Geographic Inequality

Steve’s folks called with good news over the weekend. His mom’s brother and wife are going to retire just 20 minutes away from them in North Carolina. Steve’s folks retired to the area from Cleveland about ten years ago, and we’ve always been worried about their distance from extended family. Now, they have people to spend holidays with, when they can’t make the trip up to us.

They sent me a link on Zillow to their new house, so I spent a little time checking out the other homes in the area. Those homes — perfectly nice places with a couple of bathrooms and three bedrooms — are a quarter of the price of homes in my neck of the woods. This is why people are leaving the metropolitan regions, like Chicago and New York.

Not really a big deal, I suppose. If North Carolina can offer people a better quality of life than the older cities, then good for them. Families, like mine, that need alternative schooling options for disabled children and have work tied to the big cities can never go there, but there are many families who are more flexible. So, good for them, right?

However, if some areas of the country are homes of the rich and others are homes of the middle class, working class, and retirees, then it does open up some political problems.

Imagine if the representatives from some states become advocates not for the interests of the particular local industries, ie Iowa farmers, West Virginia coal miners, but for entire economic classes, ie New York Rich People and North Carolina Retirees. Then political debates would be less about opposing commercial interests and directly about class. I suppose it is that way now, but those economic tensions could be more obvious and competitive than they are already.

Any discussion about changing the electoral college or representation in Senate would also become strongly charged with these economic tension.

Sidenote — If we limit the voice of small population states in the electoral college and the Senate, it might make affairs more democratic, but it would also mean a massive disinvestment in the entire center of the country. There would be no federal projects for highway construction in Nebraska, say or farm subsidies in Iowa. There might be really cheap homes out there, but there would be no way to drive to those houses.

The growing affluence of big cities is going to have long term political implications.


Before, During, and After Home Renovations

So, we’ve been doing home renovations for two months, while trying very hard to keep up life as normal. Work, school, family. It all had to continue, while pretending that we weren’t living in a dust bowl. It was constant static, an aching tooth, background noise. I can’t imagine ever doing something like this again.

Just a reminder here’s what the kitchen looked like before. (More pictures here.) Dark. Orange. 80s.


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Then we demo-ed place. Took down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. Took down the ceiling in the family room. Took out the old doorway between the kitchen and the family room (formerly a screened in porch.)


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Here’s the now…


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PS. I know that we need new furniture, but we spent all the moneys. Next year. And I know that the mirror in the dining room should be centered over the sideboard (a dumpster dive find, so that’s why it looks like shit) and not centered in the center of the room, but we haven’t had a chance to fix it yet.

PPS. And we need one knob on a cabinet and one more stool from Pottery Barn.

Contractor Blues

So, we are nearly finished redoing the kitchen and ground floor of our house. The remaining issue — the TV hookup — is going to require a visit from the cable guy tomorrow morning. In the past 24 hours, I have learned volumes about the exciting world of HDMI cables. I’ll add that to the vast amount of arcane information that I’ve picked up in the past six months.

Because when I am about to spend a shitload of money, I do what I do best — I research the hell out of it.

Yes, we spent all the moneys on this renovation, but I still did it tens of thousands of dollars cheaper than other families in town. First, I came up with the perfect design for the room by going to five or six different kitchen designers and stealing their ideas. I pinned hundreds of pictures in Pinterest and watching hours of HGTV.  Then, I found a cabinet wholesaler to get me the right price, and I had him redesign the plans three times until it worked perfectly.

Then, I found a contractor who wasn’t a darling of the rich families in this town. Rich the Contractor was cheaper than the town groupies, but working with him required me to do a lot of supervision of the subcontractors. Rich did a great job with the woodwork and installing the cabinets, but everybody else — the plumbers, electrician, tile guy, sheet rockers, floor guy, fireplace guy, painter, architect — needed oversight and sometimes, I had to pay them separately, because the contractor didn’t want any liability for their work.

I could probably run any kitchen renovation in any home right now. I just got a PhD in kitchen repairs. I briefly thought about going into the home flipping business with Rich the Contractor, because I don’t suck at this. He was hinting at it, but that’s not my path.

And Rich the Contractor is thinking about moving into home flipping, because his job is ending. My guess is that our kitchen is his last job. His best worker left last week, when he was scooped by a big corporation that could pay him ten dollars more per hour and give him benefits. Rich can’t find anyone to replace him.

His business is barely profitable. Rich spends $24,000 per year on health insurance for himself, his wife, and his two 20-something kids. He can’t compete with the guys who get their health insurance through their wives or go without. He insists on following the letter of the law for everything, so he pays tons for workplace insurance, workman’s comp, social security. He gets inspections and follows local codes. He hires other guys like himself — middle aged, white guys who live in the area — to do the subcontracting work.

When it came time to do the painting, Rich recommended one of those middle-aged, white guys from the area. His quote was a $1,000 more than the Latino from Newark. Carlos and his friends did a fabulous job and were in and out of here in a day.

Like the contractor from Murphy Brown who never left, Rich has been here for two months. Whenever I needed a break from work, I would go upstairs and pick a fight with him about politics. He’s a Trump voter, so there was lots of fodder. In fact, Rich gave me a question or two to ask the high profile subject that I interviewed last month.

On top of losing his career due to competition from big corporations, more agile immigrant businesses, and his aging knees, his kids are struggling. One is doing okay at a local state college getting a degree in communication. He says that she’ll find a job. But his son, who wanted to be a cop, can’t find a job without having a family connection in the business, so he’s waiting tables and living at home.

Rich is ticked off about a lot of things, so he wasn’t really able to sort out how he can’t be upset at the high costs of health insurance on the one hand and then resist efforts to reform the system on the other. You don’t have to go to West Virginia or Kansas to meet people who aren’t thriving in the new economy.

The “Before” Pictures

We moved into this suburban split level just over six years ago. In that time, we pulled down the wallpaper in most, but not all, of the rooms. We did some “unfun” renovations — a new roof, a retaining wall, a boiler. But we haven’t had the time or the money to do much beyond those “unfun” but necessary renovations. We are still using furniture that was hauled off the street when we were grad students. Other pieces are hand-me downs. The kitchen table was once in my grandparents’ Bronx apartment.

Next month, we’re doing fun renovations – an entirely new kitchen and a revamped family room. Here are the “before” pictures. I have a video that I’m posting on Instagram. Click on the image in the sidebar.

The New Tastes of Millenials

Millenials aren’t buying cars or new houses. Derek Thompson and the Atlantic staff have written several articles on this topic in the past couple of years. In the latest article, they recount the stats on home and car ownership for the 20-something, early 30’s age group. “The homeownership rate among adults younger than 35 fell by 12 percent, and nearly 2 million more of them—the equivalent of Houston’s population—were living with their parents…” They eventually want to own a home, but in a smaller city with a walkable downtown. Same goes for cars.

Now, why are millenials not buying homes and cars? Is it about consumer preferences — they don’t want to live in suburban sprawl — or it is because they can’t afford those items? Thompson says it’s probably a mixture of both.

I’m not entirely sure that tastes have changed that much. Yesterday, I went to two birthday parties and ended up talking a nice subset of millenials.  One woman just moved out here to the suburbs from New York City, because she wanted a backyard and good schools for her very young children. Later in the day, I talked with four other young people who were firmly commited to urban living, but they didn’t have kids yet. Tastes change when children arrive.

I think that tastes in cars have changed over the decades. I hate spending money on transportation. One of our cars is 1997 Toyota Corolla, and we’ll keep driving it until the bottom rusts out. I would much rather spend money on travel and entertainment than a car.

Thompson and the guys for Vox have written a lot about their own preferences for walkable downtowns, bike paths, denser developments, and public transportation. Truthfully, I like those sorts of living arrangements, too. If you throw in good schools, I would live in that millenial utopia, too. The trouble is that they don’t really exist in this area. Local towns actively block the new construction of apartments and townhouses. Not that there is much space for those buildings anyway. There is no support for a massive investment in new public transportation systems, which are incredibly costly.

Local politics and fiscal realities will undermine the millenial utopia. It’s too bad, because I would like to ride my bike to the supermarket.


We’re a quick 20-minute train ride to Hoboken. Last Saturday, I ditched the family and met some friends for a glass of wine along the side of the Hudson River. The exterior of the train station is covered in amazing oxidized copper.


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