Many have written about the essential fragility of the economic situation of most American workers. We save too little and accumulate too much high interest debt.  Our consumption in every context seems unsustainable. The fragility of the monetary system with its lack of dependence on gold and the cosmic-scale debt that our country has racked up has many people worked into an existential lather.

The hard reality is that a worker can lose his/her job and all of the forms of stability that comes with it. We have become absolutely dependent on the economic system of the “employment” by people and organizations. We exchange our labor for payment on an hourly or salary basis and hope to sustain a stable and predictable lifestyle therefrom.

When a person loses their job, the reality of maintaining shelter and keeping everyone fed and clothed pops straight up into view. Because we have structured our culture and economic system on sustenance by employment, our ability to improvise is weak. Our ability to get another cashflow stream going is limited and most people pursue solutions that consist of finding other employment.

What workers in America lack is something that is available in much poorer countries. When an American worker loses their job, either they must find another job or start a business to sustain a living income. But if an American worker wants to start a business making something or retailing, chances are that local zoning codes will bar them from operating out of their home.

There are certain kinds of business activity that people can do out of their residence. Many people do office type work like accounting, consulting, writing, and other information intensive services out of a home office. Baby sitting, daycare, sewing, and small scale construction contracting are commonly based in a residence.

But if you want to repair cars, retail specialty parts of all kinds, or manufacture widgets at the microscale, chances are that your activity will be banned either by municipal ordinance or by a home owners association.

If you visit a city in a poorer country- say, Thailand- what you will see are large sections of housing where people combine their occupation with their residence. I recall being lost on foot somewhere in Bangkok a few years ago, wandering through neighborhoods where families lived in small shops that had a metal overhead door for street access by potential customers. At sundown, the shop activity ceased and the stove came out and a pot of soup was put on the heat. Fans, televisions, and music would blare into the sweltering streets along with the aroma of food.

Poor as these folks might be, they have something that American city dwellers absolutely lack. They have the ability to consolidate their resources to provide shelter and an income. By day a family might sell parts for small gas engines or some particular range of plumbing fittings. By night they repair to the back room for supper and relaxation.

An American facing the prospects of no job and left with only industrial skills is in a bit of a pickle.  While they might have very valuable skills, chances are that these skills are not readily transferable to common home-based activities. Someone with retail experience, on the other hand, might be able to put together a small shop.

What would stop an American city dweller from starting a home retail business is the issue of zoning and code compliance.  If an unemplyed person wanted to sell articles of clothing in a converted garage shop, there would be a long list of problems with the town board and the neighborhood. There would be applications and appeals, neighborhood input, and public hearings for a variance to the code. Zoning, parking, fire codes, and handicap access are just the start.

Then there is the matter of neighbors and their firm theories on property value. US culture has long been aloft on an arc of gentrification. People invest heavily in their homes and view their shelter not just as something that keeps out the weather. We festoon them from a vast array of manufactured decorative goods. We slather them with paint and adorn them with “accessories”.  

We have come to rely on our homes as repositories of personal wealth. And this notion, evolved from countless proposals before countless town boards, has become a complex web of building codes and ordinances controlling seemingly every degree of freedom to act that you can imagine.

Go to a town board meeting anywhere and look for those who seek to influence the board. Much of the time they are people related to real estate and development. Much of the gentrification we see has its roots with developers seeking to provide a sense of exclusivity. 

The result is that wealth creation by the appreciation of residential property value has been given a privileged position over wealth creation by the productive use of that property.

Our ability to sustain ourselves through hard times is constrained by rules to meant to protect property value and provide a basis for notions of the residential ideal. Americans are poorly prepared to be poor. We have an infrastructure that is not well adapted to allowing the unfortunate unemployed the option to scratch out a living from their homes. So pervasive is the residential ideal that the options for shelter are few in gentrified areas of the country. We have zoned ourselves into a corner based on bourgeois notions of aesthetic tidiness.