2.10.2009

Posh to be Poor? Housing

You've probably noticed a recurring theme throughout this series: the state of the economy sucks, and we need to learn how to deal with it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the foreclosure crisis that is engulfing the United States, where many people have lost their homes or are very close to losing them. In Toledo, Ohio, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur has publicly told residents facing foreclosure to simply stay put and not leave their foreclosed homes, forcing the bank to file paperwork and produce the note of ownership. There is a program in Miami that is working to move homeless families into recently foreclosed homes.

Squatting is nothing new, but the fact that government officials are basically encouraging it and, in some cases, creating programs for it somehow makes it seem more acceptable than it once was. Squatting has typically been an act of necessity for the poorest of the poor: there is nowhere else to go, so you find an abandoned house and make it your own. It has certainly never been considered an option for the middle class American, until now. So what happens when a society or a government begins to recognize squatting as a real option -- not just for the poor, but the middle class as well?

With this mainstream acceptance, the more opportunistic among us will go for the gold: mansion-squatting. Even the wealthy are getting hit with foreclosures, leaving mansions of the Mc- variety as well as sprawling Hamptons estates vacant. One art collective in London known as Da! took up residence in a 30-room mansion on Upper Grosvenor Street, one of the UK's most expensive neighborhoods. They lived in the house for nearly a month before attracting media attention. Surely, this would be difficult to pull off in many of the suburban gated communities or tight-knit small towns, because neighbors, worried about their homes' worth, would quickly call the cops. However, in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, where the once-prevalent upper crust is now long gone, mansions sit vacant by the dozens, with prices lower than most suburban atomic ranches. It's easy to see, in places like these, people just moving in and creating a new life. Who is going to stop them? In these neighborhoods, residents are just happy to see a new face on the block!

A great deal trendier than the opulent mansion, though equally desired, is the warehouse loft. Though the warehouse loft has been in the public eye since the 1970s, it became a real estate frenzy at the start of the new millennium. Developers began making "soft lofts," and authentic exposed brick and beams became luxuries. Poor and homeless people have taken up residence in abandoned warehouses as long as such buildings have existed; the fact that raw warehouse lofts have become such a hip environment to reside in is a clear trend toward the aesthetic appeal of poverty. Which brings me to the interior design movement that has been growing in the US known as Boho Mod, or Bohemian Modern. Basically, it's a mix of classic furniture and thrift store finds. If you open up any Urban Outfitters catalog from the last 4 years you'll see what I'm talking about. It appears that younger generations are turning away from the notion that everything has to be new, toward a more sustainable vision based on using what we already have and what is readily available.

One might say that living in a warehouse isn't the same as living in a warehouse loft, and they would be right. However, artist James Westwater is working to change that with his Homeless Chateau. This tiny wooden room provides a bit of privacy and elegance for the abandoned warehouse dweller. Maybe we all don't want to live in a box, or even in a warehouse, but the fact that so much attention is being paid to the concept is evidence enough that people are taking more and more interest in the aesthetics of poverty.

And it's not just artists and developers, architects have taken a keen interest as well. Architect Teddy Cruz has designed a multi use housing model for Hudson New York which draws heavily from the favelas of Tijuana.

"Where others saw poverty and decay, he saw the seeds of a vibrant social and architectural model, one that could be harnessed to invigorate numbingly uniform suburban communities just across the border." -NYTimes


For one reason or another, the aesthetics of poverty have slowly begun to permeate mass culture. Whether through an innovative housing model, a warehouse loft, or an abandoned mansion, there is something compelling about using what we have and turning that abandoned space into something functional and beautiful. Though many of these ideas remain tied to certain subcultures and demographics, the amount of media attention they have gained over the last decade certainly suggests that the masses are at least curious.

Posh to be Poor? Introduction
Posh to be Poor? Transportation
Posh to be Poor? Food

(Photos from Wisebread, The Guardian, Domino, James Westwater, and the NY Times. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photos.)

3 comments:

Coyote said...

Squatting will become more prevalent as the year progresses. Not only is there a push from newly poor people to live somewhere. Lenders are becoming more reluctant to foreclose and have yet another blight on the books.

Now there is a third leg, the Washinton Post reported today: "The Office of Thrift Supervision today called for the mortgage lenders it regulates to halt foreclosures until the Obama administration unveils a program to help struggling homeowners."

Sounds like a movement to me.

timothy nguyen said...

It would seem that the issues regarding housing and the economic downturn in the United States will never become exhausted; however, it is refreshing to finally see an interesting take on the subject. You have thankfully laid out some intriguing ideas with respect to the current state of the nation and the way in which a designer looks at such issues. We are experiencing a unique era in which innovation is necessary in order to progress past the hardships. Being as bold as Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur suggests in stating that families should “stay put” in their foreclosed homes is a realistic approach to the situation in that she is simply advocating the use of existing resources to house displaced families. Why expend additional energy in relocating families and erecting temporary housing when perfectly good homes are left vacant and unsold? While this approach seems to be the sensible solution, it is the various designers’ ideas that interest me. The Homeless Chateaux, for example, is a fascinating idea that goes beyond the obvious use as a minimalist room. To me, the merit in the idea of this “chateaux” is less about how it works and more in how it is used contextually. As James Westwater proposes it to be a room within a room, perhaps there could be a series of these modular Homeless Chateauxs that could than start to inform a greater community. And further, could this begin to suggest a new system of modular living units that could be inserted into a realistic context of perhaps the aging warehouse loft? These units would have to be improved dramatically, but as an idea I find them to be quite interesting and perhaps even hip to the times. Your thought on the gradual migration to the aesthetics of the poor is proof that Westwater’s Chateaux is an idea worth developing. The investigation into the adaptive re-use of everyday items such as the street sign and pallet used in this project is sure to yield a worthwhile product.

leigh said...

Can we institutionalize squatting?

http://uspoverty.change.org/blog/view/squatting_through_the_tough_times