Woodframe Housing at Risk

A photo appreciation and lament
Land of forests, nation of immigrants

     When the early colonists arrived on America’s shores, they encountered plentiful forests which gave the raw materials for their new homes. Even through the 19th and 20th centuries, woodframe housing was the nearly universal form, as new waves of immigrants arrived, joined our expanding industrial economy and pushed our nation ever westward. Wood has always been, and still is, plentiful and cheap in America.
     Today, as a result, we have a rich heritage of woodframe housing built over the past 200 years. It comes in all shapes and sizes: single-family homes from large mansions to small cottages and bungalows; large homes once occupied by families with servants, now subdivided; rowhouses; millworkers’ houses; triple-deckers and double-triple-deckers; larger "tenement" complexes. For the most part, this housing is architecturally beautiful: spacious, well proportioned, beautifully decorated with often ornate wood trim and mouldings.
      Woodframe housing was always immensely practical. It was cheap, do-it-yourself housing. An entire home, even multi-family homes, could be built with a small crew of workers using fairly simple techniques that have hardly changed through time. As often happened, the immigrants and settlers built their own homes. Even extended families would build and live in a multi-family house together, preserving their old world culture of family ties and cooperation. In manufacturing centers, factory owners or independent entrepreneurs would build for the arriving workers. But the owners and the workers paid for it all – without government subsidies. In time, renters moved on to buy or build their own homes as new immigrant-renters moved in.

Woodframe housing is freedom

     Our heritage of woodframe housing is a large part of the dream that America’s immigrants came for. It meant freedom and independence. When Thomas Jefferson said that "small landholders" were "the most precious part of the state," he saw those small landholders as the preservers of both democracy and liberty – democracy because their many small holdings gave strength against monopolistic power, and liberty because the freedoms of speech and religion and thought are meaningless if your property can be taken away from you.
And every individual or every family need not own their own home. Human beings have always lived in groups, in extended families of one sort or another. The diversity and competition of many small energized groups gives freedom and vitality to the individuals in them. Freedom disappears when individuals are alone, isolated from each other, and dominated by one monolithic central organization. The variety, diversity, and small scale of our woodframe housing, including multi-family housing, lies at the core of our freedom.

Signs of change

     But at the turn of the century and the millenium, there are many signs that woodframe housing, as we have known it, is in danger. At the beginning of the 20th century, production of multi-family housing boomed with the arriving new immigrants. In the last 50 years, however, scarcely a trickle of new multi-family housing has been built, even with another wave of new immigrants. Local governments across the country have downzoned their multi-family neighborhoods, making it certain that whenever our current stock of housing expires, it cannot be replaced with anything similar. The business of being a small owner of rental property has become subject to harsh regulation that says, in effect, "get big or get out." Small owners have been driven out of our lower-income neighborhoods by Catch-22 laws that positively encourage absentee "hands-off" slumlords as the only feasible modus operandi.
     In these neighborhoods especially, older housing is rapidly deteriorating and becoming abandoned and bulldozed under in alarming rates in most cities and towns in Massachusetts, as we have reported in these pages time and again. Right at this moment, Baltimore is leveling block after block of older woodframe rowhouses, not in particularly bad shape but abandoned, usually in the face of intractable lead paint abatement laws. All this housing is far more spacious and architecturally beautiful compared to anything modern that replaces it.
     Even in higher-income neighborhoods, being a small landlord is no longer a desired goal and a path to greater economic independence. The push is for everyone to live in single-family homes or in large apartment complexes. In both of these new directions, the trends are toward assembly-line, cookie-cutter uniformity. Indeed, the biggest new trend in single-family construction is pre-fabrication: building modules constructed in a factory and shipped to the homesite. In these and in concrete-steel-and-glass apartment complexes, what passes for "design" is monotonous anonymity, large expanses of flat, white surfaces devoid of any uniqueness or personality – and totally beyond the skill of the occupant to alter or repair or improve.
     The government can’t do it.
     Finally, the government itself has attempted – and failed – and is still attempting to construct housing for the people, instead of letting the people construct housing for themselves. Fifty years ago, the government tried public housing – brick-and-concrete structures that put a large number of low-income households all in one place. Crime and family disintegration became rampant. The buildings themselves had to be torn down after just decades of use, or completely gut-rehabbed.
     Compare this situation with most of the older woodframe housing built 50 to 150 years ago. It is still in good shape and livable without anything more than routine repair and judicious installation of improvements like electricity and indoor plumbing. Historic preservationists love it. Homeowners pay premiums just to keep it "as is" as much as possible. Well maintained, it can last another century or two.
     Failing in the public housing experiment, the government, working through nonprofit "community" corporations, has now turned to building scattered-site, smaller-scale housing for low- and moderate-income households. There isn’t a prayer of a chance that this housing will work. It is extremely costly (because of all the middle-class professionals who live off of developing it), so very little of it can be built. Consequently, a huge tax-funded benefit goes inequitably to a small portion of those citizens officially qualified to receive it. Another government housing disaster is in the works.

Where shall we go?
     We are still a nation of immigrants. Every sign says more people from foreign countries will come to America to find their way to freedom and prosperity. But will they find a ladder of opportunity? Will they find entry-level homes and simple businesses to operate independently? Or will they – and all of us – become a nation of perpetually dependent laborers in a massive centralized system?
     Only 20 or 30 years ago, the fantasy existed that food in America’s future would be dispensed through tubes as a scientifically formulated liquid or in "power bars." Not only has that fantasy not materialized, people have started to turn back to food in its most original form: to organic food produced on small farms without the chemical pollutants and topsoil-destroying methods of agribusiness. We have reached the same turning point in housing. Do we respect our heritage of hand-made, locally built homes? Or will we use them up and throw them away, like the wrappers on fast-food burgers?

Eye of the beholder
     "What are you taking pictures for?" asked a woman’s voice. I pulled the camera down and saw a woman poking her head from a parked car, behind her a small child strapped in a safety seat. I felt vaguely accused of doing something wrong.
"Because the houses are beautiful," I replied.
She didn’t believe me.
     "Are you under cover or something?" she pressed me.
      "No," I said, "I think the houses are beautiful."
      "Really? I live in that one," she said, referring to the big yellow six-family Victorian I had been snapping photos of.
     "I don’t see what you see," she said. I couldn’t understand. It seemed as if she had never looked at her home as an object of beauty.
     "What do you see?" she asked.
      "I see beautiful wood. All the decorations and those oval wooden windows in the middle."
      "Yeh?" She said doubtfully. "But the paint’s peeling."
      "That’s charming," I said. I wasn’t sure she believed me. I said it again. "That’s charming. We can’t have every single house perfectly painted."
      "I guess not."
     "Sometimes I really like wood where the paint has almost all worn off. It’s beautiful. Your house is beautiful."
     She looked at her house again.
      "I guess it is," she said, and underscoring her agreement, she added cheerfully: "Merry Christmas."
      "Merry Christmas," I said back. And we smiled broadly at each other.