Friday, June 12, 2009

Local Vortices -OR- It's Coming Around Again

"How, Chief"
"How? Me not know. Me too old. You wantum answers? Must ask younger brave."

By a show of hands, how many of you OWN your little slice of the American Dream?
How many are majority stockholders in a limited partnership between you and your mortgage holder?
How many could be better classified as Renters w/ benefits?

Ten years ago -following some strange, other worldly line of thought-, my local braintrusts took it upon themselves to declare jihad against RENTERS within the corporate limits of the village. Using a series of twisted legislative and procedural toxic solutions, they bathed the town in their new enlightened wisdom:
Owners Good. Renters Bad. Without fanfare, discussion or much publicity they passed a series of measures intended to wipe this scourge off the face of this "Village with a Smile".

Within our 4 square mile borders. Consisting of 50% rental properties. A market which provided a steady supply of consumers, imbibers, workers, customers, clients and patrons, it was ruled that renters were second-class citizens. Not all renters though. Only those who elected NOT to live in larger scale rental properties (those that could not be easily converted into condominiums).

The housing stock in my home town is a typical mix found in 100 year old, inner ring suburbs of a large metro area. Tidy bungalows, American Four-squares, a spattering of "Grand Victorian" manses, mini-victorians, ranches, two to four flats. In proximity to either of the two CTA rapid transit "L" lines that provide easy access to downtown Chicago, there are many mid to high rise buildings built in the 1960s and early 70s.

Our proximity to public transportation, the depression, the WWII torpedo factory -that now houses Bill Winston's "Living Word Church and Shopping Mall"- "Small Thinking doesn't get you a MALL!"--- and other times of hardship over the years made it necessary, convenient, patriotic to carve out rental niches in under-utilized properties to provide housing. These converted properties run the gamut from inappropriate coverted garage space to elaborate, meticulous, ingenious adaptations. Rather than single out the inappropriate and/or substandard units, the braintrusts lumped them all into a single category of non-conformance that rendered ~70% of the housing stock out of compliance. If damaged it could not be repaired. In no way could it be improved or altered to extend its useful life without first navigating the obtuse, burdensome, EXPENSIVE zoning approval process. The exodus of long-time villagers was framed as wonderful proof that the process was good for everybody.

We hit an air pocket(?) and the new mindset set. FIRM. The village was a hot market.
Yuppie Nomads and other Urban Refugees arrived in spurts. Developers, Flippers and their money started circulating and influencing the decision making process. I didn't move into a half million dollar neighborhood. It moved into me. We've been "owners" for twenty-one years. We were renters here for 10 years prior to that.
We've observed, opposed/supported and/or participated in the ups and downs, ins and outs, offensives and retreats that defined our neighborhoods. Until, at last, the market overtook the tradition. The terraforming was declared "Mission Accomplished".
We remaining old-timers and laissiz fairers, were outnumbered. The newly gentrified demand a putsch. We've upped our standards! UP YOURS!

The Joneses will have to drag me kicking and screaming into their world. Which if they truly get their wish would be something akin to:

Oh yeah, and it's become an annual occasion when the braintrusts cry out "We're broke!" having blown the last allowance on etceteras. They preach that everything costs more now, even as our equity evaporates into the housing meltdown. They brag about spending this or that $$Million$$$ for Planters on Main Street or brick crosswalks that give that old town charm, a spiffy new logo and motto, polo shirts and windbreakers for all the elected to wear to community events...

Just 10 short years ago, the biggest complaint about our town's governance was that it was being run like a Mom & Pop grocery store. Maybe so, but Mom & Pop knew how to say NO once in a while when the kids wanted to do something stoopid.

The housing bubble burst has now frozen everyone pretty much in place. They're starting to look around and don't particularly care for where they are. Are they jealous, or angry, that they paid five times more for their lipstick and rubberband flip house? That they are seriously upside down equity wise? That they got EXACTLY what they bought? I'm not sure, but a bunch of them are disgruntled now. Is it wrong for me to appear somewhat giddy by their plight?

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