Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Home ... of the FUTURE!

[Economy] I am not an economist, but if I've got this straight, it was the housing bubble which triggered the credit crunch that led to the bailout bill which gave us all a glimpse into the inner workings of Professor Bubbles B. Bernanke's Fantastical Contraption, that tawdry engine driving late capitalism, fueled by wishes and happy thoughts.

From what I gather, since the value of all the goods, products, services and property in the world is now dwarfed by the imaginary value of the derivatives market, old-fashioned notions like "assets" and "real wages" no longer apply--all that is required to create a strong economy is for everybody to get together and ... just believe the economy is strong--believe with all their might.

So, you see, it is naysayers like I who have destroyed the economy--those who think fiat currency itself, as a representation of tangible value, is already about as notional and abstract as anything should be; those who must work to suppress a sense of schadenfreude at the thought of greedy, gross, subliterate, entitled, grown spoiled brats in suits leaping from office towers; those who have sensed all along that the Republicans couldn't go on forever cutting taxes while simultaneously running up trillion-dollar debts for wars of choice and corporate welfare; those who have recognized neo-Reaganomics as a house of cards which cannot stand indefinitely. (When, at an editorial meeting, the question recently arose: "What do you get the guy who has just received a $700 billion bailout?" my first impulse was "a guillotine." Depraved, I know. I felt suitably guilty about it immediately. But, then, "Liberté, Raison, Egalité," as they say. "Fraternité" came later.)

Everybody wants to live in a shipping container these days--it seems kind of New Wave to me.

Somehow, the value of people's houses, considered as "real estate" rather than home, hearth and shelter, became entangled in this imaginary-value market, so that people whose homes had cost, say, $40,000 in 1980 suddenly found themselves living on $300,000 estates in 2000. It was still the same old bungalow in Sugar House, although they were stuck with a brand-new tax bill. Still, the value was represented in equity, so the main problem was for people like me who forgot to invest in real estate at age 12, back when the market was more flat. In the imaginary-value market, how were we ever supposed meet expectations and purchase homes? We just love painting and gardening and doing little fix-up projects. But, unless we were foolish enough to donate such services to grim-faced landlords or get roped into predatory mortgages, most of us had little outlet for such charming domestic impulses.

Somebody recently decided the answer for people like us was: shipping containers, if you can believe it. Yes, it is now considered hip to live in one of those big metal boxes of the type found in shipyards. Even Salt Lake City is due for its (admittedly innovative, visionary and undeniably green) shipping-container condo complex.

Are such housing units cheap? Well, considering they're fucking shipping containers, no, not really. I mean, if you could buy a little condo for $40,000-$60,000, shipping-container living might hold some attraction. But, I suppose, even at $150,000 or whatever price they're asking (the City Center Lofts project is also selling hipness, prime location and fancy Jetsonesque amenities such as videocoms and heated floors, remember), the general strategy seems an ideal solution for housing urban worker bees--at least until the overlords find a way of getting us to forget our instinct for home ownership altogether in favor of spending six hour per day in ventilated aluminum sleeping tubes.

The deflation of the housing bubble, however, might put an end to all this. The paper values of brick houses will continue to plummet, which may not be such a bad thing for homeowners who have lived in their homes for awhile--after all, property taxes should also drop, in theory. Even those who have purchased their homes more recently shouldn't be hit too hard, as long as they don't plan on moving anytime soon. It does, however, piss off land-bankers. Boo-hoo, land-bankers.

Look at Detroit. Yes, some people think it's a hellhole, but how bad can it be, really? It must have its nice points, being close to Chicago and all. And, see here: The median price of a house or condo in the downtown area has fallen to under $10,000. That should put affordable housing within the reach of pretty much everybody. In the metro region, including presumably some nicer areas, the median price is $85,000. These seem like more reasonable prices for housing, as long as CEOs are planning on keeping real wages locked at 1970s levels.

(Brandon Burt)


  1. Detroit's a hell hole. I'm surprised it's that high.

  2. My company designs shipping container houses, and we really didn't find much interest in this market until this summer. Now we are getting inquiries every week, and we've got a couple of design contracts under way. From what I can tell, there are three factors driving the rising popularity of these structures:
    - They are cheap, the cost is about $2,500 per container
    - They are seen as "green", rather than cutting down trees to make a house, you are reusing something.
    - There seems to be a popularity that these are in style.

    The one we built in Atlanta was a real pain to permit, but I think the next ones we build will be fairly easy. I did some inquiries with the permit authorities in one of the outlying counties, and the reaction was, well...puzzled actually.

    These are not like house trailers, you can really whack these with all kinds of forces and they stay standing. If I had to ride out a hurricane, I'd chose one of these.

    Will these type of houses go down in popularity as house values plummet? I don't think so because the materials used in conventional construction can only go down so much. Building houses out of containers may be more cost competitive with existing buildings.


  3. Interesting, George.

    I'm really not down on container condos; it's just that the ones I'm familiar with seem pretty expensive considering, as you mentioned, the relative cheapness of the containers themselves. (Also, the resilience of the material has got to make them better to live in than the cardboard condos that have been popping up everywhere.)

    I guess their expense can be chalked up to their popularity. Not really the worst kind of criticism.

    Our city, however, is in great need of affordable housing, so I'm hoping new concepts such as these can help us meet that need--and, if they're good for the environment, so much the better.


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