Starter Cars and Starter Homes — Future Extinct Species?

An article from Discourse Magazine this month has given me pause. The article, “Starter Cars go the Way of Starter Homes,” discusses the reasons why both affordable options are fading commodities. The article made me realize just how important our voices — our Baby Boomer, Third Chapter Living voices — are right now. Only through advocacy can we help change the outlook and bring back affordable ways to live our best, most vibrant lives.

Why Care About Cheap Cars and Houses?

Most people think of young 20-somethings when they think sub-compact car or small one- or two-bedroom house or apartment. And while that’s true of that demographic, it’s also true of a huge segment of older adults trying to balance both their budgets and their lives so that both are healthy.

Case in point: Auto News recently reported that the Mitsubishi Mirage is being discontinued in the United States — the only sub-$20,000 new vehicle currently on the market. Sure, vehicles like the Nissan Versa claim to start at $17,000 — but good luck finding a dealership with a stripped down model. Entry level cars are being removed to make room for more and larger options for consumers. In other words, it’s all about profit. Even the smaller cars still in the market have grown subtly larger over time, with comparably larger price tags.

In our conversations about electric vehicles (EVs) and environmentally-friendly building materials, keep in mind the need for creative alternatives for lower income and fixed income users. “Perfect” or even “better” environmental solutions are likely more expensive products.

What Does All This Have to Do With Houses?

The disappearance of the smaller home, and the lack of inventory of such smaller options as ADUs, tiny houses, and co-housing complexes, is similar to what’s happening in the automotive industry. As with small cars, which boomed a few decades ago, the production of new-build small houses has been in decline for decades. Small builders who might have concentrated on smaller housing options are driven out of the industry of an increasingly large, corporate system run by companies dealing in large McMansions and the like. Coupled with local zoning laws and other regulations, building small is not rewarded, and a housing shortage results.

According to the Addison Del Mastro, author of the Discourse Magazine article, the disappearance of a solid entry point for consumers into the housing market means that gaining a foothold in the housing market becomes increasingly difficult. Let’s extrapolate for a minute. The lack of starter homes becomes a giant domino effect. If young people can’t buy starter homes due to lack of inventory, and then sell those homes to buy larger homes, the end result can be older adults without the means to right size for their Third Chapter years. Sometimes it also can mean that older adults stay in homes that are not age ready — and they may or may not have the funds to make their homes safe places of refuge. This can snowball into health challenges for Baby Boomers.

Why? And What to Do About It?

So why is “bigger, better” the advertising slogan dominating both the housing and the automotive industry? It’s easy to point to corporate greed, and to a large extent, that is a large contributor. And as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, when “not in my back yard” zoning regulations collide with large corporations wanting to make huge profits, the result is the disappearance of “bottom-rung” housing. But change can happen, and it can happen through deregulation — or at least a CHANGE in regulation. Reforming zoning laws — and involving communities in their own housing reform decisions in ways that help residents understand that diverse and equitable housing benefits everyone — is the task ahead.

Public transportation is part of the equation as well. No starter car, or the decision to give up driving as one ages, means the demand for reliable and comprehensive bus service can be expected to stay strong. Affordability becomes a factor for where you live and how you get there. Connecting the issues takes work. The young and the old once again can be effective allies and advocates.

Become involved in your local community’s efforts to expand housing and transportation options. Make your voice heard in effecting change for the benefit of all. When we all live in safe, age ready housing, we all can thrive together.

Third Chapter Living celebrates, challenges, informs and promotes conversations about housing issues affecting the Baby Boomer Generation. Check out our website to learn more about our work on aging-in-place options. The author, Reese Fayde, is a dedicated problem solver and skills development coach. She’s passionate about working with change-makers — individuals committed to transforming the status quo, whether it’s in their industry, community, or organization.

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