I’ve had several conversations about what the most recent housing crisis will mean for American culture and that persistent, driving dream. Note well that the Great Depression of our past was similarly marked by foreclosures and a national conversation about how to protect homeowners. Out of this discussion came a more convinced country that homes were our greatest assets and that we must defend homeownership. The government created the thirty year mortgage, provided subsidies for suburban living, backed home loans, and created an agency to rate neighborhood values and stability to inform loan policies. With housing once again in a state of collapse, what will our national debate bring this time? My father is optimistic that we will no longer look to our houses to provide us with capital leverage but to provide us with a home. I am a bit more skeptical. Housing construction is still read as an index of growth and renting is still, on average, more expensive than owning. Anything less than owning land in a nice zip code is considered indecent and perhaps immoral.
But what does the home mean for the 35% of U.S. households that participate in food gardening? In the New York Times Magazine today, Peggy Orenstein made a compelling argument that some of the zeal for the household scale farm comes from a group embracing the ideas of “femivorism.” Femivorism provides stay-at-home moms the opportunity to find autonomy and satisfying labor at home (in addition, of course, to the satisfaction of having a family). It is a way for families to come closer to sustainability while negotiating gender equity. Orenstein warns that even the wires of a chicken coop can be confining in the end but overall she seems impressed with the efforts of homemakers to completely challenge the idea of home. I too admire that radical rethinking and I think it offers a window of hope for Americans to save the meaning of home, the process of housing. But my skepticism always finds a reason to worry. While I think it is important work to reclaim our homes, our foods chains, and our families I am worried it represents a retreat from public life. As Orenstein notes, it is often the earnings of the husband, modest but critical, which makes possible this movement. But this is not always possible. Families with less money, single parents, renters, and other groups face a huge obstacle when it comes to home farming. I worry this obstacle will only continue to grow if we stand by and allow our public goods to be privatized, watching the death of our public safety net, the same net that was shakily born out of the Great Depression. We must not value the homemaker over the service worker. We must not forget that the need to fight for labor protections, a fair minimum wage, and other social services still exists. This steady informalization of the workforce is something UC Berkeley Professor Ananya Roy has termed the feminization of labor. It seems the house is now the respectable place for the feminist female to occupy herself, whereas the workforce is for less valued members of society. I certainly do not blame the various new food movements for these developments. I blame all of us. We must find an effective way to give everyone the opportunity not necessarily to own houses and create capital but to make a home in the fullest sense of the word while supporting a strong public sector.