Kaid Benfield Archive


Downsizing for charity: how less became more for one family

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:37PM

, , , , , ,

Atlanta’s Salwen family is getting a lot of press run lately for doing something unusual: they sold their large house to move into one half its size, donating half of the proceeds to fund African hunger relief projects.  It’s a heartwarming story, all the more so because the whole altruistic venture is said to have been inspired and initiated by the family’s teenage daughter, Hannah.  The family says the change has given them more meaning and togetherness, and they have written a book and developed a web site, each called The Power of Half, to document and build upon their story.

It’s a welcome gesture in our age of ridiculous overconsumption, the average size of a new home in America having soared from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,629 square feet by 2008, even though average household size declined during that period.  (Average new home sizes began declining again during the current recession.)  That suggests that a lot of us may have room to cut back, or at least tame our appetite for ever-increasing levels of consumption.

Given the amount of attention given the Salwens as role models, it must be said that they are far from your typical American family.  Their old house contained 6,500 square feet of living space, with 5 bedrooms, 8 fireplaces and an elevator, for only four people.  At over 3000 square feet, their “little” house (they charmingly talk about bumping into each other in the cramped quarters) is still larger than the average large new house, and certainly bigger than mine, yet no one thinks my house is small.  Since they have reportedly given $800,000 to charity, and have said that they gave half of the home sale proceeds away, one can conclude that they made a tidy $1.6 million on the deal, probably took a generous tax deduction on the amount they donated, and still were able to keep more from that one transaction than most Americans will ever have in their life savings.  The kids attend an elite private school, according to one reviewer.  They were in a position to comfortably “downsize” and remain quite comfortable later; most Americans are not, and these lessons won’t translate easily to many other families.

Still, kudos to them for at least scaling down their version of the excessive American lifestyle, putting their resources to work for others, and doing so as a family.  Here’s a video clip from The Today Show presenting the project: