A Home for Everybody

In Door County, Wisconsin privilege, middle income and poverty share zip codes. Average annual income across the area is artificially inflated by a significant population of retired individuals, many with healthy pensions. Average annual median income is under $40,000 reflective of an economy dependent on tourism and agriculture. Thirty to forty percent of school kids  are eligible for free breakfast even with many parents reluctant to apply.Poverty may not be obvious like in disadvantaged city neighborhoods, but signs in gas stations offering free gift cards to those who can’t afford travel for doctor appointments tells the story.

I grew up in Door County’s neighboring county in a skinny old house on Main Street in one of those farming communities. My father had a good job, my mother worked seasonally. Our grade school didn’t charge for hot lunch. That tells the same story.

Affordable housing is a pressing issue. On an average annual median income of $40,000 minus expenses like healthcare or a car payment, ideal rent is $600. Traditional calculations for how much house a $40,000 income covers suggests less than $100,000. Good luck finding either of those. Homelessness is not visible, but people do live in buildings never meant to be housing, in trailers without water or power, in crowded apartments with too many roommates, or rotate through campgrounds from May through October.

At an informational meeting one township presented purchasing a land tract for about $2 million with intention to develop part into affordable housing. In the packed room emotion and fact clashed. A housing builder wanted first dibs on the space promising $340,000 “affordable” units. Neighbors shared what they were promised about the vacant land when they purchased their homes. More than one person asked why affordable housing was taxpayers’ responsibility.

A social worker and a skilled craftsperson spoke of their inability to find places to live or house their families. One thirty-something white collar professional said he has lived in thirteen places in about ten years, most of them crap holes. His employer often loses employees after they spend months looking for any kind of apartment. He reminded everyone that affordable housing does not only mean home ownership, but also decent apartments. There are jobs to be filled here, but not places to live. Business owners are nervous about being able to keep their doors open.

Privilege, middle-class, and poverty share this zip code. No telling who in the blue jeans and t-shirt crowd shared a two bedroom former cottage with five or more people, commuted one hundred fifty miles daily, or lived alone in 3,000 square feet. Dictionary.com defines community as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. If this township, rooted in European ancestry, cannot accept responsibility for the need to house its members, what is its future?

For someone whose primary home is in a city with homeless individuals living in tent villages, sleeping on mass transit, or huddled in too few shelters, this feels like a no brainer. Taxes support communities, communities are made of members residing in a specific locality, localities require teachers, shop owners, EMTs, shop workers, builders, children to have a future. And all those people need healthy places to live. This is why we live in community.

Blog May 2019

 

 

 

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Downsizing is a Seismic Shift

The move looked like upheaval, but changes had reverberated through our lives for several years before my husband and I sold our house. Our sons no longer needed us daily, so we had stepped back into an advisory role. We focused more on fun, less on careers. The shift—from raising children and working full-time—was as natural and inevitable as tectonic plates moving.

Our old house

Our old house

We dreamed of a new life. The vision was a little vague—we wanted to live in the Twin Cities instead of the suburbs, in a neighborhood where we could walk to shops and restaurants, in a house with more character, less yardwork.

our old backyard

Our old backyard

What we chose is a 90-year-old, story-and-a-half house with a postage stamp-sized yard to replace our 40-year-old, three-story walkout with a generous yard.

Our new house

Our new house

New yard

New yard

But the change is deeper and broader than square feet and location. We chose a life that offered new possibilities. We are counting on ourselves to invent the life that goes with it.

Although I’m pleased with the new home we chose, occasionally I feel disoriented. Everything that was familiar has changed. How much room we need. How much activity we want. How much noise we can stand. How to stay connected to people who no longer live nearby. How to be good citizens in a city of activists.

Sometimes I feel like I’m on good behavior here. I pick up clutter and put away dishes obsessively—which goes against my messy nature—but I’m trying to learn new ways. I think carefully about what we bring into this house since we have so much less space. We gave away many of the fine things we’d accumulated during the past 25 years. Once we’d unpacked we needed to give away even more. But really, how much stuff do we need? And why? The habit of coveting is hard to break, though.

Walking around in my nightgown with the blinds down is odd, but our windows face the neighbors’ windows and I value my privacy. I’ve had to get used to locking the doors with a key. All the time.

But eating breakfast in the glow of the little lamp on the buffet is cozy even if the blinds are drawn. My gardens are so small that caring for them is fun now instead of drudgery. I like walking to neighborhood coffee shops and hiking alongside the creek. The energy and variety of the city appeals to me. Most days, I drive toward my new home without lapsing into autopilot and heading south of the river.

The bedrock our lives—raising children and working full-time—has given way. The foundations of our new life are couplehood, part-time work, and fun.

We’re still figuring out what our new life should consist of. So we rearrange the elements we want to keep (good meals, time with friends and family), discard ideas and activities that no longer fit (PTO and soccer practice), and relish the new possibilities (guitar practice and art history classes for my husband). For me, the choices are yet to be determined. I’m making it up as I go along.

Trying on a New Lifestyle for Size

My husband and I have been peeping in strangers’ closets. Opening drawers. Pulling aside shower curtains. Wandering in backyards. That’s what house hunters do.

Now that our nest is nearly empty, imagining a new urban life is fun. Can we embrace alleys? Funky one-car, unattached garages? Being able to see into our neighbors’ windows just across the way? Hear their TVs? I don’t know, but we’re trying to find out.

We’ll definitely enjoy being closer to the lakes and rivers that the Twin Cities are known for. Walking to neighborhood restaurants and coffee shops sounds good, too.

But it’s odd to step into these intimate spaces and glimpse the telling details of a stranger’s life:

One house has a small bedroom has a single bed with a flower power bedspread. A teal formal dress hangs from the closet door. Inside are classic black Converse sneakers. What does this teenage girl dream of when she lies in that bed—the homecoming dance? Wandering around a college campus in those sneakers?

In another house, there are two much loved cats. They have cat beds, food bowls, and water dishes upstairs and downstairs, so the kitties won’t have to go far for a drink and a snack. In the living room, two middle-aged women with their arms around each other smile out from what appears to be an engagement photo.

The next place we visit is across the river. The front door handle comes off in our hands and the backyard is full of weeds. The carpet is old and shabby and the bathroom has mismatched tiles. A motorized scooter sits in a corner of the kitchen. This place is sadder than the first two and looks like the owner was too ill or too tired to keep up with maintenance and yard work.

Another place we see has great landscaping and a newly remodeled kitchen and bath. It looks as if the family has out-grown the house. Upstairs is a pink little girl’s room with a large girl-sized decal of a purple My Little Pony on the wall.  She has her whole life ahead of her, but it will be in a new house.

We too have a whole new life ahead of us—maybe in a year or two it will be in one of these neighborhoods.  For now, we’re just trying on this lifestyle for size.

Big porch

Stucco w red door