Maybe you live or work in a neighborhood like mine. Fifty-year-old homes of no more than 2,000 square feet get sold for $400,000 and torn down. They’re replaced with million-dollar houses occupying every inch of the lot and extending upward at least three stories. Eighty-year-old apartment buildings are converted into condominiums with granite countertops and cherry cabinetry, symbols of upscale living. The two-bedroom units across the street from me start at $319,000. No parking available.
I’m thankful I bought my tiny slice of the housing pie five years ago. When property taxes jumped 50%, I was glad I could pay the increased rates, unlike many longtime residents, particularly the elderly, who sold their homes and moved to more affordable areas.
The question is: How long will these other neighborhoods remain affordable? And are the homes there affordable because they lack high-end finishes and multiple bathrooms? Or are they affordable because they have broken windows and leaky roofs?
I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to spend thousands or millions of dollars on filling a house with square footage and features. Nor do I begrudge the remodelers and builders who make good, even great livings fulfilling these folks’ dreams. But I do think that as members of the housing industry, we have a responsibility to recognize that every human being, not just the rich, needs and deserves a place to call home.
Charitable organizations such as Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org) and Rebuilding Together (formerly Christmas in April, online at www.rebuildingtogether.org) have taken this mission to heart for years, often with the assistance of for-profit contractors volunteering time, labor and materials on an individual or company basis.
I joined members of the local Remodelors Council recently to investigate Rebuilding Together sites for a council-led project. Because of the number of pros involved, the Rebuilding Together leaders showed us one of the tougher sites: a brick building at least 75 years old housing a nonprofit community center that runs after-school programs in English as a Second Language, computer training and citizenship. While not a residence, the center serves as an essential, vital part of neighborhood life.
Some of the more glaring problems: a weakened load-bearing beam in the basement, directly beneath a poured concrete porch; exposed, sharp radiator fins on which one child already had cut himself; occasional holes in the floor big enough for a foot to go through; broken windows that would have leaked hot air if the center had enough money to get the utilities turned back on.
The cynic in me urged my colleagues to snap digital pictures of the kids and their craft projects. Cute kids, the elderly and the disabled always seem to garner the most public empathy and support.
More and more, though, I see able-bodied men and women in the prime of life, drawn from the working poor, the working class and the middle class, who cannot find affordable housing. The NAHB estimates that the average price of a new home will rise to $252,000 in 2004, with sales of existing homes averaging $224,000. According to statistics published by the NAHB, more than 31 million families in the United States spend more than the federal recommendation of 30% of their income on housing.
Grown-ups don’t seem to tug at the heartstrings the same way kids do, but they deserve apartments and condos and houses, too. How we will provide that for them is one of the most important, hardest questions now facing our industry. Professional remodelers must be part of the answer.