“This is what a house looks like”: contesting the neighborhood

Last week these signs started showing up in our neighborhood, "This is What a House Looks Like"and specifically one block over from where our house is located, across from and adjacent to new housing being built on the site of a tear-down. Since then, the campaign has migrated to other blocks and streets.

Anne-Marie and I have talked on and off about the signs since noticing them last weekend. Lately we have mostly been making jokes about expanding the scope of the effort, putting up signs that say, “This is what a tree looks like”, “This is what a car looks like”, “This is what a dog looks like”; you get the idea.

Those jokes stem from the unease that I, and I think Anne-Marie, have about this campaign. There are a number of possible subtexts to the message on the sign that I am reluctant to support even as I am sympathetic to other purposes embedded in the idea.

As our playing around with alternatives implies, my main concern has to do with the implication that there is only one acceptable way for a house to look, and that look conforms to American white and middle class ideals around the family.

On Corvallis TidBits, an online “community newspaper”, you can view a statement of purpose about the sign campaign. There are two salient points.

One is that the new development contravenes public testimony in opposition to the units, which, according to the statement, takes advantage of a quirk in city law that allows for ‘single attached’ housing to be built across property lines, even where multi-unit housing would be disallowed if built on a single lot.

This is where I am in sympathy with the aims of the campaign. In a city with a reported vacancy rate of less than 1%, and high demand for student housing in particular, developers have substantial leverage to shape development in ways that are expedient for profit-making, but maybe not in the best long-term interests of neighbors, or for the quality of the city’s housing stock. American landscapes are rife with structures built without regard to context, and that can be alienating.

The houses in question appear to be a large in relation to those immediately adjacent, but, as Anne-Marie has observed, the real concern about many of the newest developments in the neighborhood, and nearby, is the layouts, which are maximized for individual living space while minimizing shared living area. The concern here, and as expressed in the TidBits article, is the new housing will only be attractive to students. From a market perspective, that’s where the easy to assess demand lies. Our neighborhood, which today is called “Avery Addition”, is just a few blocks from Oregon State University and a short walk to downtown (from our house we can get to the other side of either campus or downtown in about twenty minutes on foot). As the new 300-unit complex going in behind us suggests, market incentives in this area clearly break in favor of catering to students.

So, yes, the development under dispute does raise questions about democracy and sustainability, and the nature of ownership, or the intersection of private rights and public goods. It is hard for me to argue with the case for a more open and dialogic process where individual, community, city, and developer interests are all given comparable weights and room for articulation.

On the other hand, the statement of purpose for the “This is what a house looks like” signs also claims that Avery Addition is, “a traditional housing neighborhood”.

In one sense, I guess that is another way of making the point about design and layouts, but in another sense that statement encapsulates my uneasiness with the implication of the campaign that only single-family housing is acceptable. Taken in context, I’m not sure that the statement holds up to scrutiny, underscoring my sense that there is a kind of class privilege being exercised through the signs, and underneath the rhetoric and concern for democracy and sustainability.

The neighborhood we live in dates to the 1850s. There is a history here, but the area is not historic in the sense that term is usually used in battles over preservation, which is to signify that a neighborhood has an identifiable and consistent character. There have clearly been distinct periods of development and redevelopment continuing to the present. If you were to take a walk through Avery Addition you would see a variety of house styles – cottages, bungalows, ranches, split-levels – from a variety of eras – nineteenth to twenty-first centuries – and sizes – one, two, and three story. There’s no standard lot size. Some houses have been kept and maintained as single-family structures, while others have been divided into apartments or otherwise adapted for the rental market. Some have been carefully renovated, while others haven’t seen significant work in decades. Even before the new development, the neighborhood was ringed by apartment complexes dating to the 70s, 80s, and 90s (judging by appearances). I think, but have not confirmed, that there are one or two houses near us that are active communes of some kind. Avery Addition is one of the denser and more eclectic neighborhoods in Corvallis in terms of its housing and its residents.

“This is what a house looks like” seems to fly in the face of the area’s history and the neighborhood’s actually existing housing stock. Students are already here in significant numbers, and likely have been for decades. In this light, the sign campaign feels not just conservative but reactionary.

And yet it I also wish that developers would take, or could be compelled to take, a different approach to what is currently being built. The new complex behind us is, essentially, a dorm, even offering individual leases on shared apartments. There is little reason, beyond profiting from the current student-driven housing shortage, for the developments to be so narrowly tailored to one group of market participants.

I am not, however, in principle, opposed to multi-unit housing or density; we chose to move here in part because of the close-in location and the density that implies. I expect to be living next to students and other renters, to people sharing housing, as well as to single-family homeowners, not to mention urban farmers, other academics and white collar professionals, writers and artists, retirees – Avery Addition seems like it has a diversity of housing for people of different needs and backgrounds. I think that’s good and all too rare in the U.S. I don’t think this neighborhood actually does have one kind of house and it certainly has more than one kind of home.