JUST WHERE DO WE LIVE?
December 28, 1999
Housing in the USA is not on my list of most exciting topics for which to write. However, many of you readers have asked about it, so I will comment upon the subject, and even try to make it amusing!
The key to understanding US housing in understanding our extreme mobility. We Americans move all the time! I read some statistics once about family-owned houses. The average owner stays in a house only five years, before moving somewhere else. I doubt this occurs many other places in the world, except by nomads living in tents in the desert!
Moving every five years is not even half of the story. People who do not own their own houses move even more frequently. A postman once told me he knew families that moved every 6 or 8 weeks! (These families were trying to escape creditors.) There is a dark side to families moving so much, and such distances. Family ties are not nearly so strong in the US as in other countries. Some parents and grown children living on opposite coasts may only visit each other twice a year!
Due to low interest rates, the majority of families in the USA now own their own homes. Usually these are separate houses with yards. Groups of owned apartments in one building (called "condominiums" here) are not so popular as in the rest of the world. Usually, they only are common in downtown areas.
Although real estate prices have been rising lately in the US, houses are still very inexpensive compared to Europe. Regrettably, however, they are sometimes not built as well as houses in Europe. The small brick house in which I now live could be bought for US$85,000. A visiting Austrian friend told me such a house would sell for US$500,000 in Austria. So you can see why so many US citizens own their own homes.
Not everyone does, however. Single people usually rent an apartment or house when they finish school. It is uncommon for young people who have good jobs to live with their parents. However, here is something strange. Local governments tax owners of rental houses much more than owners occupying their houses. So renting a house in the US may be more expensive each month than buying a house with a bank loan! Besides the house in which I live, I own two other houses which I rent to people. It is very difficult to find good people to rent my houses! I lose money on these investments.
What about the poor people? The US government built huge apartment buildings for the poor in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in the inner cities. These proved a failure. The poor frequently destroyed their apartments, so the maintenance cost was very high. Crime in such "housing projects," as they are called, became famous, with gangs shooting at each other to control illegal drug trade. Eventually, most of these buildings were demolished. Our government now pays homeowners like myself to house the poor, if we will do it. The same problems are still there, and few of us will agree to do that.
Our former President Carter started an international organization called "Habitat for Humanity" which builds houses cheaply for poor families. A poor family owns the house, but must pay back a small loan, and help to build more houses for other poor families. In my opinion, making poor people work for their housing makes them more likely to appreciate it. It also motivates them to take good care of their home.
One last particularly American form of housing deserves attention. It is unique in the world. Its owners politely call it a "mobile home," but in songs and jokes we call it a "trailer." It is the cheapest housing in the US, besides a cardboard box. It is built at a factory, and a big truck hauls it to a "trailer park" somewhere, where a person must rent a small piece of land for it. We joke that bad storms know just where to go- the trailer parks. After every tornado or hurricane, many mobile home residents are left homeless, because their dwellings were completely destroyed.
I enclose two photos for you. One is my small house in Hapeville, built in 1939. The second is a mobile home, so you will see what one actually looks
by Kim Henry - USA, writes a lot of political and social commentary
© December 1999 English on the Internet www.aj.cz