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Something for Nothing

Charles Gray, in attempting to live on his fair share of the world's wealth (WEB), discusses how eventually, in building his own shelter, he cut down the costs of housing.

By Charles Gray
How do you have any fun on a WEB (World Equity Budget - around $70 a month)? Well, there's a lot of fun around that's free and some more that's cheap. We have given up on some things almost entirely, like eating out or going to the movies, plays, concerts, or other paid entertainments. A couple of times a year we go to a bargain matinee movie or a restaurant. Occasionally a friend will treat us to a musical event or a restaurant meal. We feel okay about this if it doesn't happen very often and especially if we can reciprocate in some way. Sometimes we'll get in free to some event by helping to usher. Sometimes our housemates will treat us to a show on their VCR or they will give us access to it when they are gone. Recently we discovered that our local library has free video cassettes.

We are quite happy not to have a colour TV. Recently we were given a small used black and white, but we only occasionally drag it out for something special like the figure skating at the Winter Olympics. We don't want to get hooked on TV or we might become thoughtless dream machine victims again. There isn't too much danger of that. We find the commercials so disgusting, the violence so appalling, the news so shallow or false, that I think we may have become immune to the disease.

In the place of rushing around to commercial entertainment, we spend many hours reading libraries are wonderful and free. We listen to music on the radio. We are rediscovering the pleasure of walking even though our motor mesmerised neighbours sometimes glance at us in suspicion when they pass - so rare is a pedestrian these days. We visit with friends and housemates, swim, sunbathe, and picnic by the sea. We hike in nearby redwoods. We are fortunate to live within a five minute bike ride of the sea and a local bus ride to the redwoods. It surprises us that even here, people will pack up their cars and drive hundreds of miles to get to some other beauty spot. It's like being in a natural paradise and being pushed off by the travel posters to some other paradise. Our friends often return home from such trips, but far from being rested they are often exhausted from hours on traffic heavy highways. We are learning to appreciate the little beauty spots closer to home. It's true we have seen many of them before, but beauty bears repeating and we discover new details as well.

We are learning to play card games again. We avoid the rather expensive parlour games or wait until they have been around long enough so we can scavenge one. We do a bit of embroidery. It doesn't cost much and it allows us to express a little creativity. Because our lifestyle is not very fast paced, one of our recreations is to make gifts out of odd bits of this and that and to figure out how to wrap them for nothing. Making your own gifts is not only recreational, but it is an important economy and sometimes your friends and family are converted also. This practise helps liberate us from consumerism. We often give just a poem or some seeds or dried herbs from the garden. Sometimes we offer baby-sitting or other labour.

We have no pets. They are more costly than most folks admit. It's not just the food and what this takes from the world's food supply, but the increasingly costly doctoring expected of pet owners. America's pets probably get more medical attention than most of the world's children! If giving up pets is too painful, you might opt for phasing them out in a natural way and not acquiring more. Sometimes you can enjoy your housemates or neighbours pets or you can enjoy feeding the birds or the ducks in the park.

How can you possibly pay rent on a WEB? It isn't easy. As with medical care, so with housing. A person cannot really be a part of the regular scene and live on their share of the world's wealth. Shelter has become an increasingly large part of the budgets of people in the U.S. Maldistribution of land, downright greed, speculation and high interest rates have driven up the cost of housing. These are the most important factors, though high labour costs contribute as well. The banks own much of the housing of the United States and they profit handsomely from that control.

Thirty years ago most people with a steady job could get financing to buy a house. That is no longer true. The housing that is being built today is being built for the rich, not the poor, even though hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions are homeless. Homeless persons have fewer options than they had in the past. Occupancy density regulations, zoning restrictions and building codes have all but eliminated the rights of the poor to shelter themselves. In the past the poor could build shacks on marginal land and gradually improve them as they were able. Such persons had a degree of independence because their lives were not in hock to a bank. Those who could qualify for a mortgage loan were in a sense worse off. They would be deep in debt much of their lives, and the fear of losing their jobs and then their homes was a damper on their freedom of expression and action. The old liberal strategy of long term low interest loans hooked millions into the establishment and kept them there. Only now the terms are not so good.

Today, the homeless are free from the conservative influence of mortgage debt and thus may become radical politically and demand land and property rights long overdue, but in the short run the tightly regulated housing establishment has locked them out of shelter. Whereas in the past such people would build shacktowns, today they have no place they can call home and they sleep on the streets or in emergency shelters provided by the cities and private charities.
One of the most common strategies of the poor, one employed today by new immigrant groups and by millions of other poor as well, is doubling up ... As long as this situation persists, as long as the grip of the establishment is so strong, it will be very difficult to shelter oneself within the WEB. The housing establishment monopoly is one obstacle. Another is our own expectation of housing. We are very spoiled. We have come to expect lots of well heated space, a private room for each individual, and luxuriously carpeted, draped, and fixtured living rooms, kitchens, and baths. Many expect to have fancy furniture in the living room which sits empty most of the time while we relax in another living room called the family room. This is the kind of housing that is being built. No
really modest housing is being built, no housing consistent with living on our equal share of the world's wealth.

In the present situation if we are to share, we need to change our expectations and we must usually violate the establishments building and zoning codes. The poor must assert their right to shelter themselves and must assert that their right to do so supersedes such codes. Humans cannot generally live healthy lives without shelter. Therefore if the social system does not provide shelter, a person has the right to shelter her or himself. This right is more basic and fundamental than property rights and building codes. When we assert our right to shelter ourselves, thus liberating ourselves from the establishment codes and when we change our own expectations of housing, we can find ways to shelter ourselves within the WEB.

One of the most common strategies of the poor, one employed today by new immigrant groups and by millions of other poor as well is doubling up cutting costs per person by having more persons share the living unit. It requires some new etiquettes and modifications of individualism, but it can be done and it has benefits as well. Not only does it reduce housing costs, but it can reduce loneliness for persons in our lonely society. Many persons living alone have to go to a therapist to find someone to talk to.

Dorothy and I have used doubling up as part of our strategy. We usually have lived in a small room in a house shared with other persons. This alone, though, due partly to the high rent cities we have often lived in, has not been enough to bring our rent and utilities down to under half our budget. Actually, several times our rent has been more than half our budget and this has made the rest of the budget very tight indeed. Only our largely foraged food, virtually free clothing, bicycle transport, and health good fortune made paying out such a high proportion in rent possible. Consequently, we have had to struggle to reduce our housing costs by a variety of methods in addition to doubling up. Housing has been our toughest challenge, but we have learned a few things and those learnings put together have made even housing possible under WEB.

We have reduced our personal possessions so as to live in a small room. We have discovered a trick to make many small rooms larger. If the room has a high ceiling, as many rooms in older houses have, an inexpensive sleeping loft can usually be built. It can even be free standing so as not to require patching holes in walls when it is removed. Its construction requires a couple of 2 x 6s as beams, a few 2 x 4s, a couple of 2 x 2s, a sheet of plywood, or even scraps of plywood, and a few screws and bolts and nails. Plywood sheets are four feet in width which is wide enough for two if you sleep cozily, but wider lofts just take a little more material. If the bed-loft is put just above door height and the ceiling is nine foot six inches or higher, such lofts greatly increase the livability of a small room.

After doubling up, our second major means of cutting rent costs has been to work out a non-profit agreement with the property owner. There are property owners who want their tenants to share he costs, but who do not necessarily want to make money off of them. Such people can sometimes be persuaded to rent on a non-profit basis. Usually rents are based on what the markets will bear. Some property owners consider that they aren't making a profit on their tenants as long as the tenants are just covering the mortgage payments plus insurance, taxes, and utilities. Of course, that is not true because the mortgage payment includes gaining equity and ultimately paying off the loan. Thus the owner is getting a usually valuable piece of real estate and it's being paid for largely by their tenants. This is a handsome profit for the owners.
After doubling up, our second major means of cutting rent costs has been to work out a non-profit agreement with the property owner. We have persuaded four different property owners to charge us only for our share of the interest portion of the mortgage plus our share of insurance, taxes and utilities. That share is determined on a square footage basis for the space we use, 100% for our private space and proportionately for space shared with others. Some space is less useful than other space, such space as low headroom. Such space can be discounted. Exterior space such as porches can also be discounted.

The formula we have used considers the mortgage interest paid by the owner as a fixed cost. We don't believe in the interest system, nor in housing controlled by profit hungry bankers. Nonetheless, the house buyers from whom we rent are victims of this system so it seems reasonable to us to share this burden as a fixed cost as long as we must rent. As you can see, with such a formula, there is a definite advantage to everyone to have as many people share the housing as is consistent with sanity. In the houses we have lived in we have usually pushed for higher density in order to bring costs down. If you are clever at space design, you can sometimes suggest remodelling ideas which facilitate such higher density. Under the formula we use, the tenants automatically share the costs of empty rooms since rentals go up when fewer people share the house, so it's to everyone's advantage to find new housemates quickly.

Owners don't necessarily convert the whole house to the non-profit formula and that is not necessary to make it work. One or more tenants can use this formula while others are renting in the usual manner with the rent set according to the market or at some arbitrary figure that may be below the market, but still not non-profit. A house might be transformed gradually as the owner is willing and able to readjust from a profit to a non-profit system. Naturally, a mixed system has the potential of tension between tenants who pay on a non-profit basis as opposed to those who pay more. In practice, we haven't experienced much tension of this kind.

Such a system is definitely to the advantage of the tenant, a long overdue gain in justice. Thus far, we have not compensated the owner for the fact that s/he chose to buy a house rather than something else. The owners who have accepted the idea, have been live-in owners who are generally buying a house to provide themselves with a place to live and they aren't looking at the house as a way to make a living.

I wouldn't risk a guess as to how many owners would accept this non-profit concept. Of course, you only have to find one! - at a time, that is. Usually, when we need housing, we start by getting the word out among our friends. Most of our friends are counter-culture people of one sort or another and it's the home owners or primary renters of this kind who are most likely to consider a non-profit rental arrangement. Sometimes a person will appreciate another's efforts to try to live simply and will try to facilitate that.
It's quite a comment on the American Dream if a person has to go to jail for refusing to be a glutton. We have lived "illegally" for years. The fact that this might not work for everyone is a disadvantage, but of course we must take advantage of both those tactics that would fit anyone and also those that may fit a small number of people or even be unique to one's own situation. Usually to find housing affordable under the WEB, one must employ a strategy made up of many cost cutting tactics and that bundle of tactics will be different for each of us.

In some cities, doubling up, building a loft, and finding an owner who will accept a non-profit rental formula, and increasing the number of housemates is still not enough to bring rent down below 50% of the WEB. We found this to be true in Santa Cruz, California. Here, the going market rate for one person in a small room in a shared house cost over $200 a month in 1986. In 1988, the average cost of a room had risen to $351. Even our doubling up in a small room with a non-profit arrangement was costing us over half our combined WEBs. Such a squeeze has been characteristic of our experience.

If paying rent under the WEB is hard for a couple, it is more difficult for a single person. Before Dorothy and I got together, I sometimes paid two-thirds of my budget for shelter, even in non-profit situations. I was losing weight to stay within the WEB. However, a single person has some advantages. At times it is easier for a single person to find sufficient space to survive in part of a garage, an attic, a corner of a basement or some other usually illegal space that may have never before been considered livable.

Scavenge free housing. Try house sitting. One can often get very nice housing, but it's hard to find places where one can stay put very long unless you luck out and sit in for a professor on sabbatical. We have a friend in Santa Cruz, Robby Labovitz, who has been house sitting for years. We some times have a hard time finding her because her phone number changes every few weeks or months. Sheltering herself in this way has made it possible for her to live very simply and to volunteer much of her time to peace and justice efforts.

In Santa Cruz the County has a house sharing programme for Seniors. The programme often helps people reduce their housing costs considerably. Sometimes searching the classified adds will also turn up some cheap house sharing possibilities.

Then, there is living on the street or in one's vehicle. My only vehicle is a bicycle and though I've fantasised fixing a tent on my bike trailer, I've not tried it yet. Except for sleep-in protests and other political protests involving camping, we haven't yet had personal experience living on the street. The impression we get from our homeless friends is that it's a very hard life. One is often cold and wet and harassed by police, property owners and vigilantes. It's hard to keep clean. It's hard to use social services or get employment without a permanent address. In some communities people's right to sleep has been violated by local ordinances that prohibit camping in one's vehicle, or on the streets or in public places or even on private property. Santa Cruz is one such community so that here the homeless are not only harassed, but arrested by the police. The woods bordering Santa Cruz are patrolled on horseback in an attempt to keep out illegal campers. Nonetheless, many people do camp, and some recommend it, citing the joys of sleeping under the stars, the low cost, etc.

Squatting on unused land or in unused buildings is an option for those who have the time, will and energy such a choice may require. These, like many other options within the set available to those who would shelter themselves within their share of the world's resources, are illegal. That's pretty interesting when you think about it an economic system that makes it illegal to shelter yourself within your share of the world's resources. In many communities in the U.S., one must be an outlaw to live on the WEB. Considering the violent system that produced those laws one might take pride in being an outlaw, especially if it means sharing equally with your sisters and brothers. It's quite a comment on the American Dream if a person has to go to jail for refusing to be a glutton. We have lived "illegally"for years.
The total cash outlay for the (shelter) was $100.27. In secluded backyards and in some rural areas even more possibilities of inexpensive shelter exist. Many have liberated themselves from the banker's grip by building or using a variety of shelters such as yurts, teepees, portable domes, or cabins. The woods in some places are full of such things. If the sundry don't notice and the neighbours don't complain, you can sometimes find not only mortgage free housing and all that means, but the enjoyment of creating shelter yourself. A self-built shelter can be surprisingly inexpensive and well within the savings possible under the WEB. By this I mean under $1000. By scrounging used doors, windows, lumber, and other building materials, the cost can even be under $200. Lots of good building materials end up at the city dump and with a little effort you can get them while they are still an economic asset and before they become a solid waste problem. Sites where remodelling or construction are occurring are good spots to glean useful materials. Lots of time people will finish some remodelling and the used lumber or replaced windows or whatever will be piled out in the yard somewhere. They may have some use for it, but they may also be tired of looking at it and glad to give it away. When you can't find what you want for free, you can sometimes get it for half the new price at a business handling used business materials.

Libraries are full of information for the do-it-yourself shelter builder. It's nice to have had some building experience, but it's by no means essential. What you don't know or can't think up yourself, you can learn in the library or from a friend, You will need tools, but a surprising few can often do the job. You can get used tools at flea markets and garage and estate sales and you can often borrow them from friends. Some communities have tool lending libraries. Self built shelter is a major tactic in developing WEB affordable housing. Such shelters can be self-contained or they can make use of kitchen and bath facilities of an existing dwelling. Also, the shelter can be built and the main house facilities could be used temporarily until you have the time or funds to make your shelter self-contained.

During our time with the WEB, as we have previously indicated, we sometimes had a tough struggle to keep our housing costs low enough so our total budget was within the WEB. Finally after nine years we managed to add the final tactic, a self built shelter, to our bundle of tactics for WEB affordable housing. That bundle which includes doubling up, loft-building, non-profit renting and shelter building has now made it possible for us to live in a high rent community and still have our rent less than 30% of our combined WEB.

In the summer of 1987 we built a nine foot by twelve foot shelter behind a moderate density shared house in which we have a non-profit arrangement with the owner occupant. The shelter, though small, has a twelve foot high wall on the Southeast side which makes it easy to have a sleeping loft. There are large glass areas of recycled windows on the Southeast and Southwest walls providing ample passive solar heating. I designed the shelter so that it could be moved in case the building inspector finds it or we decide to locate elsewhere. The arrangement with the owner of the property is that we are renting the ground under the shelter on a square footage basis plus a little space around it where we may in a second stage build a composting toilet, solar heated shower, a Lorena Stove and whatever else is needed to make the shelter become self-contained. The total ground space covers only 3% of the lot. We already have a homemade chemical toilet which takes some of the pressure off the bathroom in the main house. We still pay our proportional share of the interest costs, insurance, taxes and utilities for the sharing of the kitchen in the main house. This cost would go down as the shelter became self-contained.

Building this shelter was the real breakthrough for us on the cost of housing. It cut our rent in half!! And we are delighted with it. We still have the conviviality of sharing meals and the garden with our housemates, but we have a beautiful and quiet little private space of our own in the middle of the vegetable garden. We call the shelter the Casita, or little house. A friend dubbed it the Condo-minimum. There are two crucial requirements for such a solution to the shelter problem: a generous and co-operative property owner willing to take a few legal risks, and uncomplaining neighbours. When we started building we weren't quite sure on the second requirement. This was one of the reasons we made it movable.

The shelter took a couple of weeks to design and a couple of months to build. Two months may seem long for a nine by twelve foot cabin. Two things made the actual construction slow. The shelter was built almost entirely of recycled materials and cleaning and re-milling some of these was pretty labour-intensive. The other time-taker was designing and building so the shelter could be disassembled for moving. No ground was excavated except for a small perimeter trench for the crushed rock foundation, so if we move the shelter the space would easily revert to garden.

Now for the good news. The total cash outlay for the Casita was $100.27. This low cost took some doing. Over the period of about a year I had accumulated scrap lumber and windows and I had yard space where I could store them. If you have such time and you keep your eyes open you'll come on materials pretty easily. If you have less time for collection of materials then you have to scrounge more intensely just before building or you have to buy more of your materials. I actually collected over half the materials about the last month before I built it. Some I even collected while I was building. Friends knew I was building and it was wonderful how many great things fell into my hands just as the need for them arose - roofing, insulation, flooring, carpeting and wiring. Using old lumber has some real advantages. One is that you aren't causing more trees to be cut down. Another is that old lumber is dry. It has done any shrinking or warping it is going to do. If it is straight when you pick it off the pile, it is going to stay straight. The low cost might have been even lower if I had been willing to scavenge around a little longer, but as it was, we made up the cash outlay in a month and a half of savings on rent. From now on the savings are all clear and living on the WEB has gotten much easier.

So, find yourself a non-profit minded property owner with friendly neighbours and a secluded back yard and build yourself some WEB affordable housing. You'll love it. It's a good feeling to have shelter consistent with sharing in a sustainable economy. Or put together another bundle of shelter tactics that suits your own desires and circumstances. Shelter is one of the tougher problems under a WEB, but it is not impossible. You may have to be outlaws to do it, but you'll have lots of good company. Hopefully, some of the ideas in this section will make it just a little easier for you.
  "Counter culture vs. Burger culture" by John Vidal, published by Macmillan £15.99, pp324.

This is a longer version of an article first published in New Economics Magazine. Issue 42. Summer 1997. Vine Court, 112-116, Whitechapel Rd. London E11JE. Our thanks to the author - Ed.

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