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Friday, March 6, 2009

Adapting In Place - And When Not To

Welcome to the first day of the Adapting in Place class - most of my posts this month will focus on the theme of how to get along where you are, with what you’ve got. I love this class, and enjoy doing it. I would note that some of the registered participants have not yet subscribed to the discussion group - please do so, so you don’t miss anything!

I thought I’d start out with the question of who *should not* adapt in place. The very first activity we do in both classes is to sit down and make a list of what your alternatives are if you have to leave your present place. The reason we do it is because things like that could happen - people lose jobs and homes, they have fires, they are forced out by climate changes or environmental crises - sometimes you can’t stay where you are. And as much as we’re going to focus on staying in place, we should also make sure we never lose sight of the fact that we do have other choices, even if we don’t much like them,

And for some people, getting out of Dodge is the way to go. That is, I think that some people should absolutely consider leaving where they are, and doing sooner, rather than later, because they have little or no hope of successfully remaining in place.

Now some of this comes down to long vs. short term issues - and there are balances to be struck. For example, let’s say you live in a place that may be underwater in a couple of decades. You love it, you are in your 50s or 60s, your kids are here. Do you have to leave? No, you don’t have to, but you might want to think about your choices. For example, do you want to have to evacuate your location regularly due to coastal storms in your 80s? Do you have a support network that will make that possible, that will help you? If you plan to move when things get more acute, how likely is it you will be able to sell your house, as areas look increasingly difficult to inhabit. Do you need to sell it? If you have family inland who would take you in, maybe risking that you might have to walk away is ok - or maybe it isn’t.

Our homes are our homes, and our right to stay and choose them sometimes seems inviolable - but it isn’t. In the next decades there are going to be a lot of migrants - and you may be one of them. Migrating and settling in a reasonably liveable place might be better - or it might not, and you might want to wait and see. But don’t do it in ignorance - find out all you can. The reality is that many people do more research on what movie to see than we do about our future, and the risks and benefits of the locations we choose.

So here’s my list of when to think seriously about getting out. There will be exceptions in every case - my claim is not “you definitely must go” but “think hard about what you are choosing.”

1. If you have an ARM and can’t reset it, are already facing foreclosure or have no reason to believe you’ll be able to pay for your house, or if your current house was bought near the market peak and you require two ful incomes to pay for it.

The odds are good you aren’t going to keep your house in those circumstances - and the worst possible scenario for you may well be that you go into debt frantically trying to keep your old way of life open, which closes off other options. If you have a better choice, one that can provide some stability, or there is hope of selling and getting out from under, seriously consider it.

If you do end up in full foreclosure, remember the magic words - “Produce the Note.” Rerquire that the company do full due diligence and stay in your house as long as you can - you might as well save up rent for the future. And unless your loan is a recourse loan (be very careful with state assisted refinances, since many of these turn no-recourse loans into recourse loans - you do not want to be paying for this forever) But do me a favor, and don’t trash the place on the way out - someone else, even you may eventually end up renting a foreclosure, so don’t trash what assets we’ve got indiscriminately.

2. If you have young children or are elderly, have close ties somewhere but are living far away from them in a community that you are not invested in. Not everyone has people (family biological or chosen) who will give you a place at the table, thin the soup to make it stretch, let you sleep on their couch and otherwise cover your back. But if you do, recognize that these people are the beginnings of your tribe. Not all of us have tribes in one place - and some of us have multiple tribes. But if you aren’t rooted where you are in some deep way, if you live there primarily for a job, and you can get back to your people think about it seriously.

The people who will most need the support of their family are young families themselves struggling to make do and older people who may need some help. Sometimes these peopel are related to one another ;-). Not all family is good, not every friendship can go this far, but if you have these ties, they matter, and they are essential.

3. If you have children or parents you need to care for far away. Again, this is ymmv, but if you are going to be dealing with your parents’ decline, or if you don’t have custody of your kids but want to spend time on them, you need to set it up in a way that doesn’t make anyone rely on airline or other expensive long distance travel. That means that if they don’t come to you, you go to them. It was once perfectly viable to live across the country from your kids, and say, have them spend summers with you - it may no longer be viable. I realize this will be enormously painful and disruptive to families, but if you are the resource for people very far away over the longer term, you need to find a way to be closer to one another, or accept that you may not be able to take on that role.

4. If you live in an extreme climate, likely to become more extreme with climate change, but you are not particularly and unusually well adapted to it. That is, unless we check climate change, which at this point seems unlikely, if highly desirable, at some point, many places are going to be uninhabitable for many of the people who presently live there. Some may become literally uninhabitable over time, but more likely, what we’ll see is that small populations, extremely well adapted to their environment, and extremely attuned to it, become native to many places as long as they are even marginally inhabitable. But the question is, are you one of them?

That is, if you live in a very hot, dry place, and are an expert desert farmer, gifted at retaining and using every drop of water prudently, and comfortable living without lots of input or air conditioning, and happy to live on the diet that grows there well, great, you and your descendents will probably do very well there if anyone does. But if you are fond of long showers, keep the a/c on six months a year and think that hamburgers are a right, you might want to think about somewhere else. Moreover, if you need income from the sale of your house, you might want to think about it sooner, rather than later, because there will probably come a point at which the number of people who want to live there declines dramatically, and it will be even tougher to sell than it is now. Now even if some places do become uninhabitable, they probably won’t do so immediately - you might well be able to live out your life where you are. But remember that it will probably become gradually and increasingly hard - the summers will be worse, the storms will be stronger, the ice pack will be smaller. Are you prepared to be that adaptable?

5. If you live among people with lousy values. I’m on the record saying that most of us can probably get along in most places with at least some people. I don’t think everyone in your town has to be like you, or that ecovillages are the only way to find community. That said, however, there are exceptions. And even if you can find some small community in a larger culture of rotten values, you may find that it wears you down.

Thus, if your neighborhood is chronically ridden with violence and crime, maybe it is a good idea to fight it - but maybe you’d be better off somewhere else. If you bought in a gated community full of self-centered rich assholes, and now you regret it because they are pissed about your garden, sometimes, if you can, living somewhere else might be nicer.

If you belong to a minority community, you might want to live where people like folks like you, or at least tolerate them, rather than a place that is hostile to them. If you rely on a religious community, you might want to live where you feel that the cultural values reflect your own.

Personally, I’ve always had a lot of luck finding allies where I went, even if we didn’t share faith or experience. But there are root values we did have in common - integrity, kindness, a desire for community. If those things don’t exist, you might seriously have to consider another choice.

6. If you don’t think your children (and by your children, I mean the children in your family, even if they aren’t your own) have a future where you are. Now this is somewhat speculative, and may partly contradict what I said above - you may, for example, simply not be ready to leave a place, even if you don’t think it will be sustainable in the long term. But it is worth thinking about the larger consequences of committing to a place that may not have a future. If your children have to leave to get work, if your children have to leave because it isn’t safe or is underwater, are your prepared to part with them? Are you prepared for your family to be parted in circumstances that might not be conducive to cross-country travel? More importantly, if you have land or something you hope to pass down to your kids, are you prepared not to be able to do so? Is it an asset that they will be able to do without? Again, you can’t know all this for sure, but it is worth thinking about.

7. If you plan to move anyway. That is, if you have a family place or somewhere you have always planned to return to, if you can, now is probably the best time. It takes time to build soil. It takes time to get to know people. It takes time to see fruit trees come to maturity. If you were planning on going anyway after a few more years of earning, or something, now might be the right time. That said, however, I’d be awfully cautious about buying, and only recommend this *if you can* leave - either by selling your current place or if you’ve been renting. But building roots is important.

8. If you aren’t prepared to live in the place you live as its culture demands. That is, as we get poorer and travel and transit become bigger issues, living in the country is going to be a lot different than it is now - instead of living essentially a suburban life, commuting to activities not available and relying on trucked in supplies, you may have to shop occasionally and mostly stay home in the country, making your own entertainment. Are you prepared to do that? Urban dwellers may have to make do in tougher conditions as infrastructure problems come up. My own analogy is this - if you’d be ok living in the worst neighborhood in your city as most of the people there live now, you’ll probably be fine. But if you’ve been affluent and comfortable and might not be forever, be sure you can afford the city and like the life. I believe strongly that city, suburb (most of them) and country all have a future - but the differences between them are likely to become more acute. If you aren’t prepared to deal with those differences, you might consider moving.

9. If you live in a outer suburban housing development, particularly a fairly new one. This is the one exception I make to the question of whether the suburbs are viable. Generally speaking, I think a lot of suburbs will do fine, others will adapt in different ways - some may become more like small cities, others may be more country like. But the ones that I think the least hope are the larger developments that were built in the “drive ’til you buy” model of the last few years, where lower income families have to move further and further away from urban or suburban job centers. If your suburb was built on a cornfield forty miles from your job, think seriously about how you will get along either in an energy constrained world or one where energy is much more costly because of carbon limitations. Do you really think anyone is going to run public transport out there? Is there topsoil? Is it a place worth maintaining and farming? Are there neighbors? Are there going to be? If you are already in a half-finished development, you really might want to get out.

10. If you are native to another place. By native, I mean that many of us have a strong sense of place, and a strong sense of belonging to a place. My husband once went on a job interview at UIL Champagne-Urbana. He recalls looking across the land and seeing the horizon and thinking “oh, there’s the ocean.” But of course, there was no ocean there - his misperception lasted only a second, but revealed something about his ability to live in that place - he comes from people who live on hilly land around water, and know the flat horizon as the space of the sea. It is possible that he could have adapted to the flat open land of the midwest and learned to love it - but it is also possible that one’s sense of place should be respected if possible. I know people who have never fully adapted to their place, in the sense of being truly native to it - desert born people who could never breathe comfortably in the humid air of the southeast, warm climate people who found the cold of northern winters unbearable, city folk who find the country abnormally empty and silent, water folk who can’t imagine life away from a boat.

Not everyone is tied to a place - some people can live anywhere, others in a wide range of places. Some people can take their sense of place to wherever they go, and find a new home. But some people can’t. And it is simply the case that your body, and parts of your soul are shaped by your experience - a college friend of mine once spoke of people who grew up by the sea has sharing “water thinking” and noted that she who lived in Hawaii and I who lived in Coastal Massachusetts had that in common in our way of viewing the world. More mundanely, people who grow up in hot climates develop more sweat glands, and a better ability to cool themselves than people who grow up in cold ones - our physiology is shaped by our place.

And our native knowledge of our place is valuable - in fact, it may be the most powerful tool we have. Now some of us will have to leave our native places, to journey again as people so often have. But if we can stay where we are, knowing our flora and fauna, knowing what grows where and how things smell when the seasons change and how to heal or feed or tend with what is native here is absolutely valuable - as is the ability to adapt that knowledge as our places change. So if there is a place where you feel at home, and no other constraints bind you, perhaps you will want to go there, and be there, and help other people be there.

Again, all of these examples will have exceptions. No one, especially me is saying “move now!” And some people who probably should leave will not be able to for reasons of family and obligation, underwater housing and job commitments. But do think about all your choices.



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