I saw a thread on Twitter recently, from (I think) a conservative/libertarian, which began with this:
I think nobody really grasps the consequences of being unable in ~90% of the developed world to buy a piece of land and build whatever you want on it without asking anyone for permission. The barriers that exist for home construction are financially and logistically prohibitive.
Her thread ends with this:
You should be able to build your own home and house your family on your own smarts and ability rather than getting a million energy efficiency inspections etc while developers build suburbs that are built like crap and are going to fall apart in 50 years.
Frankly, I’ve been in new construction where 50 years would be optimistic. And I’ve also seen very nice, sturdy new buildings. It all depends. But this makes me think of a lot of things. To some extent, it’s a fantasy; most people will never literally build their own house. But the point—that regulation is too thick, and that it benefits big developers—is basically correct.
I wrote about that here, arguing that we need more small developers; the ones who will restore a little Main Street building, not buy a whole block and put up a 10-year project in three phases. People are wary of lessening regulation because of the perception that it’s a handout to these big companies. But it’s the smaller companies that benefit the most from that reduced burden.
Those tweets make me think of other things. One is this blog post from urbanist writer Johnny Sanphillippo, titled “Grandpa’s Basement House.” It’s really fascinating, and has great accompanying photos, but this is the key bit:
The late 1940s were a transitional period when the old iterative ad hoc era was coming to an end, but the mass produced Levittown version of suburbia hadn’t yet emerged. People were still operating largely under the previous development model of incremental modest self built homes that grew and evolved over time. The “minimum viable product” concept was alive and well. Land was purchased with cash. The basement was constructed first, also on a cash basis, and fit with a bare bones kitchen and bath. That space was occupied for a few years until more cash could be pulled together to build the ground floor. In time there might be a second above ground story as well as horizontal additions. To the extent that there was any debt associated with any of this work it was short term and typically borrowed from family or friends. Most of the work was done by the home owners themselves.
It also reminds me of something I wrote about the history of fast food, back when I reviewed Adam Chandler’s Drive-Thru Dreams. This was my takeaway from the story of KFC founder Harland Sanders:
Reading about Sanders and his string of odd jobs on boats and trains and his many ups and downs as he slowly perfected his iconic chicken recipe, one almost feels that it took place in a different country. That whole milieu—a freewheeling, chaotic, entrepreneurial era made possible by the sting of poverty and the absence of a social safety net—is a figment of a vanished economic and cultural era. Chandler describes Sanders’ career as tracing “America’s adolescence.” Perhaps countries, like people, go through phases of life, and one consequence of America growing up is that we no longer tolerate the chaos and lack of regulation that made these classic American stories possible. The Colonel’s jerry-rigged pressure cooker wouldn’t last long during a modern restaurant inspection, and perhaps that is for the better.
And I also think of a dinner my wife and I had in Croatia last year. It was in a woman’s home; she served only about four guests a night, with a prix fixe menu, about half of which was relatively easy to make. (I also wrote about that, with pictures!)
What really struck me was that this woman was basically doing a dinner party for money. She didn’t have to choose between entertaining friends and opening a “real” restaurant, which is one of the toughest businesses out there. She was able to dial up her passion a little bit more, make a little bit of money, and have very little of the pressure that restaurant owners face.
So that brings me back to that initial tweet. Maybe construction isn’t the first thing we should open up to the everyman. But there really is very little you can just up and do in America. I wonder what it does to the character of a people to know that. I wonder how much human cost is downstream of such impersonal things as red tape, bureaucracy, applications, public input hearings. I wonder how many dreams we artificially foreclose. How many bored, frustrated, stifled people could be discovering and monetizing a hobby or passion, in an alternate world where that was allowed.
Years ago, when I was a college intern at the now-defunct Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., I attended their big annual book-launch conference. They were a pretty left-leaning environmentalist outfit born in the 1970s, but some of their material was very sensible to me. One speech in particular stood out to me at that conference.
The speaker (I don’t recall who he was), went through these libertarian-ish arguments about just letting people do things, devolving the scale at which things are done, cutting regulation, etc. And he basically said, there’s nothing wrong with it; the better way to think about why we don’t operate like this anymore is that it’s obsolete. Rich, developed societies simply evolve towards stability and security over bustling entrepreneurship. It isn’t a choice, per se, or a political ideology; it’s an epiphenomenon of our level of economic development.
I’ve always kind of thought that was right. Or, more precisely, explanatory. It does seem as though rich societies develop the idea that they can pay for stability. Strong Towns has done a lot of work on these ideas: Charles Marohn calls these two approaches “chaotic but smart” and “orderly but dumb.” He basically advocates for returning to the old approach to development and commerce, of not doing what our modern wealth gives us a feeling that we’re entitled to do. We haven’t “earned” suburbia or car dependence, Marohn argues; we pay for them by stealing from the future. It’s a mirage.
But are “chaotic but smart” and “orderly but dumb” actually “approaches”? Or are they much more complex/contingent/emergent things?
Think about the primary places/communities where people still build their own homes and have a very small-scale, distributed approach to commerce.
The Amish. Who basically froze their level of development at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The Amish seem to grok, more perceptively than the rest of us, that embracing modern technology is a sort of letting the cat out of the bag. The only way to win is not to play.
The other places you see hints of this old order are immigrant communities. Why? Not “because they’re immigrants.” Because they’ve simply not let go of something we have let go of. We still do it, sort of, with farmer’s markets, street festivals, things like that. But they retain their artsy-fartsy, hoity-toity reputation. That’s how you really know something has changed; when the commercial habits of the vast majority of humans who have ever lived become coded as elitist.
What’s the upshot of all this? I guess this is a much longer piece asking the same question I’ve asked a few times recently: whether whatever it is that “urbanism” is or was is actually recoverable to us today? I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t at least hope so.
Not-Pennsylvania Amish Country
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As Johnny Sanphilippo often says - everything has a beginning, middle and end. Societies that become wealthy quite quickly (as our has), tend to formalize more expensive solutions for everything. Because we have the money. But eventually, that has consequences, and one of those is it keeps people from the getting on the first rung or two of the economic ladder. The modern administrative state simply cannot process the DIY culture. Inevitably, that leads to work-arounds for those with the initiative, and a whole lot of problems for those who don't have it.
I've told planners, for example, who are the actual people that have created and will create the missing middle housing we all desire? It's actually the same people who do single-family house flips today. It's the small, local investor class. They do house flips because there's basically no regulatory barriers. If we want the sort of small-scale, incremental world that urbanists dream of, it has to be just that easy to create. The problem is - our administrative state, and our corporate culture as part of a wealthy society simply can't get out of its way to allow that to happen. After all, so much could go wrong!
"But there really is very little you can just up and do in America." Happily, it turns out one of the things you can just up and do is start a blog.
I am reminded of the stories of immigrants who come to New York and want to start a newspaper, but are stymied because they can't find anyone to issue them a permit to do so. At least, until someone explains to them that in America, you don't need a permit to do that.