All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1992

Not Up to Snuff


Evelyn Pyburn is editor of the Big Sky Business Journal in Billings, Montana, where an earlier version of this article first appeared.

I lived most of my early life in housing that any regulator or housing administrator would have razed upon sight. I would have been viewed as a victim of inadequate housing even though my family and I had no idea we were so seriously deprived.

In my ignorance I would suggest that the days spent in such housing were among the best of my life.

We lived in an original homestead house—only slightly revised over the years—on a farm way out in the hills of Montana. Not until I was about 8 or 9 did they even run electricity to the property.

Oh, yes, there was an outhouse. My brothers and I carried wood and watched my grandmother and mother cook on a wood-burning stove. Among our daily chores was to pump water from the well and carry it into the house. I have never found water that tasted as good, as cold or sweet.

I remember watching my grandparents play dominoes by lantern light—my eyes so tired I could hardly keep them open, only to fall asleep at the table and find in the morning that someone had carried me to bed.

Early on winter mornings, Grandpa would let me sit on his lap with my bare feet dangling in front of the open oven of the kitchen stove, as the first fire of the day began warming the house.

Sometimes little drifts of snow could be found piled delicately on the window sill in the living room. The house whistled, moaned, and howled when a fierce wind blew; and the rain pattered musically on the roof.

Some bats lived in the roof near the chimney. Their occasional squeaking was nothing more than household background sounds, and we would watch them fly about in the summer evening sky. As a child it never occurred to me that there might be houses without bats.

Changes came with time. First electricity, and then one day the gas line was brought through. Running water was put in. And then the day came when my family actually built a new house.

When the old homestead house was burned (taxes on it were astronomical)—we, grown children, watched sadly with tears in our eyes.

No doubt about it, I was thoroughly deprived as a child, and I wouldn’t trade a moment of it for the fanciest and most lavish house in the world.

None of that fits into the regulators’ books, however, and most would never comprehend how I could have grown up feeling sorry for everyone else because they didn’t have what I had.

How greatly my view of the world differed from so many others never dawned upon me, until one day, as a reporter, I was interviewing a newly named housing expert. He started rattling off the numbers of substandard homes that existed in Gallatin, Meagher, and Park Counties. As I put the numbers into perspective, I realized that he was talking about a lot of homes. I knew all those communities well and I couldn’t visualize that many substandard houses. So I was prompted to ask exactly what constituted a “substandard home” in his book.

As he began describing the government’s broad criteria for substandard housing, I was, at first, astonished and then began to smolder, as I realized he was calling every home I had ever lived in “sub-standard.” Not only mine, but that of almost every one I had ever known in our rural community and probably most of the homes that comprised all the small towns roundabout.

I still think of all those hard-working, proud people, and how affronted they would feel had they any idea that what they worked so hard for, and loved so dearly, was offhandedly categorized as “substandard” by a bureaucrat who lived in an urban ticky-tacky without the slightest idea of what it took to acquire and maintain that old homestead of my grandparents.