We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The United States Declaration of Independence
Property and the Pursuit of Happiness in the American Ethic. The famous triplet of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” penned at the inception of the United States has burrowed a special place in the American psyche. Often summarized as “freedom,” these three values are fundamental to the identity and politics of our nation.
However, the United States was not the birthplace of many of these ideas; rather, it was their first true testing ground. John Locke, in his The Two Treatises of Government (1689), argues that government exists to protect the “property” of individuals, which he defines as “life, liberty, and estate.” Variations on this triplet occur in much of enlightenment era political philosophy, where the third term is sometimes a definition of property (“estate” or “dower”) and sometimes a free definition of purpose (“the pursuit of happiness”). The concept of the American Dream is a superimposition of these two ideas.
The American Dream is founded on the concurrent pursuit of both purpose and property. Its prerequisite is a society of opportunity, and its modern iconography is the single-family home. What better symbol of the sovereign individual than a personal castle for you and your family, complete with a white picket fence at the boundary of your domain? It’s an image of the prosperous middle class that has achieved transcendence through the accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of property. That image oscillates constantly between a state of being and becoming, suggesting that American home ownership is a necessary step on the path to enlightenment.
Insofar as the American Dream is about property, it is about control. Fundamentally, property is control. Owning property retains the owner’s right to use that property and to exclude others from that property. Therefore, property ownership is the economic and social mechanism by which individuals have justification to be included — property endows individuals with agency, distinction, and freedom. Property ownership, specifically the ownership of space (land and real estate), is fundamental to political power and economic influence.
The data that supports this conclusion are more than convincing. According to a 2004 report commissioned by the National Center for Real Estate Research (NCRER):
A typical renter household in 1984 has accumulated $42,000 in net wealth by 1999, but a typical owner household has accumulated $167,000 over the same period. Marital status, age, race and ethnicity, initial wealth and household income in 1984 accounts for only $20,000 of the net $125,000 accumulated wealth difference.
Additionally, economist Lawrence Yun explains the less obvious benefits of homeownership in a 2016 Forbes article; with all other things being equal, homeowners often experience higher levels of civic engagement, increased health outcomes, and significant benefits for their children, including better performance in school, lower crime and drug usage, and higher incomes later in life. These benefits also have a tendency to extend beyond the property line to the surrounding local community. For every dollar increase in housing wealth, consumer spending increases by ¢5.5, and according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), one new local job is supported from every two home sales. The evidence suggests that our social ecosystems—of property and family and education and prosperity—are profoundly interdependent. Housing is the fundamental building block of community, and ownership is the mechanism by which groups of individuals can execute collective action.
The American Dream in Crisis. The rate of new home construction tripled from the 1930s to the 1940s, staying at post-WWII levels from 1945 to 2007. Home ownership was on the rise, and supply increased fervently to meet demand. The suburbs captured most of the growth, with residents staying close enough to the city to occasionally reap its benefits, but far enough away to absolve oneself of its costs. This trend is likely to continue in the near future, as endless tracts of cookie-cutter housing sprawl to consume more and more land.
The problem? Suburban housing stock embodies poor standards of construction and planning. With a higher reliance on automobile transportation, large inefficient homes, and a wider spatial distribution of goods and services, the carbon footprint per suburban household is roughly double that of their urban and rural counterparts. Suburban homes, averaging 2200-2800 square feet and built with cheap wall systems, lose much of the energy used for heating and cooling back to the environment. These outdated facades trap moisture, grow mold, and rot from the inside out. Suburban homes even just twenty years old are often in such bad shape that significant work is needed just to make them healthy and habitable structures. The costs reach beyond energy bills and air quality across the country; families trapped in homes with “sick building syndrome” incur an estimated $60 billion per year in medical costs and productivity loss for California alone.
This doesn’t quite tell the whole story, though, without the economic context of the past fifty years. Most American hear about rising income inequality in the United States, but perhaps more important is rising income instability. The volatility of household income for American families has more than doubled since 1973. Young adults are choosing to move out of their parents’ homes later and into a more unstable job market. It used to be expected that your children would do better than you economically; now, it's not even probable. With serious concerns threatening the economic value of single family homes (most Americans’ largest asset), the risk of building poorly constructed homes is difficult to overstate.
All of this is to say nothing of the proliferation of remote work in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. We have started relying on homes to do things they never had to do before, spending more time in them than ever. Unemployment has skyrocketed, cities have suffered, and thousands of small businesses have collapsed. It is still unclear whether some industries will ever recover. In a landscape of extreme volatility, we cannot afford for American homes, once a symbol of prosperity and security, to further undermine the problems we face going forward.
The Profound Animus of a Primal Inspiration. The American Dream is foundational to our society but in its current form supports current patterns of development that corrupt the core of the American ethic. Something needs to change. The “dream” no longer stands for the everyday lived experience or aspirations of most Americans. For some, it never did.
Moving forward, a revision of the American Dream must at minimum resolve the problems of housing that continue to persist: access, cost, maintenance, durability, efficiency, and occupant health. We can do better, we can build better, and we already know how. The thing that stands in our way is not the technology but our priorities and the values we think matter most. If cost per square foot is the only thing that we care about, we are going to be fighting our own homes for generations to come. We simply cannot afford it.
What’s more, the change we require needs to go beyond merely practical concerns. The suburbanized American Dream of the 20th century was a symbolic endeavor, and one that burrowed deep into the American psyche. The story of a better future to come has to go beyond counter-narrative and provide something new of value in its alternative.
For all its catastrophe, this is the opportunity that our current moment has laid out before us. The pandemic we still suffer has been the catalyst for mammoth changes in our technology and values. We have fully engaged a communication infrastructure that has changed the way we work and learn; we have changed our social lives and our relationship to public space; and, as we are coping with isolation, we have realized how critical it is to have our house manage both our practical and emotional needs.
Fundamentally, we need what architect Louis Sullivan called [shortly before his death in 1924] “the profound animus of a primal inspiration.” Our homes should be sacred spaces, constructions that lift up our spirits as much as they serve our daily lives. Like man in nature, our homes should be a part of its environment and yet separate from it, mediating between the order of our domain and the chaos of the outside world. It's a call for an architecture sensitive to its own values and position in a broader context.
That means shifting our focus from hasty tract housing to buildings carefully considered and built to last. It means caring about how a house affects your health and the environment. It also means that, as the everlasting tether to cities has been loosened further by remote work and learning, that we should more carefully consider how we occupy the land. We have a responsibility now to critically examine what our lives say about how we might live on the earth, and, above all, what we might require of a new American Dream.