Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why I want a house

I think a lot of us grow up with the idea that to really "make it" and to be seen as truly successful, you need to own your own place. I see a lot of problems with this because, for one thing, there's really not enough land for everyone to own their own place. It's just not the best use of land to have everyone living in single family homes. Second, it's far more efficient to have many people living in one space than it is to have only a few people living in that same amount of space. Since heat travels up, when we build up we don't waste as much heat, not to mention other resources. When you have many people living on a smaller amount of land, almost every resource used goes down. This is one of the reasons that, by some estimates, people who live in New York are the most efficient of all. They all live on top of each other, drive less frequently than others do, and need less heating/lighting and other resources because they don't take up as much space as the rest of us. (I think mostly because they can't afford to. :)
So why, when staying in our apartment is "obviously" the greener choice, do I want to own my own home? After all, houses can be a hassle. Instead of calling the landlord to fix things when the heater goes out, in my own home I'd be the one responsible for fixing it, or at least calling (and paying for) someone else to fix it. As our situation stands, we have quite a few people in what was once a one-family home. For most of the last year, actually, we've had 8 people total (one of them a toddler) in our building. (Plus, over the summer, one guy living in our driveway.) That's more than most homes can boast, so while it might be a drafty, inefficient place to heat, at least we're doing well on the efficiency of scale meter. (That is, divide the energy used to heat the place by the number of people it's keeping warm.)
I realize that there are a lot of problems to owning one's own home, and how expensive it can be. (Seeing what J and L have gone through since they bought their house has really helped.) So what justifications do I have?
For one thing, I don't make improvements on our place. I don't buy weatherstripping, I don't buy curtains to keep more of the heat in, and I certainly don't insulate our place. Because it's not really our place, so I'm not going to spend my money and time and effort fixing up something that's not ours. I made curtains for our last place, but even though we've been here longer I won't do that for this one. (The old curtains don't fit these windows.) Again, I'm not going to put in more time and effort for something that might not fit the windows on whatever place we settle in. In our cabin, I spent over $100 buying fabric from a small, local store and then many, many evenings sewing the curtains by hand. (Not half bad--and thanks for showing me how to sew, Mom!) It was a lot of effort, and money. (After I made them someone asked, "Why didn't you just buy old sheets at Value Village to make curtains out of?" Facepalm moment.) Even if I did go through the effort, and left said curtains for the next tenants, who's to say they'd use them or keep them? So I close the blinds and cross my fingers that they help a little bit. Am I wrong to admit this? I think a lot of renters feel the same way. It's different if you own your condo or apartment (as is more common in bigger cities, such as New York). You might be living in close proximity to other people, but it's still your place. I think that makes all the difference.
There are also things about the land itself that I want to work on, but can't when it's not my land. I want to build raised beds, but it's just not possible in our current place because there's nowhere to put them. (And nowhere that the dogs won't get into.) I can't make my garden as big as I'd like to because I have to always remember that there are other people to think of, other people who might want to use the space. (They almost never do, but they might....) Some of the things that I want to plant take a long time to mature. Currant bushes are fabulous, but I won't plant some that I won't get any use out of and it's not like I can easily tear them out and plant them somewhere else. Same with apple trees. Why would I plant something that takes years to pay off if I only plan to be here a short while? And who's to say my landlord would even agree to it if I wanted to plant one here?
While our upstairs neighbors have seemed ok with all of the chaos of having six people in a space not much larger than mine and Shane's (they have the area over the garage to give them more room), that's not what we'd like to do. I could see us having one child in our space, but not two. And to have things not drive me crazy, once again I'd be wanting to make more permanent changes to the apartment. (Like, you know making the closet space useful. Or fixing some all of the cabinets.) The upstairs neighbors have a bit more of a vested interest in the place because the mom is the daughter of our landlord. When she fixes things up, it's benefiting her extended family. I don't know what kind of arrangement they have, but it's obviously a long term agreement and H (the neighbor) gets free reign to update and remodel things as she sees fit. (I know that last year the master bathroom got an overhaul.)
In the end, I guess it's all about what would be efficient for me. If I didn't have grand gardening dreams, if I didn't have specific ideas for what I want in my home, if I didn't want some livestock (chickens!), if our place was just laid out better and more energy efficient in general I would probably have no problem staying here longer. But there are so many little things that drive a person crazy (like the closets and the cabinets, that soft spot on the floor in the kitchen because the boards are rotting, the window that's held closed with a zip tie....) and I don't have any power to change them. We haven't even hung pictures that we've had lying around since we moved in because we're afraid to put too many holes in the walls! It's very odd to be living someplace that you don't really think of as "home" because you've been telling yourself that it's ephemeral and that you'll move "sometime". (Home is wherever Shane and the pets are; the apartment itself isn't home.)
I think that measuring efficiency more in terms of land space is a silly way of deciding things. After all, Alaska has plenty of land. We're the biggest state (almost three times the size of Texas) and have far fewer than 1 million people living here. Sure, I'll lose efficiency in terms of how many people our building will heat. But what I'm going to do with our land (when we get it) is just as important. In our own place I can effect real change on the scale I want to. With a real interest in the outcomes, Shane will be more interested in making our space efficient, too, and in reducing our resource use. (Back to our old argument about where to set the thermostat....) In that way, our lives will be far more efficient.

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