It was part of a series of posts I did arguing why we should consider staying in the suburbs rather than pining after that piece of rural heaven. It is one of my favorite posts in this series, and so, I'm reposting it.
It was orginally titled:
Pass the Scoop, I Likes Me Some Ice Cream with My Cake
I was supposed to be commenting on the Suburban Lawn of the Future, but I’m having trouble with that topic.
Ask me why.
Okay, I’ll tell you.
I live in Maine, and right now we’re under a foot-deep, concrete-hard blanket of ice and snow, which is not unusual for February in Maine, but it makes thinking about what my garden might look like in the spring a little difficult. Some of my favorite bloggers are starting seeds right now, and from my experience as a gardener in this part of the country, it’s still too early to even do that. The traditional planting date for Maine is Memorial Day – still three full months away (and I learned the hard way not to flout the wisdom of waiting until then).
Instead I hope I can talk convincingly about why, if you already live in the suburbs, keeping your house is a better option than running wildly into the woods, and I’ll be making the assumption that your house in the suburbs carries a mortgage AND that if you found a house in the country, you would also have a mortgage.
In a survival situation, experts stress that the first order of business is finding shelter. Most people freak out and rush around trying to get food.
Fact: The average person can survive without any food at all for three weeks.
Fact: One can die of exposure to the elements in as little as three hours.
I found a statistic that stated in the United States 700 people die of exposure every year. I couldn’t find one statistic regarding the number of people who die of starvation. Not one. I took that to mean that it happens so rarely here in the US that it isn’t very noteworthy.
I could probably stop right there, point made. Shelter is important. But it’s probably not enough to convince anyone to stay in the suburbs, especially if one lives in an HOA-controlled area.
A couple of years ago, I read this article, entitled Why Homeowners Get Rich and Renters Stay Poor. The author, David Bach, points to things like equity, tax breaks, and lower monthly payments (because most of the time a mortgage payment is less than rent for a comparable space). **
I would add one more thing, and that is security. There is a great deal of comfort in knowing that someone can’t just kick me out of my home on a whim. The house I’m living in had renters when we purchased it. We went under contract at the beginning of November and closed on December 19. The renters moved out the day we closed. It seemed like they had no idea what was going on. I mean, they even had a Christmas tree, and I know this, because the previous owners showed up on closing day with a U-Haul and helped their tenants relocate to an apartment in town. Among the things they couldn’t take was their Christmas tree, and the pool that was frozen to the ground in the backyard. They left both.
As a homeowner, as long as I’m paying my mortgage payment, there is little chance that I’m going to be kicked out of my house six days before Christmas. And once my mortgage debt is paid in full, as long as I continue to pay my taxes to my local municipality, I can live here until I die.
I’ve read a lot of fiction set in the 1930’s. It’s probably one of my favorite historical time periods. I think there is a lot we can learn from the survivors of the Great Depression, especially in these uncertain economic times.
The one thing I’ve learned from all of that reading is that only difference between being destitute and being poor was a home. Those people who had a place to live, regardless of their economic status, never had the problems of those who were transient – moving from one temporary shelter to another.
This is still true today, and if the economy gets as bad as is predicted due to Peak Oil, some of us might have to think about our housing situation.
In her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America Barbara Ehrenriech talks about living wage earners, and the fact that many of them are forced to live in temporary housing, like motels. The problem, she observes, is that they can’t do things like buy food in bulk and cook and store large quantities of food, much less grow a garden, even in containers. Worse, the rates for such housing are twice what one would pay for a traditional apartment, or even a mortgage, but consider if all of the money is going to pay a weekly motel rate, how can one save enough for a deposit on an apartment or a down payment on a house? In most cases, it doesn’t happen.
The problems just compound until in the worst case scenarios, not only do those people who were living in motels no longer have a place to live, but now, they are also starving.
One of my favorite books set in the 1930’s is The Grapes of Wrath . Those poor Joads. In her book, Possum Living, Dolly Freed says that things would have been very different for the Joads, if they had owned their property. And that’s the point: the difference between being destitute and being poor is owning one’s property.
I know, you’re saying, “Well, we could own our house in the country, too.” And that may well be true. In that case, I would say, “Alright! When do we leave?”
Maybe it’s just my issue, but Deus Ex Machina and I don’t have the money in savings to go out and buy a house in the country without a mortgage. While it’s true we could probably find a house right now for very little, it’s also true that we’d still have a mortgage, and we’d still have to have a job. In most rural areas here in Maine, there aren’t very many jobs, and there aren’t any that pay what Deus Ex Machina is currently making. Houses are cheaper, but not by that much.
I suppose we could commute … but isn’t that kind of defeating the whole lowering our impact?
If we moved into the country, we could farm for a living, which is what I’d want to do.
It’s true that farming can be a very lucrative career, but growing stuff to sell takes time. It also takes capital to buy seeds or livestock, which means that we’d have to have money. We’d have to have money BEFORE we could make any money.
See the crazy circle?
Fact is that in this country we are heavily dependent on the money economy, and while we can take steps to minimize our need for the “root of all evil” (like participating in Riot4Austerity and taking the fantastic advice of people like Dolly Freed, the frugal zealot and the Economedes family), we still need some of it.
Living in the suburbs allows my family to reduce our dependence on an outside income in the following ways:
1. We live “close” and so we wouldn’t need (as much) gasoline to get around, and living in the suburbs puts us in between the country (where we can get food) and the city (where we can get supplies).
2. We have enough land to supplement our diet with things we can grow or raise, and so we can save money on food. We could even supplement our income by selling some of our organic vegetables and eggs to neighbors, and we actually do have enough space that we could raise small livestock, like rabbits, for meat and/or fiber. Additionally, rabbits and chickens (which we already have) create a lot … ahem, fertilizer. Rabbit manure can go straight from the rabbit into the garden without composting first. It doesn’t burn plants like other manures can do. We could also sell that … er, by product to area gardeners. And, we wouldn’t have to waste a carbon element on transportation, as it could all be done with a wagon and a good pair of shoes. If one lives in the country, one’s neighbors are more likely to already have garden vegetables, eggs and manure a plenty. Transporting goods to markets would require some fuel, at least until horse and wagon become acceptable forms of transportation again.
3. Most suburban homes have some extra space that could be used for money-making endeavors, like a home business, that city-folks don’t often have. I have a home business, and there is a room in my house that is my “office.” It’s not a bedroom. It’s an “extra room.” I earn just enough to cover our monthly mortgage payment as a Virtual Assistant. My biggest client is a medical office, and I transcribe dictation for them. I also work over the Internet for clients in other parts of the country. I could do the work I do and live anywhere in the world, thanks to my highspeed Internet connection, but until recently a highspeed Internet connection wasn’t even available in some parts of the state. In addition, utilities aren’t always available, and when they do go down, it takes longer to get them back up in more rural areas. In 1998, for example, most of the extreme northeast suffered a severe ice storm. Parts of Maine and into Canada were without power for weeks. We lost power for a total of 18 hours over two days. If things get as bad as predicted, no one without an alternative power source will have electricity, but chances are better that my power will stay on longer than my friends out near Sebago Lake.
The fact is that public utilities like electricity, phone service (including cellphones), natural gas lines, and the Internet are more readily available in more densely populated areas, and while I could live happily without them, in theory, at the moment, I need them to continue working in my chosen career.
4. Living in the suburbs means we have lots of neighbors. This may seem like a disadvantage, and I’ll talk more on it later, but as the Big Box stores have shown us, there is power in numbers.
A final consideration, which Deus Ex Machina just pointed out, is familiarity. Chances are that you know your surroundings already, at least to a degree, and you would be better able find things like food, water, wood for fuel, etc. Plus, you probably know your neighbors, at least a little, but more importantly, you’d know whether or not you could trust them, which wouldn’t be true if you went running into the country to escape Peak Oil.
Here in the ‘burbs, we have that proverbial cake, and not only do we get to eat it, but we’re licking the platter clean. We get the luxury of the city with a bit of that fresh, country air.
Now, pass the ice cream scoop. I want a big dollop of that French vanilla there … and maybe a smidgen of the strawberry, too, to go with this slab of German Chocolate cake I’m holding.
**Some of what Bach says in this article are no longer true in some areas after the 2008 housing bubble burst, but there are still areas of the country where housing prices have not done the Nestea plunge, and owning rather than renting is still a better option.