Valuing homes (not just in dollars)

LA apartments
In a recent report on why too few homes are being built in California, the State Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that “real improvement can come only with a major shift in how communities and their residents think about and value new housing.”

As a YIMBY organization, Abundant Housing LA focuses on projects and policies to increase housing supply, reduce costs, and expand choices.  But taking the the LAO’s challenge to heart: how can we get residents and decision makers to value new homes?

Part of the problem may be our language. We frequently speak and write of “units” and “housing” –  but by this we mean homes. And by homes we mean places for people. Starting with people and their needs and stories and aspirations, whether in featuring individual Angelenos or speaking about “neighbors” as this humorous anti-NIMBY campaign does, can help personalize housing politics and policy.

Beyond language and tone, we were formed to address a housing crisis, so we naturally tend to focus on problems.  Housing shortages, high rents, homelessness, evictions, people leaving the region, opponents and obstruction of new housing, bad rules etc. all vie for our attention.  These are all issues worth explaining and addressing, but they are negatives. They work by generating concern and outrage to inspire improvement and push-back.

Problem-solving has its place, but how can we also promote positive reasons to value homes? Forget about new or old, attached or detached, big or small for a minute. What is the value of a home, or rather, the multiple values (and not just in dollars?)

A home is, at its most basic, shelter– a place to sleep, providing protection from the elements.

A home is also a dwelling – where we live, a place to organize our private lives, to spend time and to make memories.

A home is self-expression– a source of meaning and identity and control over one’s surroundings. Architectural styles, neighborhoods, and interior styles allow residents to affirm and vary their individual and shared identities and ways of living. Architectural critic Charles Jencks, celebrating what he termed LA’s ‘daydream houses,’ argued that even homes combining snobbery, kitsch and shoddy materials have an ‘immediate, sensual quality’ that make you look and, “however, reluctantly, smile.” Planner and artist James Rojas has studied how Latin American immigrants have altered suburban homes in LA to imbue them with aspects of their places of origin: taller front fences at which to stand and talk with neighbors, paved front yards that, along with front porches, act like interior courtyards, shrines, etc.

A home is also an investment– whether we own or rent, the single thing that we probably spend the most money on. Economists would say a home has exchange value. As a group that wants to reduce housing costs, it is tricky to view a home as simultaneously being affordable and a source of savings or wealth, but we have to keep in mind the attraction of homes as property.

A home is, or can be, an economic tool – more that just a passive investment. It can be the location for a home business, collateral for a loan, rooms to sublet. In her book My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965, historian Becky Nicolaides shows how residential property in the city of South Gate in the 1920s was “highly valued for its function as a site of local production” – especially gardening and raising animals. In contemporary Los Angeles, homes are more likely to be places to store occupational equipment, offices for freelancers, places to rent long or short term, but the goals are the same: survival in tough times and wealth-building in good times.

A home is space in the city – a place and way for people to stay in or move to Los Angeles. If we want to be a welcoming, diverse place, we need more homes to create more space. The flip side of a home as individualized expression is the notion of the home as a grid of possibilities and succession. A space, that as Aaron Betsky writes of the dingbat – “allows for any kind of person to inhabit it without feeling out of place.”

There are probably many other reasons to value homes. Whichever appeal most to you, we hope that valuing homes can help lead to a city, region and state with enough room (and homes) for all.


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