Learning to recognize a reluctant recovery
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org June 21, 2012 11:04PM
Updated: July 23, 2012 6:06AM
I found myself staring, and that was weird. These were scenes that only a few years ago I barely noticed.
On the way up Book Road the other morning, I spotted several houses under construction, crews busily swarming around the job sites. This was, of course, commonplace a decade ago in these outlying towns that were on the fast track from exurbia to suburban status, until the economy imploded and brought all of that to a virtual halt.
As one whose household budget relies heavily on the income of a residential builder, this warmed my heart an extra bit. But I also sensed a resurgent hope on spying the framing crews’ piles of two-by-fours, the Tyvek, even the Port-A-Pottys.
It’s what recovery looks like. We’re just a bit unaccustomed to seeing it.
Last week, we heard the somber news that foreclosures in the Chicago region were up in the most recent month. It’s a function of lending banks getting their figurative desks cleaned up and making headway on their backlogs, we’re told, rather than an indication that more people are falling over the edge right now than they were a year or two ago. Still, it serves as a solemn reminder that the struggle goes on.
And this week, some fresh cause for optimism.
It seems that even as the paperwork was being pulled together to yank away the roofs over a lot of heads, the blueprints for new ones were proliferating. The U.S. Commerce Department announced Tuesday that during May, builders in the U.S. applied for more permits to build houses and apartments, and broke ground on more single-family residences, than they had in any month for the past 3 1/2 years.
We ought not get too giddy. New homes, after all, represent just 20 percent of the home market. But they put a lot of people back to work. Trade groups say each residence built creates three jobs for a year — good news indeed for a profession that has seen 30 to 40 percent of its people out of work in the past couple of years — and generates some $90,000 in tax revenue.
So no, this week’s good news doesn’t mean we’ve gotten over this bout of hard times and the American dream is abruptly alive and thriving. The pace of new construction still needs to pick up quite a bit before the industry is back to its old self. And there’s still an enormous inventory of existing homes looking for loving families to inhabit and pay for them. But it does, I think, mean we can reasonably expect the dream to resume viability in our lifetimes. That’s something.
Are we smarter as a function of the reckless behaviors that caused all of this? I like to suppose so. I want very much to believe we’re no longer such suckers for the something-for-nothing pitch, that maybe we’ve inched a little closer to understanding that most things that seem too good to be true are precisely that.
If nothing else, I think this character-building exercise has taught us patience. And that’s something, too. We live at a time when we’re willing to pay extra for speedier access to the Internet, faster downloads, shorter waits in line. We want what we want, and we want it now. But the spectacular mess left by the housing bubble’s burst and the Wall Street debacle was never going to clear up overnight; it was always going to take time. Big disasters are that way. We’re accustomed to instant gratification, but this recovery has proved a bit more arduous, at times tedious — and too often encumbered by political pettiness. We’ve had to be patient. Economists now anticipate that, thanks in part to the boost in new home starts, we’ll see overall economic growth this year for the first time since 2005.
So it turns out Mom was right. Again. Patience actually does have its rewards.
We just have to be willing to wait for them.