Several weeks ago I impulsively started looking online at local houses for sale and began fantasizing about owning property again. In 2011, I walked away from the condo I’d purchased in 2005 for $196,000 because it had dropped in value to somewhere around $40,000. So with a foreclosure on my record, and a deliberate one at that, my options are limited until the foreclosure drops off my credit report in 2018. Still, there are options for me, and that was enough to get me browsing websites and scrolling through pictures of remodeled kitchens and laminate floors.
Looking at all those pictures and thinking about what I’d want in my ideal house made me start ruminating on what I want vs. what I need. Depending on how you define need, none of us needs very much in terms of housing. Four solid walls and a roof enclosing space for sleeping, cooking, eating, and bathing are all anyone really needs. Just look at the mini boom (pun intended!) in micro housing – a trend in which people are making themselves comfortable in tiny living spaces, often made out of unusual materials like old shipping containers. I am pleased with the micro house idea, but at the same time, I have a lot of stuff – enough that it fills my current 2-bedroom, 1200 square foot rental pretty snugly. This troubled me as I put in an offer to buy a smaller house – 3 bedrooms, but only 975 square feet. I wondered what I’d have to give up to fit my stuff into this smaller space. My offer was not accepted (which I decided was for the best), but I continued to be troubled as I thought about all the space I take up in my house. I have described living here alone with my two cats as being like the last cookie in the bag – I rattle around in all this space that is designed to hold more than one person – and yet my stuff fills in all the corners.
My uneasiness with the house hunt crystallized recently while I was at the gym. I don’t have television at home, so when I go to the gym I enjoy watching mindless drivel. On this particular day it was a show with some silly name like “Love It or List It.” The show involved a couple who had to decide to either buy a new house or keep the one that the show’s designer had remodeled to fit their needs. The show seemed inoffensive until the couple started looking at possible houses to buy. Every house the realtor showed them was deemed too small. They had nothing but disparaging words for the bedrooms that their kids might occupy, calling them “half-bedrooms” or “closets.” These rooms were big enough for a bed and dresser – typically kid-room furniture – but apparently that wasn’t enough for this couple. They weren’t smug or arrogant about it; in fact, they seemed to genuinely want the best for their kids. Yet, I still found their attitude distressing, and began questioning my own desire for a big enough house just for me and all my stuff. This, of course, is where the shift in perspective comes in.
Why do we want so much space? I could offer long and complicated explanations that dig into culture and capitalism and the structural nature of inequality, but at the most basic level I believe that human beings naturally want more. We have to keep this in perspective, though, by remembering how much more many of us already have compared to people in so much of the rest of the world – and also right here in the United States. Remember the micro houses? They are now being offered as a solution to homelessness in some cities. These homeless people are happy to get the tiny house. People in many parts of the world live in structures that most people in the US wouldn’t dream of calling home. From war-torn neighborhoods where people try to make do in the bombed-out shells of their apartments and houses to rural villagers in traditional huts to people building shacks in landfills, people all over the world struggle to keep the walls and roof they need to say they have a home.
This does not mean I think everybody should have to live in a tiny house. It does not mean that because some people suffer, we all should suffer. But maybe we should redefine how much space we actually need to call our house a home. I think we should remind ourselves that what makes a house a home is not its size but its meaning. That’s why realtors say they’ll help you find your “dream home” – they’re selling the physical house as the embodiment of the idea of home. But while a house is tangible, a home is not. Any place can be made home, regardless of its size or how much stuff it can hold.