My sociology brain is squarely housed in housing these days.
I’m finishing up my first book, on how home spaces and objects tell the story of contemporary family roles and relationships. I figure my second book ought to be about second homes.
I was at a wedding shower this weekend and met a woman who was fearful of the impacts of a neighbor’s house being turned into a vacation rental. Not only was she thinking about the noise and safety concerns with multiple parked cars in their shared driveway spilling onto a busy street, she was worried about the loss of community feel that would inevitably occur with transient (but potentially fun-loving) weekend neighbors. Who drank a lot of wine.
In a town with a booming wine and tourism industry, and annual graduations and reunion events for three colleges, we have seen an increase in vacation rentals in our little green valley. With this, I am increasingly hearing stories from friends about loud backyard parties that keep their toddlers awake. I hear stories of garbage in places where they usually don’t see garbage. I hear stories of friends walking down their block and starting to count the number of homes that are vacation rentals. I hear stories of regret that they bought a house on a street with not one or two, but three or four, vacation homes. Their neighbors would not be neighbors at all, but strangers on a weekendly rotation. Their block parties (or their dreams of future block parties, once they organized them) would cease to occur. The rotation of neighbors would consist of new faces who were friendly enough, but who didn’t have an investment in the street’s potholes, crosswalks, and low hanging tree branches for kids to swing on. These vacation rental owners may have an interest in the property values or number of other rentals on the block, but perhaps not because they are concerned about the local residents’ well-being as much as their own pocketbooks.
Even in my neighborhood, where there were two houses for sale this spring, the conversations among those of us outside pulling weeds was whether the purchasers would actually live there or not.
These conversations are new, and they are raising important questions about neighborliness, community, and trust.
But I also hear stories from out-of-town guests that they have less stress associated with finding a place to lay their heads and gather with loved ones when they come to town for a special event. Less, at least, than what they heard was happening just a few years ago, when a place to stay was hard to get unless you called for a graduation weekend hotel room when you gave birth to your son or daughter. Getting a hotel room in a booming tourist town with lots of special events was as hard, it seemed, as getting your infant into an eventual high quality kindergarten in the bustling competitive college-prep kindergarten cottage industry.
And I also hear how other friends are using income generated from their vacation rentals to create a good retirement life or to save for their children’s college tuition. People who are good stewards of property, and who develop lovely relationships with visitors who rave about the friendliness of the community. Sure, sometimes it means they vacate their own homes and sleep in their RV or a friend’s couch across town on weekends when their home is a vacation rental. But they’re making money, representing their community well to visitors, and doing it responsibly.
As you can see, I can see the sides of the discussion emerge.
Vacation rentals are places of economic exchange, but they are necessarily also places of social exchange. No trading of money exists without people (either directly in the exchange, or among the people watching from across the street when they’re pulling weeds), and people have relationships with each other. Now it’s time to ask the good sociological questions about the construction of meaning of this whole issue. The social stuff, not just the economic stuff.
[Note: these next couple paragraphs look really boring and academic, but they’re important and also contain attempts at humor, so please read…]
The idea of focusing on the social aspects of economic exchange has been at the core of sociological thinking since the discipline became a discipline. Too much focus on economic exchange in a capitalist system? People lose their connectedness (here you could peruse dozens of writings by Weber and Durkheim and Toennies). In fact, too much focus on people merely being connected by virtue of their involvement in the economic machinery denies their very humanity (channeling Marx here).
But these ideas are a little hard to fit into polite conversation at a neighborhood block party or backyard wedding shower. As much as I love social theory, I don’t envision making friends with people while eating fried chicken and deviled eggs if words like “organic solidarity,” “gemeinschaft,” “alienated labor,” and “irrationality of rationality” came out of my deviled egg-filled mouth. This would be weird if it was with people who are feeling good about their entrepreneurial adventure in second homeownership in a post-recession decade where housing crises and economic precarity are still alive and well. And it would be weird if it was with people who are feeling bad about their loss of neighborly connectedness because the house next door is just a commodity for someone who doesn’t even live in town.
What will probably work is to talk, between fried chicken bites, about the importance of including social relationships in any discussion of economic exchange. Paying to stay? What does that do to the feeling of trust in our neighborhood? Owners are different from dwellers? What does that mean for my definition of neighbor? (here I encourage looking up the work of economist Karl Polanyi and his idea of substantivism, but I promise not to use either the word “Polanyi” or “substantivism” when I chat with people at block parties). Renting your space out? Do you remove your family pictures so it looks less like your home space and more like anyone’s home space (but a home space nonetheless)?
As I begin my next line of research on second homes, I will ask questions of various constituencies along the owner-visitor-neighbor spectrum, as well as people along something I’m calling the “Family Space to Marketplace” Spectrum. I think it’ll be interesting to see how people talk about these homes and neighborhoods, including voices of those whose aim is to never live in a second home, and those who only use the space for family time…and everyone in between. I also want to include voices of people who stay in them, and of people who live next to them. Time shares. RVs. Run down lake cabins. Urban condos. Single family homes. Small mansions. Tiny homes in the woods. All of it.
The goal of owning a home is still a strong one in the U.S. Just look at the great work of sociologist Brian McCabe in his book No Place Like Home. And the psychological pieces that matter in someone’s sometimes conflicted decision to have a getaway AND put down roots is still present in researcher’s minds like Winifred Gallagher, whose book House Thinking has a whole chapter on second homes. What I want to do is look at how people define the meaning and impact of these spaces on family connectedness, neighborhood connectedness, and how these two may sometimes come into conflict.
I like to judge my research questions by looking at how many different topics they touch on in the news. With headline after headline about things like the sharing economy, the politics of exclusion of racial residential segregation, discrimination in the informal vacation rental business, the virtues of entrepreneurialism in today’s job market, and the perception of a declining lack of trust among neighbors, I think I’m asking questions that matter. And with the proliferation of media representation of the purchase and redesign of getaways and second homes (“Beach Front Bargain Hunt,” “Income Property,” “Vacation House for Free”), I’m asking something that touches on people’s conceptions of leisure, family, creativity, and affordability. In real life and on TV.
The woman I chatted with at the wedding shower was hopeful that there’d be some community conversations about whether there ought to be more regulation on vacation rentals in our community. The next day the big headline in the local paper read “Vacation Rentals to Get Regulatory Look.” It seems our city council has the housing issue housed in their brains, too.
I am excited to ask good sociological questions about this issue over the next couple years, and perhaps find and interpret some answers in words that matter to my community and yours.