The problem with the Salwen family homestead was a little different: it was too big. Too nice. The kitchen was fantastic. It was, in fact, a 6,000-square-foot Atlanta mansion, purchased in 1999, ostensibly to please Kevin and Joan Salwen's kids, Hannah and Joseph, then 7 and 5. "We never asked them. And my guess is that if we had, they might have said what they told us later, which is 'We don't need it.'"
Like a growing number of Americans, the Salwens came to the realization that less can be more. But they have taken this insight to a level that few others have dared.
As The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent editorial, it all started with a stoplight epiphany Hannah experienced when she was 14. She was in her father's car, sandwiched between a homeless man on one corner and a Mercedes on the other. If Mr. Mercedes had a little less, she reasoned, Mr. Homeless could have a whole lot more. "She was really seething about the disparities she saw on that street corner," says Kevin Salwen. "She challenged us, our family, to make more of a difference in the world."
Eventually, Hannah figured out how they could have less so others could have more: sell the house. "We nearly fainted," says Kevin, but in April, 2007, they put their mansion on the market, pledging half of the proceeds--a minimum of $800,000--to charity and searching for a downsized abode. Their journey and desire to be of service is now chronicled in a book called The Power of Half.
Of course, lots of people have left their homes since 2007 due to foreclosure or the inability to make ballooning mortgage payments, and the housing crisis has eroded many property values sufficiently to make the idea of sharing profits from home sales unthinkable--what profits? (Also, if you're already living in 500 square feet, moving to a house half that size seems, well, impossible).
But there are plenty of other ways to cut back on excess. Kevin admits that most folks are not going to sell their homes, but the book, he says, "offers a road map for doing your own family or community project." One example: if your family spends four hours a week watching TV, cut it down to two and spend two hours helping others. Stay at the Holiday Inn on your vacation instead of the Ritz, and give the difference in cost away.
Lest you think that a) the Salwens suffered for their sacrifice or b) didn't feel the sting of the housing crisis due to fortuitous timing, Kevin begs to differ. Their new house, below, is lovely and plenty big, at 3,000 square feet. And the other house sat on the market for two years while their $800,000 pledge to The Hunger Project came due.
"Hannah was adamant that we pay on time," says Kevin. "We took it out of her college fund."
Eventually their old house sold, the college fund was replenished, and the Salwens settled into their new, smaller digs...which turned out to be more than enough room. In fact, they live better now, with fewer rooms to retreat to and more common areas.
"There are times when we look around this house and see that there's some space that we actually don't use," admits Kevin. "But I don't think we're going to downsize again."