five, and six thousand dollars), was selling in the neighborhood of seventy thousand dollars several years ago. That’s a nice neighborhood, if you can afford it. Certainly we who lived there after the war couldn’t have.
Centralized planning has all but replaced the historic American method of individual planning. If unchecked, government will usurp all initiative for planning by citizens—not just for property, but for the whole of their lives.