Friday, September 19, 2008

A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Places To Live

In his thought-provoking book Reinventing Collapse, Dmitri Orlov compares the United States in its present condition to the Soviet Union just prior to the Soviet collapse. He notes a number of similarities between the two countries, including a large military bogged down in useless and harmful adventures, a huge and increasing national debt held largely by foreigners, a negative trade balance due to the collapse of domestic means of meeting basic societal needs and a corresponding reliance on imported goods, the maintaining and expansion of world empires by morally flawed means, and the imprisonment of a large portion of the population. His conclusion is that these conditions precipitated the Soviet collapse, and that they will cause the collapse of the United States as well.

But he also examines those peculiarly Soviet societal characteristics which in his view allowed ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union to survive the collapse without suffering a major societal breakdown. In particular, the communal, state-run, collectively owned nature of all major institutions and of basic assets such as land and housing prevented millions of people from facing the sorts of severe trouble experienced by people without money in the U.S. There were no “Hoovervilles,” no tent cities like the camp for financially distressed people that sprang up in Ontario, California last year as the home mortgage crisis gathered steam (See “Tent City In Suburbs Is Cost Of Home Crisis,” Reuters, 20 December 2007,

No one in the Soviet Union was evicted from house or apartment because of a lack of funds to pay rent, since housing was free. Land was communally owned and people had for a long time grown kitchen gardens to supplement the goods available from the “official” Communist stores. Therefore, when things collapsed, people had some means of taking care of their basic needs. The collapse was by no means fun or pretty; it was a significant hardship. But it was at least survivable, because of the communal factors mentioned. The same thing can also be said of Cuba's experience after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Cuba suddenly lost all Soviet material support and had to find homegrown solutions to sudden shortfalls of food and petroleum. The Cuban crisis also was survivable because of the communal nature of Cuban institutions and assets. It is not recorded that there was mass starvation of any kind in Cuba during those years, even though people did not have nearly as much to eat as they would have liked. And Cuba, like Russia, recovered from its crisis.

Our American system is very different. Here, one does not get even basic necessities unless one is able to pay for them. And the quality of the necessities provided is directly proportional to the amount of money paid. Moreover, our economic and political systems are being gamed by the rich elites in order to eliminate any government-sponsored social safety net which exists to protect those who lose the ability to pay for things provided by the “official” economy. Examples of this include a number of Oregon ballot initiatives financed by Oregon multimillionaires Loren Parks, Bill Sizemore and Kevin Mannix, initiatives such as Measure 59, which would allow Oregon taxpayers to deduct the full amount of Federal income tax paid from their state taxable income. This measure would decimate the state treasuries and force cutbacks in essential services provided to children, the disabled and the elderly. Then there is Measure 26, which has not yet qualified for a ballot, which would allow employers to deduct the cost of health benefits from the minimum wage paid to workers.

Home ownership” has been one of the biggest examples of the risky nature of participation in the American system. To buy a home, a person had to take out a loan to buy a house or condominium, unless that person was able to pay the full price up front. The loan was made at interest, so that the amount of money given to pay off a mortgage was usually at least twice as much as the actual price of the house, assuming that one paid the minimum payment each month on a fixed rate mortgage. And if a “homeowner” who had made several years' worth of payments suddenly lost his or her ability to pay the mortgage for an extended period, that person lost not only the house, but all the equity they had paid into the house.

Renters were not much better off, except that at least renters knew up front that they would never own the properties on which they made monthly payments, whereas home “buyers” were gambling that everything would work out right over a thirty-year period, so that they would eventually be able to throw a “burn the mortgage” party in their golden years. But now as the official economy is breaking, many people are finding themselves homeless or in danger of becoming homeless and searching for alternatives. In this country, those alternatives consist of things like finding relatives who will take you in; finding a cheap slum apartment; going to a rescue mission; moving into a housing project (not recommended unless you want neighbors like the “Bounty Hunter Bloods” of the Nickerson Gardens project in L.A.); getting yourself arrested and checked into the “Gray Bar Hotel”; or finding a shopping cart, a tarp, and a convenient freeway underpass where you can camp out.

This is not very encouraging. One key to maintaining a stable society even in hardship is the availability of reasonably clean and safe places to live. Places which have a bit of land are even better, because they can be used to grow food, herbs and fruit for people who are trying to lessen their dependence on a breaking economic system. The total plot size does not have to be large. Jules Dervaes of Path To Freedom was featured in a 2007 Los Angeles Times article on urban homesteading. He grows over 6000 pounds of food per year on a portion of a 9000-square foot lot. The Oregonian newspaper also printed a recent feature on edible urban gardens. And there are other advantages to the availability of adequate places to live – namely, that if people stay in those places long enough, they begin to form connections with their neighbors and learn to rely on each other and to help each other out. These interconnections become very important as official systems start to break.

I think it's fairly certain that our present government, at a national and state level, will not try to create a safety net of affordable housing for working-class people, since our elected officials are largely the servants of the rich. But what can private citizens do to create their own safety nets?

One answer is cohousing. Cohousing is a communal living arrangement in which a number of people agree to live in a locality, whether a house or a group of homes, and agree to share all the expenses and benefits of such a living arrangement. I have run across the concept over the years while doing Internet research on other subjects, but last week I got to actually see a cohousing arrangement in person. The occasion was a benefit concert for the Portland Fruit Tree Project, held in the backyard of a house which is part of a five-house community. There I had a chance to interview a woman named Katy, one of the founders of the Portland Fruit Tree Project and a member of the cohousing community. We talked about the birth of the Fruit Tree Project as well as the arrangement shared by Katy and the others in her cohousing community.

While the members share responsibilities for chores, their arrangement is not highly structured or hierarchical. Besides chores and chipping into pay bills, the only other obligation is a communal dinner held twice a week. The members of Katy's household are all “active” activists – each is involved in a social cause which is near to his or her heart. Thus they don't have much time to sit and watch television (I did not see a TV when I was there, but I am told that they keep one in a closet somewhere). They do spend time together on occasion to make music together; almost everyone in the household can play a musical instrument.

According to Katy, their cohousing group was founded nearly twenty years ago, and even though some members have moved on to other things, these former members frequently join the regulars for the community meals. Their group has managed to remain remarkably stable, and has even evolved a very small-scale egg and goat milk economic cooperative in which neighbors participate.

Cohousing seems to be a promising answer to some of the uncertainties of our present American crisis. But it takes land and houses and an ability to pay for these. As the economy continues to be squeezed, where can people interested in forming cohousing communities turn for resources?

One answer is to look for properties in areas hit hard by foreclosure or economic blight. Detroit, Michigan is a poster child for such areas. (See for an example.) One can easily buy a modest two or three bedroom home there for under $50,000. There are places in Los Angeles and Orange counties in California which have been hit hard by the mortgage crisis, where prices of modest (I repeat, modest) homes have fallen drastically. Such places would be beyond both the ability and the interest of those who are addicted to living beyond their means. But these places might be easily affordable by people who have chosen frugality and wisdom rather than allowing themselves to be turned into “consumatrons,” and who therefore have some money saved up. Such people might be able to put up enough money to pay the price of a house right up front, bypassing the need to take out a loan.

People relocating to distressed areas would also need two other things: a vision of the sort of intentional community they would like to create, and a plan or vision of how they as a community could bless, beautify and improve the larger community in which they live. Their impact on the larger community would be especially important, in order to remove any resentment which might spring up because of the threat of displacement of long-time residents due to gentrification. A cohousing community in a distressed area would ideally consist of people with skills suited to meeting the needs of their neighbors – people skilled in local urban agriculture, teaching, medicine, construction, salvage economies and other necessary skills. And this sort of cohousing community would succeed best by living simply, not flaunting wealth in front of the surrounding neighbors, and being ever ready to lend a helping hand to those in need.

I believe that cohousing is a viable safety net for those who are willing to live modestly and to share what they have with others. And cohousing holds great promise as a means to provide stability to neighborhoods that would otherwise be blighted by the breakdown of our present system. But cohousing is like seeds planted to produce a harvest – there is an urgency to the planting season, because the winter of our society may be fast approaching.

Below are a few pictures of the Portland cohousing community I visited. Also, here are two links for those who want more information on cohousing: and Enjoy!

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