Farewell to the Quonset Hut
October 22, 1995
I'm sitting in the Quonset hut which has been my home for the last thirteen years. The fire is hot, it's raining outside, and the tea kettle will soon be whistling. There's a pile of stuff by the door that I'll move out tonight. Three nights ago, we slept here for the last time.
I'm truly ready for a house, for running water, central heat, and the comforts most Americans take for granted. For years upon years, it's been one of the deepest longings of my heart to have a real home. Still, as I leave this little hut, it's hard to say goodbye. It sheltered me from blinding winter blizzards, bitter cold, torrential rain. I remember the peace and silky silence of so many mornings, and the soft pattering of raindrops on the metal roof as I dropped off to sleep at night. Its simplicity and economy freed Dennis and me to pursue dreams, explore the world, and turn visions and ideas into reality. A lot of memories were made here, good and bad.
While the events of the world swirled around, this little place stayed basically the same, providing an anchor of security. We lived in a time warp, connected at once to the lifestyles of today and of the past century. Our humble abode kept us humble. Starting a fire every morning and hauling water each week for years upon years made us appreciate small blessings in ways I doubt we'll ever forget.
For me, this little Quonset hut has been part of my identity. It gave me what I value most—independence, simplicity, security and freedom. As much as I look forward to sharing a real house with my husband, I can't help but feel gratitude for the blessing this tiny shelter has been, and sadness as this long chapter of life comes to an end.
With the median price of a 2-bedroom house approaching $130,000 and run-down efficiency apartments renting for upwards of $500 a month, finding comfortable and affordable housing can be a monumental problem in Anchorage. Susan Anthony carved out her own unique solution high in a valley of the Chugach Mountains facing north toward Mt. McKinley, a Quonset hut, nestled among alders and birch on 3/4 acre of land purchased for cash.
"It reminds me of a hobbit hole," one visitor commented after following a wooden walkway to the door and being escorted inside to a cozy fire and a hot cup of tea.
Warm wood tones prevail, oak furniture inherited from Susan's grandmother and naturally aging wood salvaged from construction sites and glass packing crates. Dappled sunlight enters through a large window with an insulated pull-down shutter that doubles as a high counter in the summer.
The main living space is attractively arranged, with kitchen in one corner and a raised living room. The bed is a 5' loft, accessible by a built-in ladder. Under the bed is closet and storage space.
A 55-gallon drum stove, the only heat source, supplies quick heat on frigid winter nights. Even with temperatures below zero outside, the inside thermometer rarely reads below 40°, thanks to excellent insulation. On cold winter mornings, the alarm rings a half hour early, so a fire can be started to warm the house before it's time to get up.
One modern convenience is electricity, hence there's lighting, an electric cook stove, a stereo system, refrigerator and freezer.
About two hours of chores are required every week: hauling water from a hand-pumped well across the street, bringing in wood, doing some hand laundry and cleaning. Showers are taken at the health spa near work or at the University. Laundry is taken to a laundromat.
"It's much easier to live this way than I thought it would be," says Susan. "At first I missed taking long hot baths at my leisure, but all I had to do to cure that was look at house prices in the classifieds. I LOVE owning this place, simple as it is. I put the equivalent of a mortgage payment in a special fund each month. I want to live in a regular house someday and by then I'll have a good down payment. For now, I'm not in a hurry. This is fun!"
I'd love to have filled out a census long form in 1990. I was living in the Quonset hut with no running water or central heat, yet I made a really good salary that year! I'd have blown all the profiles.
After moving from the Quonset, we rented it for several years, then sold it to one of our renters. It gave us great pleasure to enable young people to live inexpensively right in Anchorage. It's what helped us move from rags to riches (not what everyone might call riches, but we have enough). We encouraged our young renters to live cheaply, pay off student loans, and save a "grubstake" for their future.
Only later did we learn that rental properties are required to have running water. In other words, people are prohibited by law from sacrificing luxuries like running water in order to save and build a foundation for their future as we did.
Thomas Sowell, who grew up in poverty himself and is now a professor at Stanford, said it brilliantly on p. 102 of his book Race and Culture:
Seldom have the crusades of social reformers been directed toward enlarging the set of options available to the groups whose housing the reformers disapproved. More commonly, housing reform efforts have reduced the existing options, whether by "slum clearance" programs that destroyed lower quality housing, by building codes that forbade construction of housing without amenities prescribed by reformers (such as running water), or by regulations limiting the number of persons living in a given space to what reformers found acceptable. In all these ways, less fortunate groups were forced to pay more for housing than they themselves chose. Their incomes could no longer be used to maximize their own satisfactions, according to their own values, goals and trade-offs, but were partially diverted to making observers feel better.
Reformers often found it sufficient justification to point out the objective fact of improvement in average housing quality in the wake of their reforms. However, this improvement—paid for by higher rents charged the tenants—was equally available before the reforms, if the tenants valued the improvements as much as they valued alternative uses of the same money. Nor should it be imagined that housing quality today would be at the low levels of a century ago without housing reforms. Rising incomes tend to produce rising housing quality, whether or not there is government intervention in housing markets. This applies not only to changes from one era to another, but also to changes within the lifespan of given individuals, as among groups who achieve eventual home ownership by initially paying low rents for lower qualities and smaller quantities of housing. Other groups, such as the Jews or the overseas Chinese, have tended to invest such savings in business or in the education of their children.
Looked at more generally, in a world where people have multidimensional goals, all constrained within the limits of their wealth-generating capacity, government intervention can always improve one dimension and document that improvement objectively as a "success," ignoring the other dimensions sacrificed. Housing is only a special case of that general principle. As with other special cases, the dimension chosen for enhancement is typically one visible to observers, while those dimensions sacrificed are less visible. The future, being necessarily invisible, is often sacrificed, as is the present inner satisfaction of working toward a goal of having home ownership, business ownership, higher education for one's children, the independence of having some savings put aside, or the capacity to send for parents or other relatives or to help them get established in a new setting.
All such goals are retarded or destroyed when third parties are able to force tenants to pay higher rents for amenities chosen by third parties, at the expense of goals chosen by themselves. Such impositions of outsiders' values and preferences have been especially prevalent when reformers have come from a different cultural background and have had little understanding of, or respect for, the choices of the people involved. This in turn has been especially common where reformers have had more years of formal schooling and could therefore feel justified in dismissing the choices of others as uninformed and unintelligent. The most dangerous kind of ignorance is the ignorance of the educated.
The ticket to freedom and the good life for us was the Quonset hut. We were willing to sacrifice current comforts for long-term gain and we have no regrets. We are sad that others are deprived of that same opportunity by do-gooders who would rather force taxpayers to give money to the poor than enable the poor to escape poverty by their own hard work and effort.
The new owners of the Quonset hut had the same idea I originally did—to live on the cheap and use the saved money to build a house. It didn't work out as they initially envisioned. They liked the Quonset so much that they bought a second Quonset and incorporated both into a unique, inexpensive, yet comfortable, home.
Go on to read The Blizzard of 2000
Source: www.SusanCAnthony.com, ©Susan C. Anthony