Selling us mansions when all we need are ramblers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 2, 2001

For the past three years I have been driving between Mankato and Albert Lea.

Tuesday, October 02, 2001

For the past three years I have been driving between Mankato and Albert Lea. Over the course of that time, Mankato has slowly gotten closer – not the whole city, just its southern boundary. Field after field has been churned up and smoothed over and platted for housing. Where corn and soybeans once grew, sewers, water pipes and utility lines have all been laid and houses are now being built. Soon to follow, I can only assume, will be the mini-marts, gas stations, fast food restaurants, and then grocery stores, fire stations and churches – all of the infrastructure a major metropolitan area provides to take care of the needs of residents.

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Other than the loss of good cropland to &uot;development,&uot; the hardest thing for me to accept about this transformation of the landscape is that the houses being built right now are not houses for ordinary families with ordinary incomes. These are mansions, grotesque in their immensity and apparent luxury, since my sense is that these are being built for families with only one or two kids or even couples or singles without kids or extended family living with them. Most of these houses, in other words, will be a waste of space. And nowhere do I see anyone building the kinds of houses most families in our country can afford without doing violence to their budget.

Mankato is not the only community where so many luxury homes are being built. It’s a national phenomenon. And one of the main reasons for the growth in the luxury home market is similar to the reasons behind growth in the luxury automobile market. The fixed costs of building a luxury home are pretty much the same as they are for a regular, non-luxury one. Whether it’s a mini-mansion or a simple bungalow, the carpenters, plumbers and electricians will get paid the same amount of money for about the same amount of work. The lumber, cement and drywall will cost the same, as will the utility work. But add a few extras here and there, and put the word &uot;luxury&uot; or &uot;deluxe&uot; on the final product, and you can make quite a bit more profit on it.

Affordable housing belongs in the inner city, I guess, and when I was walking through downtown Mankato recently I saw many examples: small, old, crowded together – although I’m guessing that many of those houses are rentals, based on the lack of landscaping and general neglect of the property. Fixer-upper houses like those, though, are where the ordinary people of our country live, if they’re not stuck in apartments or trailers. And that’s true here in our own community of Albert Lea, too. A couple years ago, building even a few units of affordable housing outside of the acceptable &uot;ghetto&uot; set aside for such buildings created a storm of criticism here. So families will have to pick between either substandard or overpriced homes, until decent affordable housing again becomes a priority of both politicians and the economy.

And there’s this: when a poll taker for the Republican party called our house and wanted to know what &uot;issues&uot; concerned us, the option of affordable housing wasn’t even on the list. Giving an answer that wasn’t on the approved list of issues clearly made the questioner uncomfortable, so I’m guessing that our &uot;issue&uot; made it only as far as the nearest garbage can.

Back in the good old days, I’m told, in the years after WWII, home ownership by the average American family was seen as a good thing for society. The government provided mortgage guarantees. Banks provided mortgages. Architects designed and contractors built comfortable, but simple, houses that families with a single wage-earner could afford. Now if you want to find a new home like one of those, you have to get on the list for Habitat for Humanity. In modern America, the building and financing of affordable housing for working families is seen as charity work.

Today, buying a decent home, one that doesn’t require major maintenance or renovation before it’s safe to inhabit or raise kids in, requires the income from two working adults (or more in some parts of our country). I don’t think that’s terribly fair to the working families of this country.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.