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The Housing Bomb: 5 Questions With Nils Peterson

Housing Bomb book cover
NC State’s Nils Peterson explores the environmental and societal impact of the modern subdivision.

Are we building our way to ruin? That’s the premise of a provocatively titled new book released this month: The Housing Bomb: Why Our Addiction to Houses Is Destroying the Environment and Threatening Our Society.

Lead author Dr. Nils Peterson, associate professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at NC State, focuses his research on the intersections between human and natural systems, including the modern subdivision.

The Abstract interviewed Peterson for an insider’s look at The Housing Bomb.

Your title is a twist on the 1968 book “The Population Bomb” by Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich. Why did you choose to frame it in those terms?

Paul’s book, and its hyperbolic title, played a major role in turning the tide of human overpopulation. We thought, if it worked once, why not try it again with today’s primary threat to sustainability? The Population Bomb was instrumental in waking up the world to how skyrocketing human population growth rates could endanger human quality of life and even life itself. Today all developed countries have fertility rates at or below replacement levels and many large developing nations do. The major threat to sustainability is shifting to per-capita consumption, and that consumption is expressed primarily through households.

A bomb is an apt metaphor for housing trends, because rapid declines in numbers of people sharing homes are leading to explosive growth in housing. The physical footprint of each U.S. house more than doubled over the last 60 years, increasing the impact of each home. Rampant housing speculation has left “zombie subdivisions” in otherwise idyllic locations around the globe including the Yellowstone area in the United States and many regions of Spain. Boom and bust cycles in real-estate values have obliterated retirement savings of millions around the world. Demographic trends including aging, increased wealth, more rights for women, increased freedom for young singles and better education all drive down household size and drive up house size.

In the book, you write about an “addiction” to houses. Explain why you chose that metaphor.

Addictions reflect compulsive needs for an activity or a substance, despite knowing that it harms an individual’s health, mental state or social life. The obsession with huge houses located far from urban centers, and the use of them as a substitute for retirement savings, only seem reasonable because we are addicted to unsustainable housing. Reasonable investors advocate “balanced” portfolios, but almost every portfolio is heavily biased towards real estate because we are addicted to single family homes. The subprime mortgage crisis highlighted how millions of Americans invested irrationally in housing. City, state and national institutions ranging from traditional zoning to subsidized suburban infrastructure and tax breaks feed this addiction, rather than moderating it.

What policy changes would you advocate to mitigate harm to society and the environment?

The book highlights critical changes needed in housing markets, in cities, states and at the national and international levels. Some examples include requiring true cost of ownership figures (that include energy and transportation costs) when houses are sold, instituting zoning that makes conservation subdivisions a “use-by-right” and investing in complete streets.

Short of giving up their houses, are there steps homeowners can take to reduce their impact on the environment?

Probably the most important step is taking the time to figure out how they can make their own home and community more sustainable. The Housing Bomb dedicates three full chapters to answering this question.  The good news is that the average homeowner can save up to $10,000 per year with small changes requiring only about $3,000 in initial expenses. The bad news is that there isn’t one simple answer for everyone. The sheer volume of solutions explains why the industrial sector has improved its energy efficiency four times faster than the residential sector. Industry can hire employees to sort through the information and carry out simple fixes that save them bundles of money. Similarly, at the community level, green development will help cities compete for job makers, often referred to as the “creative class,” build their tax base and improve citizens’ quality of life. The key is that making housing more sustainable requires investing in efficiency at the household level and planning for community success at the city level, not sacrifice.

What do you foresee happening if nothing is done?

That’s impossible. Smart cities know their future depends on addressing the problems highlighted in The Housing Bomb, and they are already furiously investing in complete streets, amending zoning to allow conservation subdivisions, enacting “anti-snob” zoning, building greenways, directing public investments into city cores and promoting mixed use development. Individual householders, states and nations, however, might miss the boat. Householders who don’t capitalize on making their homes more sustainable will both miss an opportunity to solve our generation’s environmental crisis and just plain be poorer. Every single solution we document saves householders money. States and nations who fail to address the housing bomb will suffer from decreased economic competitiveness from two sources: 1) less efficient economies, and 2) a huge health-care drag created by skyrocketing obesity rates. That’s right, our obesity epidemic is in large part due to patterns in the distribution of housing that create car-dependent society.