Choosing a Home for a Resilient Future

Steve's block in Springfield (Source: the author)

Steve's block in Springfield (Source: the author)

When I was preparing to leave home for college in the summer of 1982, all I heard from my adult friends was that the future was going to be all about math and science; "Take math young man!" It took me all four years of my undergraduate study and two years in Spain to overcome that well-intended and prescient advice: In this future we're living, the gods of ones and zeroes rule, but that hasn't changed the fact that my role therein inclines more toward the liberal arts, and swimming against the current has served me, my abilities, and my inclinations quite well. Advice is a dangerous thing (and a C- in Statistics can replace a "UW" in Calculus as a general education requirement).

The preferences which led me to purchase the wonderful home in which I now reside might not be nearly as significant to you as the alternatives whose rejection they embodied if your circumstances, aesthetics, and vision of the future are as substantially different from mine as my intellectual abilities are from a computer genius.

My daughters had spent the first three years following our divorce living with their mother. By unanimous acclamation, it was time for a change. My two-bedroom apartment was only just adequate for the three of us. I had saved a little money in the preceding years and it was a buyer’s market. I had two particular volumes of James Howard Kunstler reverberating through my mind as my daughters and I began our search for a new home in 2008: The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency.

There was no doubt we would stay in Springfield, Massachusetts; both of my daughters were well into their teenage years and neither had any inclination to abandon their high school. I had no desire to leave either. My heart had always been in my hometown and I have always been driven to make it a better place; most of my friends had abandoned it long ago and that certainly didn't seem to be helping the community much at all.

By the standards of most communities, housing in Springfield is remarkably inexpensive. Today, the median home price is around $150,000. In 2008, things were even better for homebuyers. My bank pre-approved me for a $200,000 loan. My goal was to sneak in under $100,000 and I had a strategy to do so.

Of the three neighborhoods with walkable commercial areas and high quality historic homes I was focused on, each had pockets just outside of their most desirable streets which had all of the advantages of the more expensive areas but where fear and too much proximity to, let's call it, economic and racial "diversity" caused values to plummet. I don't want to be misunderstood here: None of these neighborhoods are "Springfield in Name Only" like Park Drive along Forest Park in what is for all intents and purposes in the posh suburb of Longmeadow. These are racially and economically diverse urban communities, but my goal was to go one tiny step further into urban pioneering both to be just a little bit contrarian and to save a boatload of cash.

The restored dining room in Steve's house

The restored dining room in Steve's house

My real estate agent had been recommended by a friend who knew that I would be annoyed by anyone trying to steer me away from the funkier spaces and lower prices to which I was drawn. I knew I didn't need to focus too much on being sure my home had proximity to transit — a must for my daughters at the time and for me in the future — because all of the core neighborhoods I was looking at sit between the hub of the system and the distant areas the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority seeks to serve.

After months of spending a few hours every weekend looking at some truly incredible homes, my daughters had started to give them nicknames to remember which one was which. One Sunday I went on my own to an open house in the downtown neighborhood where our apartment was located. It was on the hippest street in the "Metro Center" neighborhood as the planning department calls it: Mattoon Street. Don't get me wrong, it takes a special kind of person to live in such a dense and diverse place; but it also takes around a quarter of a million dollars. Still a bargain (in Boston these places would go for millions) but too rich for my blood.

I did bump into a friend at the open house however. I told him how fantastic I thought the house was but that it was way out of the "what I'm willing to pay" range. It just so happened that he knew of a place that was on the market and was built by the same builders who constructed some of the homes on Mattoon Street. I hadn't seen it because it was listed as a commercial and not a residential property. The owners were only asking $115,000.

A couple of lawyers were dissolving their firm and neither was interested in keeping the office. The building had many of the features my Kunstler-addled brain desired. There was a central chimney: I had no desire to waste energy and money by heating up all that masonry with a fire only to know it was only warming the great outdoors. The home had been neglected but it hadn't been bastardized or gutted; nearly all of its historic features were intact and only the basement apartment (which we called Guantánamo) was unlivable. By its design and by its location in a commercial zone, the structure could be used as residential, commercial, or retail space, or any combination thereof. Being in one of the city's oldest historic districts wasn't just aesthetically pleasing, it also had its advantages in terms of flexibility regarding certain municipal codes.

The building did have some issues, however. I made a number of visits to the property but never made a formal offer. After a month or two, the attorneys who owned the building asked me if I was still interested in buying the building and if I would meet with them. I brought a friend along to look at some of the issues with the structure. As one of the attorneys took us through the structure he commented: "This guy is crazy. He has two daughters. This place is the Wild Wild West after dark." Only after we sat down in the conference room (soon to be my daughter's bedroom) did he realize that I wasn't a contractor; I was the "crazy guy"! I made an offer of $90,000 and they accepted.

Upstairs at Steve's house

Upstairs at Steve's house

We're coming up on 10 years in this house. Well, I am anyway. My daughters are living on their own now, both in urban environments, still neither one with a driver's license. One of them lives just a block away. I am remarried and my wife has transformed the weed patch in the backyard, which the lawyers called  "potential for 6 parking spaces" into a wonderful garden our neighbors call "la granja". "Guantánamo" was transformed into a really cool apartment, which has housed 7 different family members in various moments of need, and even Chuck Marohn on two different occasions. I've taken steps to improve the energy efficiency of the home as I've worked through eradicating all of the structure's deficiencies.

It just so happens that the building was located not only in one of those "only a crazy guy would live there" pockets, but it was also right in between two of my three targeted neighborhoods: The old Italian South End, and the downtown. A tornado ripped through the area three years after I bought the place. It did a number on my chimney, but quite a few nearby buildings got it much worse. The aftermath has seen a flurry of activity from little things like new ethnic eateries to compliment the Italian restaurants, delis, and markets, to a billion dollar resort being constructed by MGM a stone's throw from my backyard. The once vacant historic home across the street, originally built with the cash from a patent for the first wrench, has been redeveloped and painstakingly restored. The empty female seminary next to it is being rehabbed into a shared workspace.

This neighborhood will always be a work in progress. I didn't purchase the home with an eye toward resale value, but rather as a place to live well inexpensively and to use for income, if necessary, in my retirement. My only pressing need for a car has been for work and so I foresee doing away with that expense in my golden years. Union Station is a 15 minute walk (and an even shorter bus ride with door-to-door service); the new Hartford line will give me 12 chances a day to get to Grand Central Station. In my choice of home, I tried to find a property flexible enough to handle my changing family's needs while at the same time giving us stability and a real sense of place. So far it has worked out well.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo unless otherwise noted.)


Steve Shultis is a founding member of Strong Towns who lives in an older neighborhood in Springfield, MA. He discusses his own experience raising a family in a less affluent neighborhood on his blog. Steve walks the walk.