Right now the housing industry is still stuck in neutral. Money and spending are starting to flow, and projects and jobs are beginning to trickle in for those who’ve weathered the economic storm enough to be still in business, but the production of affordable homes for people to live in continues to be decades behind the US housing need estimates. I say decades because we were ten years behind in 2007 so we must be at least another ten years behind now. Add to this time-lag the fast growing population in history and you start to get the picture of how bad it is going to get. Drive down the street and see the growing homeless population in your community and you have more proof of the low affordable housing stock storm that’s coming if we don’t start looking for innovative solutions now.
Much of the talk is about the lack of affordable housing, but most people don’t understand that affordable no longer refers to housing low-income families but for housing middle-income families too. We’ve become a society where fewer and fewer people will own their homes and will spend their entire lives paying to live in the homes of those rich enough to be able to invest in housing as a financial commodity. Gone will be the iconic American Dream. Instead would be the dream of just having a roof over your head, while the destitute live on the street. So there are two problems to be solved: 1) to build more homes fast and 2) to build them cheap enough so the average person can afford to buy them. And unless we find a way to do this so the builder can make a profit, we will be left with a housing industry that’s a public commodity owned by the wealthy investor/developer; or taking the drastic step to make housing construction a state-owned enterprise like the post office. I prefer that we deal with the problem now while it’s still manageable and avoid taking either drastic steps of corporate ownership or state management.
Like every industry in the twenty-first century, building and construction are being hit by higher cost of goods, services, labor and the technology that’s replacing people with machines. Along with some ill thought out political maneuvering, it’s all becoming too costly to pay construction people a living wage, (The same people who would be buying the homes if they were affordable). The trouble is, the history of the construction industry in the U.S. is about lots of separate components being put together by different specialists, leading to higher costs but more specialist jobs. Just adding a small 100 square foot bathroom on a house requires the expertise of a dozen different industries from architect, excavators, framer, plumber, electrician, sheet rocker, tilers, and painters, etc… All these people need to be paid a fair living wage for their work, right alongside the rising cost of everything else, so, of course, building affordable homes becomes a different housing animal from the feasible mega mansion PUD and custom project. Then you have all the people behind the work proving materials, appliances, and fixtures that come with costs to transport and distribute them; and then all the business management people behind the manufacturing and on and on it goes. What we end up with is a major disconnect between an industry’s need to offer everyone a fair living wage and developing a quality product, at an affordable price for most people.
So what’s the solution? The first solution is to keep the affordable housing building and construction industries in the hands of the majority of workers and out of the hands of the investor or the state. Second to begin working with technology and innovation to come up with faster more efficient and affordable ways of building homes so everyone can afford to own one. Both of these mean an entirely new way of thinking about the construction of homes and the kinds of jobs that people in the industry are trained to do to create them.
Now this isn’t nothing new. Japan and Europe are way ahead of the US in finding alternative home building systems with the use of factory machines and computer technology, so it’s not like we don’t have a few years of their experience to work from in developing a system of building affordable construction. We just have to make the pivots with them and be smarter about it. And sure there’re lots of innovative ideas floating around like building 3D houses, (and this may or may not pan out someday); but right now we have more realistic options, such as factory built component housing that’s already in production for a small portion of the affordable housing buyer. For those out of the loop: the factory home building industry has come a long way since the days of the tin can like mobile home park homes. Today, there are many companies, both in the U.S. and abroad, that build some or all of their quality homes in the factory. These are not thin skinned cheaply put together structures, but stable, thoroughly detailed homes that are superior to the stick built onsite homes because all the factory production controls can create uniformity and a precision product. There are different qualities of factory home builders out there, as there are different quality car manufacturers. You have your Mercedes and BMW housing manufacturers, your Toyota, and Honda, and your Fords and Chevrolet. Not everyone can afford the BMW’s or wants the Fords, but most of us would be happy with the Toyota home. The best thing about these new quality homes is they look and feel like any other home, and even a professional can’t tell right away if they’ve been made in a factory. The only thing that’s different about them is they’re uniformly built faster, cheaper and with less waste. Building a factory home today means quality control goes up while time dealing with overlapping subcontractors and city planning departments shrink. Design it; check it; prepare the foundation at the site and a couple months later it’s installed and ready to move in. You may be wondering why, if it’s so straightforward, why aren’t we doing this now. It has to do with fear of change that would mean the loss of money for the money focused people and building industry people worried that they won’t have a job because their specialty will no longer be needed. Some of these worries may be true but then life always changes, and as the wise among us know: it’s always best to deal with change rather than hide from it. We just have to stop ignoring the problems and start working on finding solutions.
What would help with change is industry and government support for the little guy trying to make a living. The government needs to deal with the money controlled wealthy who want to keep feeding off the real estate industry at the expense of the needs for people to have homes, but with industry jobs, we can’t afford the loss at a time when we need more jobs. But with factory built homes, the jobs lost on the construction site can move to the factory floor and into technology development, transportation, and installation, or repair and remodeling homes. Instead of the old types of jobs building a few expensive homes in a stagnant construction industry, we can create even more jobs where people are making a living building millions of homes they can afford to buy themselves: This is about building and viable housing economy. It all starts by shifting focus from how to restart an outmoded broken system that’s only going to make a very few rich while we live in their rental units paying whatever price they say they want for sub-quality housing; and instead shift towards better jobs that improve the economy and quality of life for everyone. Factory home building is a way of building faster, creating jobs and keep prices down for the majority of people. And this happens through healthy industry competition. The more companies out there hiring people and creating these millions of needed factory homes, the lower the cost of buying them. It starts with making choices for change that creates a system that works for us all through the use of creative innovation and embracing technology that supports jobs and affordable housing through job creation and fair competition, not an industry that only makes money for investors and financial institutions. It’s about creating a new way to build the American Dream.