Thursday, May 03, 2007

Book discussion, chapter 2: Housing size and mortgages

This week Charity Singleton and L.L. Barkat are discussing chapter 2 of The Suburban Christian, "Living in Suburbia: The Pursuit of the Promised Land," which talks about such topics as the American dream, Western individualism and single-family housing. Both of them comment about the nature and size of suburban housing. I blogged about the question of how much space do we need a few months back, saying,

we had had some default assumptions about kids each having their own rooms, which is a fairly individualistic, Western notion of privacy and personal space. American houses are larger by far than those in other societies - the average size of an American single-family home has increased from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,329 square feet today. The typical American has 718 square feet of living space per person, compared to 442 square feet in Canada and just 170 square feet in Japan. Most American suburban homes, if set in other parts of the world, would be used to house multiple families. The authors of Suburban Nation write, "There is not another nation on earth that houses its citizens as we do, and few could afford to."

Here's Charity's response to some of this:
How does my Christian faith and a concern for God's kingdom intersect with my otherwise responsible pursuit of the American dream? Even though my house is very modest at 1,200 square feet, since I live alone, I have almost double the average 718 square-feet-per-person of most Americans. And I have 10 times more square feet for myself than the average person in Japan who lives in just 170 square feet. Is all this space dedicated just to me actually a sign of greed and wastefulness in my life?
Also, Spiritual Birdwatching has chimed in. Her thoughts on chapter 1 are here, and now she comments on the suburban ideal having a home of one's own, saying: "The received wisdom is that a house is the average family's biggest investment, so get as much as you can afford. The price we pay goes well beyond the monthly mortgage payments; it's the second job or both parents working, the hours spent commuting, how hard we work to fill all that space with stuff. What if a house was just that -- a place to live, not the nexus of my sense of well-being in the world? Or more, an opportunity to explore what it means to live Christianly in my community?"

Good thoughts, everybody. I didn't cite this in the book, but I appreciate Rodney Clapp's thoughts in the last chapter of Families at the Crossroads where he contrasts the notion of the home as a haven with the idea of the home as a mission station. In other words, housing is not to escape from the world but a means to minister to the world with welcome and hospitality. I think that helps us envision our homes not as private mansions or fortresses, but as space that we are called to be good stewards of, space that we can use missionally. (Some more on that is in chapter 6, so stay tuned.)

Also, here's something else I didn't say in the book regarding the home mortgage industry. Naturally, lenders try to maximize the amount of house that potential buyers buy - it's good for business to have larger loans. But about those mortgage calculators that suggest how much house folks can afford - when you input your income, etc., they never assume a Christian lifestyle of tithing and giving, or of saving. They assume a standard lifestyle of consumption and maximal debt. So these mortgage calculators end up saying that we can "afford" a home far bigger or more expensive than is healthy for most Christians who want to practice generosity and frugality. So beware the mortgage calculators! And don't believe them when they give you big numbers of how much house you can afford. Cut it by 25% or more, and you'll find something much more realistic.


L.L. Barkat said...

I still remember working by phone to get pre-approved and the person telling me I could get a loan almost four times the size of the one I have. I said straight out, "You know, I couldn't really pay that back?" But he insisted I could.

Well, I guess maybe he hadn't pushed the Christian-factor button on the calculator.

Maria said...

Good point about the mortgage calculators -- generosity is surely hard to factor in, especially if you're mortgaged to the hilt. The demise of the sub-prime mortgage companies right now certainly reveals the heart of many lenders! The person generating the loan doesn't care that much if you won't be able to pay it off, because they won't be the one trying to collect later.

Anonymous said...

I loved the idea of the home as a mission station. I think that's my goal here, though too often I get home after a long day at work, and I sink into the protection of this place being mine and mine alone.

Chapter Two had SO much to talk about. I also was very interested in all you had to say about ethnicity and diversity in the suburbs. I'm still pondering all of that.