Friends in Small Places

The Economics of Home

By Jeremiah Eck

When I first moved to the Boston area back in the late seventies, I paid $125 a month for my apartment. It wasn’t much, basically one room of about 800 square feet, which served as my combination living, dining, kitchen and bedroom with a small bath next to the door. There was even enough room for my first architectural office (or, better said, my architectural desk).

A few years later, I built a small 1,150-square-foot house in the Boston suburbs for about $60,000. I lived in that house for almost 15 years, and over that time, built a few small additions, a shed, and a garage. For the recent graduate and young professional that I was at the time, it was somewhat expensive but it was doable. The economy was up and down on occasion but essentially on the rise, and I never thought I couldn’t find a job or that affordability was an overwhelming burden in my life. I wasn’t living in a mansion, but I had my own house on a half-acre, and I never felt cramped. I look back on those years now as promising and pleasant.

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But things have certainly changed, haven’t they? In the latest housing craze, so-called micro housing units in Boston’s Seaport District are now renting at $1,200 for 337 square feet and $2,450 for 597 square feet.* If I was a younger man and moving to Boston right now, I would be facing increasingly ominous housing economics that are entirely different from what I faced as a young professional. It’s likely that I would be paying over a third of my income for housing and, as the figures above indicate, I would probably be living in a much smaller space. My first 800-square-foot apartment and certainly my house in the suburbs would seem palatial by today’s standards.

In last week’s blog, Duo Dickinson talked about the tiny-house movement as a bit messianic and perhaps, in a funny way, a bad antidote to the McMansions of the world. Duo is right to compare the two as opposite sides of the coin of American consumerism, but I’d like to add another thought: Don’t both the micro-unit and the McMansion represent the fundamentally misguided nature of the American home? A home that is dominated primarily by economics and the market rather than a meaningful sense of place?

Micro housing, once considered a potential solution for middle-income housing, is a myth, at $1,200 for 337 square feet. It’s neither affordable nor practical… just try putting two adults and maybe a kid in that space. But neither are McMansions affordable or practical. Their quality is often shoddy, and as Duo points out, the size of the average American family is falling.

The overwhelming driving force behind our houses for my entire professional career has been money, not value. How else can you explain the fantastical prices of both micro-units and McMansions? Many have preached, including myself, that we can indeed live comfortable, more affordable and sustainable lives in smaller houses. But American economics are working against us at every turn. Perhaps as with all phenomena there will be an eventual tipping point, but just when I thought the 2008 meltdown would change the equation, we don’t seem to have learned anything.

*Figures are taken from the October issue of Architectural Record.

Jeremiah Eck, FAIA, is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, author of House in the Landscape, Face of Home, and The Distinctive Home, and a landscape painter. He is a former lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design where he continues to offer professional development seminars. In addition, he serves on numerous public service committees. In 2007 Jeremiah was elected to the New England Hall of Fame and in 2012 made an exhibiting member of the Providence Art Club, the second oldest art club in the United States.