I’m a long time member of the Strong Towns  organization which advocates for financially solvent municipal governance. I’m also a member of the Congress for New Urbanism  which strives to build walkable mixed-use neighborhoods of the kind our great grandparents would have taken for granted, but are rare indeed these days. I often ask myself what good a financially stable town is if most of the people living there are heavily leveraged and living pay check to pay check. So I have a particular fascination with people who embody the Strong Towns ethos within their own households. My assumption is that if most individual families are strong and economically resilient then collectively the town will likely be too. Here are four examples of strong households from my travels.
Todd is a twenty something who lives in the Days Park neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. He purchased an affordable historic fixer upper duplex with the intension of renovating the property with sweat equity. He and his girlfriend live downstairs. He quickly got the upper floor apartment in great shape and began renting it for income. That covered his modest mortgage freeing up his salary for savings and investments in other projects. One of those projects involved the purchase of an adjoining vacant lot which Todd is in the process of developing into a new building in an historical style that will serve as his office as well as an additional rental apartment.
Unlike previous generations who placed themselves in great personal debt in order to acquire a large prestigious home to demonstrate wealth and status, Todd sees his home as a productive object to generate revenue. It’s precisely the opposite philosophy from the McMansion in a gated community. The value isn’t loaded on to the eventual speculative value of the home come sale time, but in the month-to-month productive capacity of the property. Status for him doesn’t come from a two story entry foyer or an extravagant master bedroom suite. Instead, he rejoices in the economic freedom of having a home that pays him each month rather than the other way around.
In the same way he’s an ardent bicycle advocate. Owning multiple cars to enable you to live in an isolated location and endure a long miserable commute isn’t considered “moving up”. For Todd a bike represents financial freedom which trumps the illusion of physical mobility promised by car culture. This is particularly true since a big chunk of your paycheck is dedicated to maintaining those vehicles. Why not live and work in a place where you can skip the car altogether and pocket the extra funds?
Todd explained that his father was scandalized at the thought of moving back to Buffalo. In the 1980’s when Todd’s father was a young man Days Park was a derelict and unsavory place known more for drugs and prostitution than charming vernacular architecture. Many people of that generation left the city for suburbia and never returned to notice how the city is changing. A new generation is hungry for community, walkable neighborhoods, vitality, and reinvention. They’re also loaded down with student loan debt, facing an anemic job market, and making do with a paralyzed and ineffectual government. The crash of 2008 exposed suburban real estate as a not-so-reliable investment along with the stock market. Millennials like Todd are looking for a bargain that’s pragmatic and livable over the long haul. Undervalued inner city neighborhoods and century old streetcar suburbs are the perfect sweet spots for this generation.
Like so many Rust Belt towns Buffalo endured fifty years of unrelenting decline. But it bottomed out a few years ago and is coming back. If you’re young (or not so young) and you’re looking for the kind of environment you might find in Brooklyn, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Queen Street in Toronto, but at one tenth the price… that’s Buffalo. And you get to have great people like Todd live next door.
Jeremy and Kelsey live in Dallas, Texas. Like Todd in Buffalo they’re in their 20’s and also purchased a duplex in an inner ring suburb. You can ride a bicycle from their house to the skyscrapers in downtown Dallas in twenty minutes. Jeremy and Kelsey each grew up in prosperous north Dallas suburbs in big homes that announced that their parents had “arrived”. They wanted none of that for themselves. They live comfortably in the upstairs portion of their home and rent the downstairs. That income more than covers their expenses and actually provides them with extra money each month. They aren’t sacrificing anything. They live very well and have the luxury of being able to work less, save more, and enjoy raising their two small children rather than scrambling to maintain dual incomes to pay all the bills. For them this is a truly family friendly high quality living arrangement.
Dallas is a younger city than Buffalo and even the older neighborhoods are more car oriented than what you typically find in cities back east. While Jeremy and Kelsey’s part of town is suburban in nature it’s an older suburb that’s far more walkable than newer suburbs. It’s also maturing and offering better quality restaurants, grocery options, and more nuanced retail than the standard national chains found everywhere. Dallas may not always look like Norman Rockwell small town America, but increasingly the reinvented strip malls and muffler palaces are functioning like Main Street – and you can walk to them in five minutes.
So it’s possible to live well in a home that doesn’t bleed you dry, particularly if it’s in a neighborhood that let’s you live car light if not entirely car free. But what about earning a living? Most people work a nine-to-five job because it’s the only thing that makes sense given their obligations and expectations for how life should be. Starting your own business is a big scary endeavor and most people fail when they try. Partly that’s because running a business requires genuine skill and perseverance. It doesn’t help that most small business activities are heavily regulated and require a great deal of start up funding to even get off the ground. Try opening a restaurant and see how far you get before the paperwork alone drives you to madness. But there are people out there who have not only conjured up a business out of thin air, but who have managed to thrive under the most unlikely circumstances.
Gretchen and Devon are a young couple who started making soap in their home in rural Hawaii and experimented with selling it at a local farmers market. The farmers market provided a low cost venue to see which products sold and which didn’t without much risk. Over time they gradually refined their line of soaps as well as their production techniques. They hired employees, created a wholesale distribution system, built a small manufacturing facility on their rural property, and now sell their Filthy Farmgirl  soap to retailers nationwide. That home, by the way, is now mortgage free. While they almost certainly would have been successful at whatever they turned their hands to in life, they probably wouldn’t have achieved these goals as early in life if they had remained in the rat race on the mainland. Devon and Gretchen’s experience may not be typical, largely because their talent and skill is exceptional. But it does demonstrate that such things are actually possible.
Courtney, Tyler, and Jordan live in my neighborhood here in San Francisco and manage to support themselves and several employees (at a living wage) providing walking tours of the Mission, Chinatown, and the Castro to tourists. I’ve taken their tours myself and they’re amazing.
The thing about running a tour guide company is that the entire business is composed of talented people, a few funny hats, and a ukulele. They have an excellent website  that I’m sure took time and skill to put together, but there isn’t much physical stuff involved and it’s mercifully unregulated other than the usual tax procedures that any business must comply with.
But here’s the crazy part. Even as they pay insanely high San Francisco rents along with all the other necessities of life, they’ve been able to squirrel away $30,000 in cash over the last couple of years. That’s seed money they plan to use to buy property and establish a home base for themselves and their business. That property won’t be in San Francisco, prices being what they are around here.
But I’m here to tell you that whichever town they finally choose is going to be amazingly lucky to have them. They’ve already demonstrated an ability to create real value out of thin air in a highly competitive and cost prohibitive environment. The thing is… not every town deserves to have citizens like these. Do you think they’re going to zero in on some cookie cutter subdivision with a 7 Eleven and Walmart on the side of the interstate? I’m just sayin’.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. This post was originally published at his blog, Granola Shotgun . New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.