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Monday, September 04, 2006

"REAL" affordable housing. Not profitable to Developers

Living Well in Just 380 Square Feet of Space
by Dean A. DiSandro

Can we ever solve our housing crises? Easy question! I know the answer is, “Yes, we can!” Tougher question: “... but will we?”

Would you believe we can create housing for 2 adults and 1 child at unsubsidized rents as low as $206 per month (per home)? And, for no more than $575 per month (including taxes and insurance) the ‘tenant’ would instead become a mortgage-free owner within only 10 years!

Design, Engineering and Construction are the easy part, the hard part is our culture. For one thing, as conservatives will rightly claim, piggish behavior is as firmly rooted in the poor as it is among the affluent sectors of U.S. culture... so won’t such “low cost” homes inevitably devolve into public-housing slums? Another (quite related ) major obstacle is our affinity for “$tuff” (first studied in accurate anecdotal form by comedian George Carlin, and, based on my own observations, it can be argued that one-third to one-half of all U.S. “housing” space is now dedicated to storage): Storage of furnishing (for cooking and dining, bedding, lounging, working, cleaning, maintaining, etc.), clothing (especially specialty, i.e. ski, scuba and “church-going”, apparel), recreational items, and the other god- knows- why- the- hell- my- uncle- gave- me- that- crap- but- I- better- save- it- for- his- annual- holiday- visit- since- I- couldn’t- dare- tell- him- to- stop- wasting- his- money- on- mindless- consumption- because- just- giving- me- a- hug- and- his- love- is- enough collectibles. But I made it work, and I think many others could make it work as well... with a little help from a tolerant and open-minded culture.

Serendipity started my minimalist project in a larger house I had purchased with my brother... and, by a series of chance events, I soon found how happy I could be in just 380 square feet of self-contained living space (plus a similarly- sized patch of outside garden). During the late 80’s and early 90’s I tinkered (on paper) with various ideas for low-cost, community-oriented housing. Then, right at the end of my commercial development “career”, I made my bed and lived within it; for five years altogether, nearly 2 years of which was shared with my beloved Heidi. We lived in “affordable housing” of my own creation: An area just 20 feet deep by 19 feet wide which (surprisingly) included a full kitchen, a full toilet and bath tub/shower combo, a multimedia entertainment center, ample closet and cupboard space, dual office desks with computer, printer and the like, music recording equipment, breakfast nook, and even gathering room (we hosted dinner parties for as many as eight). As a point of reference, 380 square feet is about the same size as two SUVs parked tightly by a Newport Beach valet (see the floor plan on our web site). Although the design was a success, I would do a few things differently in the future, such as installing PV Solar panels on the south-facing roof to generate most of the home’s power needs.

Now, here is all the really good news: This place was a snap to clean-up and to keep clean. Our utility bills were tiny. Everything was easy to get to. My costs were so low, the savings account swelled. Then, since my commute to work was non-existent and mundane household chores didn’t occupy my life, I found I had time for nearly daily bike rides of 5 - 20 miles including trips to the market, movies, restaurants and clubs... in fact, the use of my car declined to the point where I often had trouble keeping my car battery charged. I also had time to tend a garden which included fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and even row crops which provided calm recreation in addition to fresh foods. I had time to compose and practice music, to write, to think, even to sleep! I was amazed at how much more time I seemed to have: I learned that living small translated into better living. I began to imagine entire communities of like-minded folks living within a framework of such voluntary simplicity.

Of course, Orange County has no land zoned RESIDENTIAL - VSL (“voluntarily simple living”) so there was no place to demonstrate the concept on a scale larger than my bootlegged experiment (this is another “cultural” obstacle). Today, my hope is that such projects will be tried within some of the less densely populated areas of California (such as San Luis Obispo County) thereby creating clusters of low-cost, high-density, strong- community housing surrounded by correspondingly available open spaces. A typical housing tract of fifty 1,500 square foot homes each occupying 5,000 square foot lots set along a maze 50-foot wide streets (plus 5 additional feet on each side of the street for sidewalks), thus blankets 10 acres of land with asphalt, autos, rooftops and cement surfaces plus a mentality of isolation, mechanization and consumption... which are then sold at enslaving prices from $250,000 up. Instead, fifty of the proposed 400 square foot homes, including 320 square foot private gardens for each (when properly arranged in checkerboard fashion along common 20 foot wide landscaped pedestrian paths with auto-accessible streets only at the perimeter) uses under 1 acre of land (including those 50 private gardens!), leaving nine acres of open space for larger scale agriculture, recreation, tranquility, etc. (As a side note, to ensure these units would remain in use as affordable housing, CC&Rs would limit re-sale prices to the rate of inflation, and sub-rental of any privately-owned unit would be pre-defined and tied to inflation as well.)

Notice that this vision bears no relation to dismal and failed “public housing projects”. By using an equity-building structure, the pride and upside of private ownership would ensure proper care and maintenance by residents. And, while such housing may not appeal to everyone (especially those folks trapped firmly within the shop-till-you-drop mentality), it will appeal to both those folks who wish for voluntarily simple lives with greater community, not to mention those who now use an automobile, a bridge or a box to shelter themselves and their loved ones.

Any way you slice it, the numbers are “do-able” even for single parents and even for workers earning the current minimum wage. This style of living encourages tight-knitted communities, personal food gardening, lower consumption, and less accumulation of $tuff (primarily because there is less space to store it!) but it is also quite modern and dignified. And, of course, larger floor plans (i.e. up to 600 square feet) could provide up to two additional private rooms to accommodate larger families with adolescent children of different sexes.

Unfortunately, this type of housing takes some profit out of the developers pockets, and even reduces the income generation requirements of its occupants, both of which are heresy for the powers-that-be... and thus, such housing would require significant political will along with minor cultural adjustments.

We can do it! I know it because I’ve built the prototype. I’ve lived it. I’ve enjoyed it! We can create dignified and affordable housing to accommodate all but the hard core sociopaths in our community... only one question remains: Will we?

Dean Disandro lives and works in north SLO County. He also was involved in running for County Board of Supervisor in 2000.

[Editors note: The full text of this condensed article, including illustrative floor plans, cost figures and financial calculations, can be found at]


Blogger Bob said...

I was sent this by a SPIFer who I have great respect for. This person wishs to be anonymous.

*Small housing as the article describes could be located anywhere -
though much of it is probably downtown or in other multi-unit buildings.

In terms of ownership housing, the historic Fitzgerald Condos (http://, the building built as part of the
Fitzgerald Theater) is a major option. The onetime office building
was totally gutted and renovated last year, and has units that start
at 365 square feet, and go up to 740 square feet. Of the 35 units,
25 are below 500 square feet. Many of the newly-rennovated units
were priced in the $80,000 - $100,000 range (Edina Realty is selling
one of the last right now for $91,200). That's the equivalent of
roughly $700 per month in total housing payments, association fees
and taxes. Or looked at another way, slightly over one-third the
price of an average St. Paul home. Many of the condo buildings
downtown have ten to thirty units of 700 square feet and lower, which
routinely sell for $90,000 or less. Gallery Tower, City Walk and the
Pointe in particular. Some have sold for as little as $65,000 recently.

In terms of rental, Central Community Housing Trust's renovation of
the Crane-Ordway building (across the street from the Farmer's
Market) will bring the same kind of housing. Their website states,
"Units in the building, ranging from 450 to 650 square feet, are
available for $390 to $610 a month for people meeting low-income
requirements. Fourteen of the units are aimed at homeless people, who
earn 30% or less of the area median income ($16,170 – $32,340). So
far, 32 units are leased and another 15 are being
processed." (
Central Community Housing Trust will be adding an additional 70 units
of similar housing in the Renaissance Box building downtown next year.

Downtown offers other advantages in terms of cost savings. The good
transit service means there's often no need to own a car, which saves
several hundred dollars in car payments, gas, and insurance. Most
essentials are available. And there's a number of great parks and
low-cost attractions to take advantage of.

11:11 AM  

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