Living in the City – The Economics of Owning a Home (Part 3)

In Part 2 of the discussion on The Economics of Home Ownership, we learned that land ownership is not a prerequisite of home ownership, for there are many good people out there with more land than they know what to do with. It may be possible, as we explored, to build a home without ever having to purchase the land. Landowners may be in need of a skill you possess, or they may simply want someone to act as a resident land steward. Either way, mutual agreements are possible and many natural builders have taken this route to avoid the debt-trap brought on by a mortgage. But what about those who want to live in cities? Where does this discussion go and is there room for natural building in the city? Let’s explore this.

Perhaps the largest obstacle to city-living – certainly big-city living – is the cost of shelter. I’ve always felt that housing/land prices in cities were largely arbitrary and divorced from any real value – not based on what could be grown or sold in carrots, herbs or timber from a lot, but rather on proximity to a high paying job or a little piece of yard. Sure, there is the value of the home itself but this is just a fraction of the price, especially for the tens of thousands of shoddily built homes that went up during the boom years in Calgary. So what does determine the price of a house/lot?

Based on what I’ve observed over the past few years, particularly in the US where values in the property market have in some cases collapsed, the most obvious answer is access to jobs – the hallmark of a strong economy. I guess this is what economists call “supply and demand”. As something is in greater supply, its price goes up. Simple enough I suppose, but wait. Just a few weeks ago I heard Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, say that housing prices in many Canadian cities are being set by “fear and greed”, not supply and demand. This got me thinking about the broader implications of city living.

The situation Mark Carney is talking is most pronounced in larger centers, particularly those with strong economies, and these things, when combined, seem to be the perfect catalyst for the rat race. People buy into the “buy now or be left behind” sales pitch and when they become overextend financially, they must work a little harder. Maybe mom gets a second job, or perhaps dad takes on more overtime to outshine his coworkers in hopes that hewill get the next promotion. Whatever the combination, the goal is to get more money. All the while we confuse fear  for ambition (our bodies know the difference though) and each time one of us falls for this non-sense, we each have to speed up just a little bit. Otherwise we, too, will be left behind.

redwood forest connecting to natureAs we speed around being “busy”, we forget that a strong economy today is synonymous with the expedient exploitation of resources (the name we give to people, forests, soil, mammals, fish, for the sake of making a profit). I suppose this is somewhat forgivable because most jobs have been engineered to separate out the dirty work in time and place. From behind shiny desks, deep within cities, salaries are paid for by activities almost always carried out in some other locale, where “resources” are exploited with maximum speed and efficiency. The feedback mechanisms that would otherwise temper our behaviour, causing us to pause and consider if our actions could adversely impact something or someone, have been severed. This mania – and I don’t use this word lightly – seems only to intensify as the size of the community increases, with large cities being the pinnacle of such social arrangements.

Cities, by their very design, are the places where we can live in almost complete isolation from the consequences of our actions. We can eat beef without ever seeing a cow. We can buy a pair of jeans without ever looking into the eyes of the worker who tailored them. And we can turn on the lights without having to suck in the coal dust that makes electricity possible in Alberta. Cities are inherently unsustainable, but their allure is driving the greatest rural-to-urban migration the world has ever seen. Nearly 200,000 people leave the humble countryside to live in cities each and every day.

This great unsettling should be a cause for concern because cities isolate us from the impacts of our choices, blurring us from the reality of what really governs life (namely the six inches of top soil and the fact that it rains), and thus accelerating the speed with which the planet is consumed. As Derrick Jensen puts it, we are living lives of “make believe” and it is no wonder we are being duped to pay more for shelter than its worth. After all, other than our most recent pay cheque, what else do we use to evaluate what shelter should actually cost?

There has been a natural building resurgence in recent years because it offers an alternative to what the “market” provides and because it grounds us to something real. It provides instant feedback because you feel good working with the materials and being around them. While natural building has its applications in the city, I’ve witnessed many workshop participants dreaming of building their own home with earth and returning to a life that is simpler and more in tune with their values and the wider community of life. These dreams are often set in non-urban places.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will see that high prices for shelter in the city are largely driven by access to high (or higher) paying jobs (not necessarily the highest quality of life). We pay big bucks to earn big bucks and I believe the fear that drives people to purchase overpriced $500,000 homes in the suburbs is the same fear that keeps many of us tied to places that don’t allow us to be in harmony with ourselves. Natural building offers an affordable and honorable way to provide ones shelter without the need for a big-city job.

I’ve struggled with the “where do I belong?” question for a long time and I know how difficult it is to live in a place that, deep down, doesn’t feel like home. Luckily, the work I’ve been doing through Dirt Craft has connected me with many amazing people; people who are also striving to find their place in the world and engaging with like-minded folks is both empowering and liberating. I’m confident that as this amazing community comes closer together that the long awaited question of “where do I belong” will get answered for more and more of us. We’ll find another way and we’ll find our way home.

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