Building a house of cards in the rural West

In places like Joseph, Ore., land values are through the roof, immense palaces are being erected for people who only live there part-time. Ordinary people are out of work, and only a struggling handful of year-round residents are likely to remain. When will it fall apart?
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In places like Joseph, Ore., land values are through the roof, immense palaces are being erected for people who only live there part-time. Ordinary people are out of work, and only a struggling handful of year-round residents are likely to remain. When will it fall apart?

The carnival, Joseph Days rodeo stock, and most of the cowboys have gone down the road, the porta potties are gone, and the streets of Joseph are clean. It seems like time to return to "local" business. But local and global get so mixed up these days that it might all be an illusion. Take the stock market, national housing trends, and word of the first real McMansion in Wallowa County. Last week the Dow Jones dipped over 500 points amid reports of mortgage failures in the normal (rather than "sub-prime") market in California. Some Californians are walking away from houses that are no longer worth the prices they paid for them (while "luxury" houses in the $5-50 million range continue to gain value!). Nationally, overall housing starts slowed; locally, D.R. Johnson closed lumber mills -- including the mill in Wallowa -- across eastern Oregon due to falling demand. Meanwhile, foundation forms for our first 15,000-square-foot house went up off Crow Creek Road between Enterprise and Joseph. It's no secret that housing has been a driver of the national economy over the last several years. Or that housing equity loans have primed the entire consumer market. It's a little harder to get a grasp on the total housing picture. We've heard stories of rapid appreciation of house values in Portland, Bend, and, more recently, Wallowa County. We know someone who bought a Portland house for $35,000 thirty years ago and sold it for a $500,000 today, or the same story in Wallowa County with slightly lower numbers. If we have paid attention, we also know that houses -- even entire farms -- in many places in the Midwest can be had for the price of a lot at Wallowa Lake. Huge differences in total net worth of families across the country have been created by recent housing trends. Housing has been a major factor in the national economy for at least 60 years, since the end of World War II, the GI Bill, Levittown and the growth of suburban America. Mortgage interest tax deductions on first and second homes have made housing a good investment. Tax forgiveness on capital gains, once restricted to a one-time home sale at age 55, is now available every two years, further spurring house buying, building, swapping, and speculating. Finally, baby boomers' retirement has fueled the housing market, and especially the second home market in the recreational West. Millions of 55-60-year-olds are cashing in the retirement plan and/or the urban or suburban home and joining us in "God's Country" here and across the West. No small number of these boomers are reaping the additional benefits of homes and assets their dying parents are leaving them. With the erosion of the inheritance tax, boomers are becoming millionaires by the millions (well -- the number of official millionaires in America rose by only 275,000 in 2005!). Why not a second, or third, or fourth home? The consequence of all this is that Wallowa County has a mill closing and wage earning families leaving due to one set of national trends, and real-estate prices going skyward and Disney- California-Bend-style McMansions the rule of the day due to other national trends. (One would think that good architects would leap at the chance to design innovative area appropriate places; it must be more lucrative to recycle what's sold further south. Which is, of course, another entire topic!) In the short term, local builders are doing extremely well and there is a general up-tic in the local economy (underemployment rate at 4.7 percent in June, the lowest since current statistical system started in 1990). On the other hand, most of the houses are second or seasonal homes, prices are forcing young families with children out, fewer people live here year-around, and school enrollments continue to drop. Guesses are that one in four or at most five houses in Wallowa County is now a second or seasonal home. Are we headed towards Aspen with one in four of us hanging on the year around? So what are we to make of our first "20-wide" (as one of my friends dubbed it; a "double-wide" being approximately 1500 square feet)? It's a house bigger than two normal Joseph city lots. It's on a chunk of agricultural land that will forthwith never generate enough income to carry it agriculturally. As such, it's only the largest of many houses on ag land that are doing the same. So what happens to our agriculture? Our schools? Our year-around community? I think that this McMansion is the flagship for a system breakdown, a literal house of cards. Grandpa only had two or three sets of clothes and we seem to need dozens. He had one car and we need several. One house in one place for most of his life and we need three in three places with frequent changes. Or some of us "need" these things-while a few on the other end scramble for one car, house, school, job. And those of us left in a shrinking "middle America" look for a life that makes sense without all the toys and impositions on landscape and community that might just destroy them.


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