The Gospel of Good Housing

A home is more, far more, than the structure that encases it…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Most people think of the word “gospel” as a religious word; it isn’t.

It’s an English word from the early Greek root meaning, literally, “good news”.

“Good news”, of course, could come in any context from a sports event to a business deal or job opportunity.

Somehow the word “gospel” (like the word “evangelist”) became isolated, and effectively neutered, by its confinement to religious uses.

Many Tech companies, from Apple to Google (and many more) have job titles like “Tech evangelist” where the driving mission is to promote and advocate the “good news” of the product line.

Cities and neighborhoods need positions like that; promoters of the positive features and possibilities, the immediate, latent and sometimes well-hidden attributes and unique features of the area.

My biggest complaint about my neighborhood, my larger community and, maybe even my country, is the reliance on experts that helicopter in, present some list of “best practices” and urban formulas and say that if only we did this, or bought that program, our city or our neighborhood could look like that other city or neighborhood.

Maybe that works in some areas. Maybe that’s what some people want for their neighborhoods.

But I’ve never met any of those people.

And I’m not one of them.

And I don’t even believe those people exist.

I want a neighborhood, a city, even a nation, deeply and reliably rooted in its identity, connected to and respectful of its history – a community that is, and can only be, itself.

A place that knows that its future is inexorably tied to its past, its “built” architecture is firmly rooted in the geography and climate of the place it claims to be improving.

There is probably no more defining feature of any community than its residential neighborhoods.

Yes, urban centers with their employment opportunities and cultural attractions usually get the most promotion, and yes, a stable and healthy economy is the financial base of any community, but neighborhoods are where we live, where we, even when we have the occasion or opportunity to leave, often spend most of our time.

For most of us, our neighborhoods are where we have chosen to live.

And most of us don’t want to live in look-alike housing blocks or maze-like cul-de-sacs.

Yes, we want “affordable housing” (whatever that might mean these days), but when it comes to housing, we primarily want housing that is far more than housing; we want a place that defines and expresses who we are.

Consider this definition of the primary attributes of shelter; “A dwelling is a building, a covered and enclosed space that acts as a place of refuge to protect us from the inclemency of the climate and also serves for rest.”

Technically, of course, all that is true. But who of us lives in our home “technically”?

That sterile definition reminds me of what C.S. Lewis said of stars – they might be balls of burning gas, but that is what they are made of, not what they are.

A house might be “a covered and enclosed space that acts as a place of refuge to protect us from the inclemency of the climate and also serves for rest,” but that doesn’t make it a home.

And a collection of these does not make a neighborhood, and a multiplicity of neighborhoods like these do not make a community.

A home is more, far more, than the structure that encases it.

A neighborhood is far more than a collection of model homes – no matter what “best practices” formula they might embrace.

The best housing facilitates community and local, if not family safety and cohesion.

And good housing, to repeat the obvious, but only because it seems to fall on deaf ears so consistently, does not begin with (or ever) find its best roots by offending or violating the standards or norms of the existing neighborhood.

This is not the much maligned (and often justly condemned) NIMBYism.

In fact I’d say this is the opposite.

A threatened neighborhood, by definition, will never be a welcoming neighborhood.

And any “welcoming” neighborhood may not “welcome” or even have the capacity to “welcome” any and every change.

Walkable or historic neighborhoods may define themselves primarily on those terms, but even the most clearly defined walkable or historic neighborhoods have their limits and compromises with and adaptions to shifting trends, values or market forces.

These compromises and adaptions don’t need to be the death knell to a neighborhood (though as we all know too well, they often are).

Designing a neighborhood to be more accessible to some, for example, almost always means making it more accessible to all.

There are always a few essential features and services that few, if any neighborhoods “want” – at least within sight.

Instead of forcing these on neighborhoods that don’t have the legal or political clout to resist them (as has been the unspoken policy for centuries – if not all of human history) how about a fair (and agreed upon) exchange; a community center, park or playground for a sewage processing plant for example?

Or a specialized program at a local school. Or a special zoning variance. Or a tax-deduction. Or maybe a pairing of the least desirable feature and the most desirable feature?

As it seems to be now, the best neighborhoods get the best things and the most under-served neighborhoods keep getting the projects no one else will take.

No one wants to live in a neighborhood defined by and forever associated with a feature forced on it.

No neighborhood wants to be the site of those facilities no one else wants.

Homeless facilities, like homelessness itself, are by definition transitional and temporary.

Programs and facilities for the homeless don’t need to be confined to that purpose – just as there is no reason a homeless person should ever be permanently defined by a temporary condition.

The irony of homelessness is that few, if any, of the homeless, began that way.

And in one recent survey in Seattle, 80% of the homeless were originally from the immediate area.

These homeless people, for the most part, are not strangers, they have not always been homeless and they won’t always be homeless.

We wrap our homeless conversations and policies in jargon, implicit biases and (one would hope) good intentions.

Good housing is a tribute to its neighborhood, its era and its values.

Yes, good housing needs to be “affordable”, but “affordability” is the ultimate moving target, and, in some eras, far from a defining attribute.

Affordability is a burning, if not defining, topic now, but probably will not be in a decade or so.

Housing, by whatever definition, should never be a basic need denied, for any reason. For those facing housing insecurity, predictable and affordable housing is the best “good news” ever.

Nothing is more foundational to a safe and productive life than housing.

We can, and must, do better.

And when we do, it will be the best “good news” for all of us.

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