Conventional, permanent, single-family housing presumes the fact of defined space. The Postal Service needs a street number to deliver the occupant’s mail. The County Assessor needs a parcel number so that it values, then computes and bills, your property taxes. Fire and police responders require an address in case of a call for help. But none of these aids to identification is truly critical except to aid in imposing taxes. As long as they are logical and sequential, street address numbers can be arbitrarily assigned without separate parcel ownership. Valuation for tax purposes admittedly does require distinguishing among parcels by character of improvements and parcel size, unless ad valorem tax systems were “flat tax”-based, tied to the fact of ownership alone.
Subdivision regulations came about, I guess, as a deterrent to unprincipled sales of lots lacking legal access and suitable urban infrastructure (by a particular community’s standards). Early Massachusetts subdivision regulations originated responding to concerns about the impact of public and private street development. Boston had regulations as early as the 1890s. The advent of these regulations standardized residential development in communities. It probably impaired the growth of “intentional communities,” where dwellers desired to share living quarters and yards in loose alliances. Momentum toward government control peaked in the 1950s. The Civil Rights movement spawned a number of campaigns for individual rights, and by the 1960s, professional planners and public officials became more critical of subdivision regulation as a concept encouraging development uniformity. The notion of PRD (planned residential development) and PUD (planned unit development) zones allowed deviation from formulaic subdivision standards such as setbacks, street widths and density measures.
By the 1990s, principles that added concern for native habitats and pedestrian “scale” led to phenomena such as conservation subdivision design, with its attendant clustered housing units and minimal quantities of impervious surface materials used in road and driveway improvements or of heavily compacted soils. These type developments tend to feature narrower streets, fewer visible utilities lines and retention of the land’s character and history, preserved mainly through conservation easements. “Traditional Neighborhood Developments” are another phenomenon of fairly recent vintage; these are useful both for the development of new neighborhoods and the revitalization or extension of existing neighborhoods, which are structured upon a fine network of interconnecting, pedestrian-oriented streets and other public spaces. These developments offer a mixture of housing types and prices, prominently-sited civic or community buildings, and stores/offices/workplaces, to provide a balanced mix of activities. Religious institutions and pre-school/elementary school facilities are encouraged to complete the sense of an “urban village.” A Traditional Neighborhood Development has a recognizable center and clearly defined edges; their optimum size is a quarter mile from its center to edge. Seaside, Florida, one of the earliest TNDs, is an often-cited illustration of this concept, since Robert Davis is considered the “guru” of the New Urbanism.
What all of these innovations in subdivision treatment have in common, however, is that they are all still subdivisions. Even if density reaches the clustered scale of condominium housing, there remains “one owner, one lot,” as the organizing principle. That organizational scheme, I contend, is no longer purposeful. If you don’t need to own a lot to have the exclusive right as owner to occupy some three-dimensional “footprint,” well, don’t. Save some money. Avoid some headaches. Stay flexible; optimize your mobility.
So, is the medieval times’ premise of living within the fiefdom of the local lord (of the land) desirable? With the advent of political democracies, why not? Wasn’t the haste to have private ownership of a parcel of one’s own intended to eliminate the vassal’s continued obligatory fealty to the lord, because the vassal had no alternative but to become a nomad? We’re evolved in America, having eliminated slavery, so a return to protracted occupancy of another’s land isn’t that daunting – especially if one’s annual expenses are significantly trimmed that way. In a conventional leasing mode, the objective of the owner is to cause the renter to pay the owner’s mortgage and other expenses, creating cash flow enabling that owner-landlord to leverage the income stream into additional loans with which to acquire yet more property, and so on. In Europe, according to some sources, a significant percentage of the population are tenants and are nonplussed by the idea that relatively few own relatively most of the realty. The few pay taxes on the land and to insure it and to keep it weed and pest-free, coupled with principal and interest on the amount borrowed.
If fewer folks own most of the land, that eliminates the need for conventions like subdivision ordinances and lot boundaries. How does someone describe where she lives, in that event? Legal descriptions still identify a two, or even three, dimensional occupancy “space.” But instead of cutting a larger parcel into smaller lots or tracts, how about just living under an easement regime? What I mean is this: suppose you have a 5 –acre parcel, and you want to afford 5 persons/groups occupancy of portions of that parcel. If you don’t desire to have separate road networks leading each occupant in and out of his or her “turf,” you can establish a single, main road that all occupants use in common. In a subdivision, this would be a “common area tract.” But it’s no different in effect if you simply grant a non-exclusive easement to the dweller on each slice of turf. The slices of turf are defined by a set of exclusive easements (one each describing the slice allocated to each unique occupant, excluding all others).
What is compelling about this concept is that the easements can be granted in “gross,” meaning just for the lifetime of the grantee occupying the turf (person who has the occupancy right). The easement is documented and filed in the public records (perfecting, in a manner of speaking, the right to occupy and use the turf). The easement recites that the grantee’s death or his/her abandonment of the easement (e.g., by moving away) will terminate the grant forever. This entitles the owner of the fee title interest to grant a subsequent easement in gross to the next occupant of the identical (or maybe different, depending on what’s going on with the balance of the owner’s parcel) turf.
Unconventional? You betcha. Affordable for the occupant? Sure. All that needs to occur is an attitude adjustment – shunning the sense of inadequacy felt because you don’t live on land you own outright. The present state of the economy and the savings realized ought to help salve those wounds, especially for those who have taken a beating in their credit scores.