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for people who care about the West

As the housing market improves, have we learned to live more modestly?


The trouble with dream houses -- the dream homes on the dream streets of big-city real estate tours, or tucked among canyons near resort areas like Sun Valley, Idaho -- is that dreams tend to change over time.

Despite the notion that a dream is a private world that only the dreamer can know, dreams are to a large extent communally generated. There was the post-war dream of a single-family house on a single lot in the tidy green suburbs, which produced the lookalike starter homes of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Fifty years later, there were the luxurious, big-box houses overlooking the Snake River in the Lewiston, Idaho, hills, and the mega-mansions on Red Mountain outside Aspen, Colo., the culmination of individual housing dreams that morphed into something bigger, and much more extravagant.

I think about this when I hear that the housing market is beginning to rebound. My own notion, however, is that the housing market will never rebound to its most recent form, but instead will fumble along while builders, architects, developers, futurists and ordinary people living in the current economy figure out what the next housing dream should be. Or whether there should be one at all.

Though it is a long shot that may never gain wide acceptance, some are encouraging the idea that renting a house without the drag of an ownership represents freedom. This has gained in popularity because it offers families the chance to move quickly when family or job arrangements change.

Just a few decades ago, in fact, renting a place was the norm for many working people. And what about those cute little mini-homes on wheels? Or how about living in an apartment and spending the time and money normally given to housekeeping on travel and recreation? Or living in a small condo instead of buying and maintaining an oversized house on the hill?

Or how about a creating a “small is beautiful,” super-insulated, energy-efficient, just-the-right-size house on a previously vacant lot, or tearing down and replacing a thin-walled, urban, suburban or rural house that now leaks heat and chipboard pollutants into the atmosphere? All of the above are options that are being tried right here in rural Oregon.

One piece of the housing dream that doesn’t get much attention is asking just how much house a family really needs. Eric Sten, a former city commissioner in Portland who has housing as part of his portfolio, told me that if Portlanders today lived at the same density level as they lived two or three generations ago, there would be no need to build any more houses for another couple of generations.

Could we form small co-ops that would feature individual enclaves for privacy, but also offer communal kitchens and recreation areas for company and building efficiency? They’re calling it co-housing and doing it all over the country.

What does this all mean for people living in my rural county of eastern Oregon, as well as for our larger economy? It means that many of the pricey dream houses of the past are for sale. These are the big houses used mainly for family gatherings during summer weekends or for just a couple of weeks, leaving the place empty for months with maybe a watchful caretaker employed or living in the cabin next door. Age and family configuration, the housing and lifestyle dreams subtly passed on to us by experts, or generated in blogs in which we might have participated, are changing what we dream.

The consolation, it seems to me, is that some of us lucky people have chosen to live modestly in small towns that still have hardware and grocery stores, doctors, barbers and gas stations. It gives us a sense of self-sufficiency and completeness. We can take care of ourselves and each other with the jobs we do and the churches, hospitals, school support groups and community centers that we communally form. We can look at those people living in much larger and frequently remodeled houses in suburbia, or at the rows of townhouses on the fire-threatened outskirts of towns that necessitate a long, gas-guzzling commute, and gloat, even if only just a little.

No matter which way the American dream turns next, I hope the values of small towns and dense urban cores will prevail. It doesn’t matter if the next generation of housing is single-family, co-op, apartment or condo-style. What we have learned is that living in suburbia, with its boxlike castles built all too close to a flammable forest, or owning a third and fourth vacation home on the shores of a remote lake, are yesterday’s dreams, yesterday’s economy.

Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Joseph, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].