It is easy to look through the Twitter feed of Wrath of Gnon and shake one’s head in disgust at contemporary architecture. Why is everything so ugly now? Why does no builder design to please the eye and last? Why are materials so crummy, and why is stone and detail work avoided? Everything is built to last one mortgage. Everything is built for the short term. Everything is built for cycles, commissions and churn. Everything is disposable.
This is something that all can see. News opeds lament the suburbs that grow and die in a generation. Anyone stop and ask why? America has a governance problem, an economic problem, and then an economic solution that fits our governing class and their economic patrons.
What exactly is housing though? It is shelter. It can be an asset to hand down. In days of yore, this was the family farm, the family home or if rich, the family estate. It was not much for many, but it could be yours to bequeath to your children. One was expected to stay in the area, and the bonds of family to the land were deep. Rootless cosmopolitan may be an insult to urban strivers, but many in America now have become rootless workers in search of employment.
Houses built now are not framed as cherished homes to pass down but as investments. Home developments are corporate affairs, and with marketing and sales to pull in target demographics to close the sale for the hot trend. Why would any builder build in stone for a home designed to shelter a family for grades K through twelve and if lucky, just long enough to sell to a new family forming drawn in by the good schools?
Therein lies one problem. America’s ruling class has a low that brings with it enough social dysfunction to override any feelings of loyalty to a city or neighborhood. It’s just a home some say. American courts destroyed freedom of association and destroyed neighborhood covenants to protect neighborhood integrity (except high rise NYC co-ops’ right to say no). Our high has to continuously reward its low partners with access to the middle’s goodies. This is the high’s pitch to the low for support. No real inequality ever gets smoothed over, but the eternal play to envy is performed by the high. Access is promised and enforced on other members of the middle and any rising middle members who could become a high.
Now this is limited. It is access because we all know the pattern of American cities. White flight leads to sparkling new cities outside the city limits. Non-whites move into these new cities that only recently burst out of the woods or cornfields. Whites start moving to a more distant suburb, and this accelerates as the school goes bad. The original city gets hollowed out, the inner ring suburb declines, the outer ring suburb grows, and the cycle repeats. There are entire stretches of American cities where one can drive for blocks and see no homes, see green fields coming back and occasionally see a home occupied by an elderly black woman.
This brass ring of access to the good life is because our high is insecure and has a coalition it needs to feed continuously. There also is an economic high that does not want to lose preeminence. America switched from a productive economic orientation to a FIRE orientation. Finance, insurance, and real estate are paper industries focused on valuations and transactions. Inflated prices funnel wealth to the early asset holders, and transactions aid the entire network of workers within the industry. An an illiquid asset, continuous real estate transactions keep insurance, banking and government tax receipts rolling steadily higher.
This does feed into the needs of capital to extract more of the rents from our productive economy versus labor. America has a unique advantage compared to other nations. Despite our waistlines, American’s spend less of their income on food compared to every other nation out there. This is something we could leverage if it was not for the FIRE inflation in housing, which decades ago set this weird number of 1/3 of one’s check going to housing. This is all to boost mortgage approvals and inflate home prices for asset holders. With covenants, the pricing pressure on good schools would be far lower, limiting housing as a share of income. Why would people need to have two earners in their home?
The needs between our governing class and the FIRE economic managerial technostructure fuse together for an ingenious way to protect the economic elite and early asset holders. Real estate is the biggest chunk of the middle’s wealth. If no one can build wealth over decades and hand down homes fully paid for the next generation in a neighborhood one would want to live in, no one can accrue enough wealth to challenge the current elite. It does not take many committed households making six figures to band together to drive local or even state wide change. A state representative race can cost $25,000 in mid-size states. Multiple districts in one cycle can be flipped by committed upper middle income households. Those households with generations of residency and no mortgage payments become even bigger of a player. Deny these individuals the ability to ever accrue such wealth, and one never has to worry about them.
This is why everything is built in a slapdash method. These homes and neighborhoods serve a purpose in one point in time. McMansion was one of the better recent additions to our vocabulary. Like the food, the materials to put the home together sound good on paper, the service is fast, and it all rolls out on a modified assembly line. Similar to McDonald’s, it is a facsimile of a home, is a sham of a neighborhood, and is an empty, inorganic representation of the real thing we all know when we see it. Junk food and junk homes. We do not mind though because there is always a new neighborhood to dazzle us. We do not care because it is just a house, not a home.