For most of us, square footage is precious. Living here is a constant camping trip or boat voyage: Our toys, our memories, our necessities are constantly on the move between basements, garages and storage units as we try to cram a “normal” life into precious little space.
According to Pitkin County Assessor’s Office records, the average single-family home under a deed restriction that makes it affordable to people who work because they must is about 1,800 square feet. That’s actually not much if there are kids, skis, bikes, kayaks and camping gear. And those in the precious few single-family affordable homes are the lucky ones: Many of us, from entry level to professional, make do with even less space in studios and one-bedroom units of 500 or 800 square feet.
Going about the community in pursuit of various causes, one can’t help but notice that outdoor decks from Truscott Place to Burlingame to Midland Park are really off-season storage units, host to bicycles and kayaks by winter and skis and boards by summer. The “tiny house” is already here and one wonders if the advocates for even smaller spaces have shared the joy of living with a 300-foot-per-person limitation.
In the increasingly remote, off-planet atmosphere of the 1 percent struggling to find a home for their recent tax cut proceeds, there is a different calculus at work, a perceived “need” for 10,000 or 15,000 square feet of living space in the event one drops by for a few weeks at Christmas or during the summer — the season when it finally stops snowing and the 200-day ski pin finally becomes an unreachable goal.
The argument so far has focused on the excess energy consumed by homes larger than Jefferson’s Monticello (11,000 square feet), Washington’s Mt. Vernon (11,028) and JFK’s Nantucket residence (9,000). It turns out that the McMansions consume energy at a geometrically increasing rate; a 10,000-square-foot home uses 30 times as much energy as your little 1,000-square-foot space because more windows, more gadgets, more heated floors, more hot tubs are needed to be operating and ready to roll every day should the people behind the layers of corporate entities and offshore trusts deign to come visit their dollar-denominated asset for the weekend.
An informal task force including Realtor Bill Stirling is fighting to protect the “need” for personal Monticellos and Mt. Vernons while preserving a rural and rustic environment. Welcome to your newest theme park, a division of Westworld.
We as a community and our electeds talk a good game about character and rural lifestyle without asking about the other, character-based impacts of gradually transforming the agriculture-based Western landscape into something like antebellum Virginia, dotted with what were known as the “big houses,” paired with pseudo-agricultural barns served by workers with few, if any, bargaining rights. The days of actual farming and ranching are gone with the wind, replaced by faux farms harvesting property tax benefits.
Commissioners Steve Child and George Newman have at least asked about the other impacts of presidential-house size scaling, noting that such mansions generate a lot of employees who maybe, just maybe, ought to be housed by or at the expense of the various corporate entities and trusts who are building courthouse-sized investment vehicles.
But these and the “other community goals and values” to which Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury refers as worth protecting left the plantation barn atop a horse named Gentrification long ago. The average single-family home in the county outside city limits is already 7,500 square feet, a remodel or two away from being another Mt. Vernon and most (65 percent) of them are owned by corporations that don’t live here and are used by the unknown and unidentifiable persons who own the entities. See the 2018 assessor database for details and ask yourself how many of the 175 or so remaining locally-owned, single-family homes in the county will be converted to corporate-owned investment vehicles in the coming years.
In some sense, Vladimir Putin may be your neighbor up some beautiful creek in rural Pitkin County. You can’t be sure and neither can he because you don’t know who owns the corporation that owns the offshore trust that owns the home and chances are Vlad himself may not know where his entities have stashed his billions.
Back at the other end of the economic ladder, there is a growing movement to address the acute affordable housing shortage here and around the country by stashing workers in so-called tiny houses, tiny meaning about 120 square feet of livable space per person, just above the American Jail Association recommendation of 100 square feet per inmate.
For those of you wondering what income inequality means — and what drives Bernie and Elizabeth and AOC to obsess about it — here’s a clue: Some of us in America imagine ourselves as Thomas J. or George W. in importance, with a similar need for space, while others are recommending a slightly upgraded AJA living standard for their wage slaves.