Rust Belt Real Estate: An Investment in Social Capital?

With the housing crash came a change in the meaning of our homes.  Perceived once as a solid investment—and as a place of domesticity—the American home is no longer simply about financial and physical security. Rather, homes are increasingly serving as place-makers in the formation of social capital by social entrepreneurs.

A few weeks ago I read in Freshwater Cleveland of a Near West Side Cleveland home that doubled as a concert hall of sorts. The Spares, a Chicago-based duet, were next on schedule for the Mechanic Street Concerts, and so I booked an email reservation. When that night came I entered to see a Victorian house made pleasantly old by a warmness tied to the grainy surroundings of the molding and built-ins. There was an intimate group, a fine spread of appetizers, and a set-up of seats before a make-shift stage near the home’s bay window.  Then the music started. It was a musical experience that I won’t forget—the intimacy, the melody echoing off the history of some Cleveland house…

And while the night was great I think the story here lies in the how it was allowed to be.  You see, Joel and Lynn, the  home owners, moved from DC where they had been to house concerts.  Looking to buy, the couple’s preference was not simply tied to a return on investment but about the utilization of the opportunity that comes with the Cleveland housing search; that is, a lot of space, some fine architecture, for not a lot of cash. They decided on a house in Ohio City partly because they could host house concerts there. And it was an opportunity that would have never been afforded if they had remained in the nation’s capital.

Now why? Why choose a house based partly on what can be perceived as a non-traditional reason? Because the idea of value in America is changing, and this is largely generational.  To wit: what was once a linear search from job to home ownership to raising a family has become a more organic—if not splattered—search for life meaning (i). Part of this is due to the broken illusion that came as the endpoint to what was considered “doing the right thing”.  From high school to plant to retirement beget a generation that went from high school to plant to unemployment. Education, of course, was  the key to avoiding many of our parent’s problems. But then came now: college grads in their 20’s and 30’s looking for work, or working for little cash not to mention little life affirmation.

So here we are: a generation of Rust Belters with an opportunity—if not a need—to find our mojo elsewhere. Social capital, then, via a DIY social entrepreneurship that muddies the past linearity that had divided work and play and home and outing. And if Rust Belt cities were smart they’d begin to market this in their fight for the working, creative class.  That is, homes on the cheap not just as a place to live, but homes on the cheap that beget an opportunity to create value where it still exists: namely, in life and life’s experiences.

(i) Said Seth Godin (h/t tara gentile):

The future [of the new economy] is about gigs and assets and art and an ever-shifting series of partnerships and projects. It will change the fabric of our society along the way. No one is demanding that we like the change, but the sooner we see it and set out to become an irreplaceable linchpin, the faster the pain will fade, as we get down to the work that needs to be (and now can be) done.

–By Richey Piiparinen

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