One of the curiosities of language is that our usage can sometimes inadvertently reveal our underlying beliefs. Consider how condos are often described as if they are conscious actors who perform actions, such as “packing people together.”

One example comes from today’sSeattle P-I: “Now, condominiums are building upward, packing people into to what used to be inexpensive property.” According to this way of writing, it’s the condos, not the owners, that have what we philosophy majors call “agency.”

This is just weird. Admittedly, I don’t get out a lot, but I’ve never seen condos roaming the streets, rounding up suburban residents, and stuffing the poor saps into boxes. I’ve always been under the impression that developers build condos in urban neighborhoods because there are lots of people who want to live in them.

Single family homes, by the way, aren’t given the same treatment in our usage.

  • You rarely hear about ramblers or cape cods “pushing people apart.” Quite the contrary, it’s just assumed that people like me with house-and-yard setups are exercising free will.

    A related linguistic phenomenon is the tick of writing as though something else is packing people together—and the precise subject is almost always hidden and unclear. Here’s an example from a caption in a Pacific Northwest Magazinefeature: “Packing people together creates problems as well as solutions…” More examples of this common usage can be found in the LA Times, here, and from comments in blogs here, here, and here, among many other places. This usage, I think, betrays a subtle but pervasive disregard for certain housing choices.

    The common thread among these usages is that people who live in higher densities are assumed not to have exercised free will. Instead, our usage suggests, they are subjects; they are acted on by their dwellings, or perhaps by some other force that’s seldom made explicit.

    Now in fairness to common parlance, let’s also admit that public policies affect housing choice. (See this article in the P-I for some examples.) But those policies—zoning, lending standards, freeway building, tax policy, and much more—have strongly favored single-family uses that are segregated from businesses and jobs. Still, it is always people who make choices; buildings don’t do that, not even when policies play favorites.

    No larger point here. Just that it would improve the discourse to acknowledge that condos don’t force people to live in them. People choose to live in compact settings, and in greater numbers everyday.