I recently caught a piece on 60 minutes (an American news show) on how bad the home owning situation has gotten in the US highlighting the ‘dire’ manevour by the city of Cleveland. With an estimated 11 million homes currently foreclosed on across the US, cities are now faced with a huge amount of vacant homes and pressure from remaining home owners to act as they see their property values continuing to fall due to the blight of their abandoned neighbours. The typical scenario which we are all too familiar with (step 1): homes are foreclosed on or loanees walk away and abandon their loans/ homes. Step 2, banks then recover the full amount of the mortgage (plus any expense and interest) typically through Fed Government guarantees/ mortgage insurance and then abandon the homes (they have no interest in taking care of a home once they got their money). Step 3, thieves steal anything that has resale value (foreclosures are publically listed) devaluing the home and making a refit a much bigger task than the home’s current market value. The solution by the city of Cleveland (step 4) = demolish the houses at the taxpayers’ expense (not to mention society with the increased waste). The assumed worst part is that the banks retain ownership of the vacant lot which is now more valuable and easier to resell in the future. Being an architect and conducting research on the topic of adaptability, I found it extremely hard to watch as there was no reflection on the sustainability perspective of such a mindless practice. But where does that leave us, what alternative solutions are there? How do we keep the existing homeowners in their homes or get new people in there before thieves raid the homes? Where is the critical point of interjection? It seems by the time we get to the extreme fourth step we’ve eliminated a lot of possibilities. First thoughts…could the banks be held more liable on the homes by not receiving their full guarantee if the homes are abandoned (e.g. incentivising them to renegotiate mortgages possibly cutting the principle or interest rates)? If no one buys the home at foreclosure could they be given back to the original owner with a subsidy from the Fed Government (i.e. instead of giving the money to the banks, give it to the homeowners and allow them to pay the government back at a slower, more manageable rate). Could some type of temporary use or a rental company which specialises in foreclosed property help establish a renter’s market (which could help renters work towards purchasing the home or provide the needed time for the original homeowners to get back on their feet)?
Upon further reflection, I started thinking my initial thoughts rely primarily on tweaking the social context (e.g. government regulations, market rates), but could the physical design of the homes help prevent at least the ridiculous act of step four and find new life for the homes or at the very least the materials that constructed them? The most straightforward answer would be to design the homes for disassembly strategically designing the building components to be disassembled without compromising their integrity and quality (e.g. accessible and reversible connections). This would enhance a growing reuse/ recycling market and increase work for deconstruction contractors. Another thought would be to imagine how the homes could be adapted, e.g. subdividing the home into smaller, more affordable units or converting them into alternative uses depending on their location and physical configuration. What ‘other’ uses could a detached home be suitable for? Could they, in a similar fashion as Georgian or Victorian terraces, be converted into doctor offices, lawyer practices, retail shops, etc? How crazy would it be to conceive homes with businesses running out of the ground floor or the front room and living quarters above? This was a common form of habitation around the world and still exists in many places in Japan (amongst other places). The primary problem with suggesting alternative uses is the mono-functional context in which many of these homes sit. Can a single business survive within a sea of ‘suburban style’ detached homes? What balance or other infrastructure is needed? As these peripheral residential areas of American cities continue to be reinvented through the adaptive reuse (conversion) of shopping malls and box stores, can the same reuse philosophy be applied to residential homes? I remain unsure of the best solution, but feel this is interesting and current context to test the ‘scalability’ of the research. Your thoughts please