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Let’s Get Together

by Miriam Axel-Lute on August 3, 2011

There are have been so many things to be depressed about in the debt ceiling debate it’s hard to focus: Revenue off the table despite support from the majority of the country. Widespread cuts that will prolong the recession. Wondering how, if we can’t even have a reasoned public policy discussion about sane short term economic policy within our current framework, we are ever going to get to the point of discussing that that framework needs to change away from one that is predicated on constant growth and toward one of living with our environmental means (not some fictitious financial means that only applies to the current president and no one else).

Along the way, Social Security, though protected for now, yet again became a bafflingly common target. Last week John L. Graham, in a contribution to the Christian Science Monitor declared that Social Security was to blame for dividing families into two-generation households rather than three. And that this was obviously a bad thing, in fact somehow the cause of our debt crisis. I suppose he would prefer that the elderly face a 44 percent poverty rate rather than a 15 percent poverty rate, and thinks that the offspring of these elderly poor necessarily have the means and time to care for them and that would solve our debt crisis? It’s an absurd formulation. Social Security is the most effective anti-poverty program we’ve ever had.

But amusingly the article wasn’t (directly) calling for attacks on Social Security. In fact, the only concrete proposal he came up with for helpng with was a good, if very modest one, about rethinking our devotion to the single-family house by allowing or even encouraging “granny flats” or “mother-in-law apartments” instead of our obsession with single family homes. This is something smart growth advocates have been talking about for years. (And who’s to say whose mother in law would have to go in which one?)

People will find their way out of the atomized nuclear family model one way or other. We already are: Households are “bundling” at a rate not seen since before World War II, though much of that is involuntary.

I was much more inspired by an essay we published in the latest issue of Shelterforce. Out of the responses to a call for radical ideas to transform housing policy in the United States, it was the only one that really surprised me, that offered me a totally new and exciting idea.

Social capital, social cohesion, wrote Jeremy Liu of East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, is one of the most powerful forces for creating stable, healthy, resiliant communities. That’s not about living with biological grandparents. It’s much bigger than that—extended interdependent groups whether families or biology or choice, friends, congregants, or neighbors.

Why not, Liu asked, make the world of housing finance world recognize the power of these groups? There are are already pockets of people who are slowly choosing to live next to each other, share child care, dinner, and the like. This often accretes over time, as opportunity strikes, or through complicated behind the scenes arrangements that don’t reflect the reality of who is living where or paying for what.

Why not recognize the value of social cohesion by allowing groups to approach the home buying process together? He calls his idea “cohort mortgages.” In foreclosure-ravaged areas, they would bring stability quickly to blocks with several empty homes for sale, and reward rather than atomize or ignore people who were consciously choosing to be interdependent as a route to greater social resiliance.

There are a lot of open questions to be worked out about the idea, and some day we may need to move beyond an assumption of mortgage financed homes all together.

But still, I recognized in Liu’s proposal something of the kind of policy discussions I wish I could be hearing on all sides: Here’s a long-term force for good. How can we enable it?

It’s important to remember that good ideas are not actually in short supply, of course, and many of the best ones are not particularly new at all. Positive change comes from organizing to build a base of power and win. Without that, policy development will generally be too weak to matter, no matter how brilliant the results.

But ideas like this one—ones that can both support the sort of social cohesion and resiliance than can in turn support political change and inspire us to think about new possibilities instead of zero sum games and question our assumptions about how things work—are still powerful. We will need that sort of creativity one way or the other in the coming decades.