Living Simple, Green, and Mortgage-Free

An Interview with Shay Salomon

by Randy Peyser

Shay Salomon is the author of "Little House on a Small Planet: Simple Homes, Cozy Retreats, and Energy Efficient Possibilities" (Lyons Press 2006). A carpenter based in Tucson, Salomon encourages homeowners to let go of the idea that success means owning a 3000+ sq. ft. McMansion, and instead, guides individuals to create smaller, cozy, nest-like spaces that support them in their spirituality and creativity, that are environmentally and socially sound, and that also help to drastically reduce or eliminate one's mortgage.

Whether building from the ground up, or remodeling an existing space, Salomon offers a variety of solutions for creating a simpler, green, joy-based life and affordable living space.

Randy Peyser: The American Dream promises us that if we work hard, we will make lots of money. One of the major things we'll do with that money is to buy a big house. Why do you advocate the building of smaller living spaces?

Shay Salomon: I advise people to build smaller homes because it's good for the planet, as well as for us as individuals. I discovered this whole small house movement where thousands of people, for financial, spiritual, psychological, and social reasons, decided to scale way down to improve their lives. It turns out that scaling down is also the ecological choice - it's the green choice, to live in a lot less space, or to live in a space that is already created.

Randy: How so?

Shay: There are 10.4 million vacant houses at any one time in the United States that remain empty for more than six months out of the year. This includes homes that are up for rent, but that no one is renting; overpriced luxury homes that no one is buying; investment homes; and multiple residences that are owned by one owner who obviously can't live in all those homes at the same time. About of this total is also attributed to migrant worker housing.

Statistically, this means that there are about 40 homes for every registered homeless person in the country. I used to think there was a housing shortage, but there is no housing shortage, there's a sharing shortage; we have a lot of houses; we're just not sharing them properly. We have so much housing right now that we could easily not build another thing until our population doubles. The big question for us as a nation is: how are we going to share our houses when we've created a system whereby our housing determines our class system? We reward people for their hard work by making them believe they can then buy a bigger house.

In the past, people believed that the reason there was hunger was because there was scarcity of food, and now we know that is not true. The issue concerns distribution, and the same thing is true of housing. There isn't a lack of housing. And housing isn't expensive because of scarcity. We've created false scarcity so that housing prices can stay up because the banks are holding all these mortgages. The banks don't want the housing prices to drop. It would be an economic mess if housing prices dropped.

We're supposed to be in this free market economy but we really are not. In a normal free market economy, when you have that much of an excess of a product, the price comes down. While housing prices are beginning to come down, we've had this glut of houses for years. On top of that, we're living in 4 times as much space per person as we used to in the '50's. In 1950, the average person had 250-350 square feet each, and now the average person has 800-1000 sq. ft. each.

The biggest determinant of house efficiency is how much space each person lives in. People in Manhattan use much less energy than people anywhere else in the country. They use about 1/8 of the B.T.U.'s of the average American. The less space you have to maintain and worry about, the more space you have for developing your consciousness. Time and space are related, so the more space you have to worry about, the less time you have to just "be" and develop other things. There is only so much time and space. If you take up too much space, you're not going to have as much time. It sounds woo-woo, but it's really not. If you have too much space, you won't have as much time.

If we chose to go back to a modest level of conception and space use, we could stop building, and focus on maintaining the buildings we already have instead. One survey shows that 30% of all buildings are poorly maintained. I don't blame people for not maintaining their houses; they're too busy going to work to pay their mortgages.

Randy: Can you tell us how we can live mortgage-free?

Shay: Yes. You can live mortgage-free if you make a life plan to eliminate the mortgage on your house quickly, or create rental income on your property that covers most, or all, of your mortgage. For example, you can build a small guest house and move into your backyard. I have a friend who literally dug a hole in her backyard and built a subterranean house by herself. She rents out her main house, which covers the vast bulk of her mortgage. This means she can be a writer, which is something she always wanted to be. Previously, she was never able to do that because she had to pay too much for her mortgage, which meant she never had the time to write because she was always working.

If you want to live mortgage-free, I suggest this exercise: Record the amount of time you spend in each room. Most people find that there is a room that they almost never go into. Rent that room out, or divide up your house and cut off the parts that you don't use and rent it out as student housing. This idea is supported by the State of California. In 1999, Accessory Dwelling Unit Legislation was passed, whereby the California State Legislature decreed that municipalities have to make it easier for individuals and their families to create guest units in their backyards or to cut apartments out of their house. This legislation was passed so that the mass transportation people could start to have the kind of density that is required in order to provide mass transportation. Mass transportation helps lower CO2 emissions, but it cannot be provided efficiently if the population is sprawled out.

That is another reason why New Yorkers are the most efficient Americans in the country - they live close enough together to not have to use cars. Santa Cruz County has cooperated completely with the legislation. They wave building fees and give out plans. They really help people build accessory dwelling units. Then there are other municipalities that are dragging their feet. Citizens who get involved, and who can promote the idea locally with the help of the state, can be a real vehicle for stopping the sprawl in the outlying areas and for creating residences that are perfectly sufficient for our happiness - and they're much better for us because we don't pay as much in utility bills or our mortgage.

Randy: What about homes with formal living rooms that never get used? They just sit there. They're empty space with fancy furniture.

Shay: Absolutely. There are many things that have been invented by the construction industry to satisfy our egos or our desire to fit in with an image of a family from some other time and place. But they don't really fit our real lives.

Randy: How much space do you live in?

Shay: I built a little 400 square foot house that I absolutely love, but a friend is renting it. My father wanted to scale way down, so he sold me his 1000 sq. ft. bungalow. I realized I could rent out 2/3 of it. I kept just the back part of it for myself, and I rent it out to a good friend at a below market rate. My partner has a tiny photography studio. So we basically have a bedroom and an office. I live in about 200-250 sq. ft., and I share the kitchen with the person who rents the house. Even with the kitchen included, I live in less than 300 sq. ft. I live very simply. So I'm freed up now to write a book, or do things I want to do.

Randy: What about the big problem that many of us have, which is the accumulation of "stuff?"

Shay: It's a huge issue. About of the increase in house size is due to the amount of accumulation of stuff, and the accumulation of stuff that's bigger. One simple thing you can do is to go away on a long trip. When you come back you might find that you didn't miss most of those things, and you are still happy. Put things in boxes. If you can't remember what's in them, then get rid of them. I'm something of a packrat when it comes to tools and materials, which I keep in my carport. I am trying to learn to trust the Universe and give stuff up and know that it will come back to me if I really need it.

Jay Shea, who is an artist in the Small House Society says, "Whenever you have something in your artwork that is unnecessary to the piece of artwork, it detracts from the artwork, and your life is the same way. If you have anything in your life that is not necessary, it's detracting from your life."

Randy: Do small houses work for everybody, or just for artsy type, spiritual people?

Shay: There is a list serve for the Small House Society and you'll find all kinds of people there - from people who believe in social justice, to people who just like small furniture. Some people are architects who want a small space that can be very well controlled. One architect told me that it's harder to make something look nice when it's big than it is when it's small. The Small House Society helps people realize that they have enough.

Randy: Using your model, what kind of rooms do you recommend?

Shay: I recommend a process more than a prescription, whereby you start thinking about what you think you need, and you start living inside your body. Once you start living inside your body, you get in touch with what you really need.

Randy: What do you mean by "living inside your body?"

Shay: Living inside your body means you are aware of the materials that you are touching during the day, the sights that you're seeing, and how these are affecting your feelings and your thoughts. It's getting tiring for people to always be touching objects that are industrially made. Simple things, like moving a shovel and dirt or touching mud with your hands, does something to your awareness. It settles and grounds people in a way that I think we're really craving.

Once you are living in your body, walk around your house and think about what parts of your house you never go into. What parts of your house do you really like to be in? Most people who do this discover that there are only two or three places in their whole house that they really like to be in, and that if they closed off the whole rest of their house, they wouldn't miss it. If they are building a new house or remodeling their house, they may realize that they just like to be in that one sunny spot, so they restructure their house around it.

Randy: What are the different kinds of housing that you do?

Shay: Mostly, I try to engage in projects that maximize the amount of education and spiritual growth that people can experience while they are building. Randy: Do you build entirely green?

Shay: Yes, but here is a consideration: Straw bale houses and adobe houses are great. Solar design is great. But it's like health food - if you are overeating, it's not going to be good for you. In the same way, if you already have too many houses in your nation and they're infringing on the rights of other animals to have any habitat, or if you have a huge straw bale house, it's far less efficient than having a small apartment. This is a challenge for green builders. We want to do the right thing, but we're typically approached by people who have the financial means to build huge houses at the end of a long forest road. That's a very inefficient and damaging thing to do for the environment.

Randy: So many of us have taken on mortgages that are strapping us, the idea being that, somewhere down the road, our properties will fund our retirement. If we build smaller, will we have enough to retire on?

Shay: About a year ago, Warren Buffet, who is one of the richest men in the world, totally divested himself from real estate. He knows it's going to fall. They talk about 15-20 year cycles in real estate. If you are a brilliant investor in real estate, until you sell your house, you haven't made that money. Just because your house has gone up $50,000 in equity, you don't have any more equity than you used to; you haven't sold it yet. Sometimes older people want to stay in their house, and then what good is that equity? You can do an accessory dwelling situation where you build a guest house and move into it, and rent out your house to a young family. The AARP recommends that.

Some people in the Small House Society do something that is pretty radical and pretty different, but it is as old as humanity - they invest in social capital. For instance, there is a man in South Africa who has put five or six young people through college. He says he can afford it, and he believes that if the economy in his country crashes when he is older, that at least one of them will take care of him. Instead of hoarding your money and trying to buy more house, help some people get through college without those crazy loans - and expect something from them later.

A social contract is much more precious than money. Money is just an accounting system for social obligation. It's not real. It's an accounting system that the banks give interest off of. It's tiring us out. We can make contact and direct connections with people who can improve our lives in a much deeper way than money will. We've been washed into this very strong, dollar-based economy, but human interaction in which we help each other and interaction with the natural world are our real sources of wealth.


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