Living today looks largely the same as it did in 1950, notes Diana Lind in her new book “Beautiful new home: Our future in smarter, simpler and happier living”. Many home builders are still building 2,500-square-foot homes with two-car garages on tree-lined streets.
But a lot has changed since the single-family home was, as Lind writes, “a practical answer to the desire for more space and access to nature”. Today the average family size is smaller – just 3.14 people, and nearly a third of Americans live alone. Divorce is between 40% and 50% and life expectancy has increased to 79.
“Since so much has changed in American life, why are there no apartments?” Asks Lind.
Lind is a specialist in urban politics and traces the history of the single-family ideal from Herbert Hoover’s “Own Your Own Home” program in 1918 until after the apartments collapsed in 2008. She is considering living alternatives and measures that support them.
We invited Lind to share her conclusion that a dream primarily centered on owning a single family home is “unaffordable, unhealthy and incompatible with consumer demand”.
Why does the American dream of the 1950s not match the world today?
If you look at this idea of the American dream of home ownership, our federal housing policies – like ultra-low lending rates and the mortgage interest deduction which is the biggest tax gap for the rich – have made home ownership an unprecedented vehicle for wealth creation.
At the same time, not everyone participated in this dream. For decades in the 20th century, official redlining banned blacks and other minorities from accessing home ownership and its myriad benefits. Nowadays, there are double-digit differences in home ownership rates between whites and blacks in all major metropolitan areas.
The other American dream is lots of private space and a two-car garage. Americans in many other countries are less healthy, happy, and social than their peers. My book claims that the single-family home lifestyle contributed to these problems.
Today, many people are more interested in living with relatives for the social and economic resources they provide, or in deliberate communities because they are tired of being lonely. It’s another dream of interdependence, sustainability and health.
So if not the single family home, then what?
At the beginning it is the “Single Family Home Plus”. Many homeowners are enthusiastic about additional residential units such as backyard houses and suites-in-law that allow them to accommodate their loved ones with privacy or to generate rental income.
Multigenerational living is on the rise, no doubt intensified this year, and while it works in a single family home, it often works better in maisonettes or in other situations where there is some space separation.
Other people, especially young people who are not interested in long term leases or who live alone, are actively looking for deliberate communities through coexistence. These are buildings dedicated to people who have their own private apartments with common spaces and programs that bring people together.
For others, there are wellness communities that focus on social and physical well-being. Some of these communities have single-family homes, but focus on accessibility and shared outdoor spaces.
They write about health insurers and providers like Kaiser Permanente and the Mayo Clinic that come in apartments. Why should they do this?
Hospitals accommodate the homeless and the unsafe but they do so in the emergency room or in hospital beds. It is very expensive because this population is uninsured and visits the emergency room frequently. Hospitals have found that housing is indeed the best medicine and that it is actually cheaper to build supportive housing for people who will be in the emergency room a lot.
If you extrapolate this situation to other populations, you can see that hospitals and insurers can actually benefit from focusing more on housing. Some, like Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, have already focused on actions like addressing asthma triggers in children’s homes, but it would make sense to use their nonprofit status and mission to improve health outcomes and provide housing in health outcomes are affected.
The coronavirus disrupted many life situations in 2020. Which housing alternative you described is most likely to accelerate due to the pandemic? Which one will stall?
Multi-generation living will definitely be a big trend for the future. By 2018, the United States had the highest rate of multi-generational living and an increasing number of family members living with relatives since 1950. Now many people have moved in with the family for help looking after children and enlarging their “bladders”.
Unfortunately, it is also a sector with very little political or market attention. Everyone assumes that multi-generation families can live in single-family homes. They can, but are more likely to exist and thrive in situations where the enclosure is better tailored to their particular needs. We need local guidelines that promote forms of living that make it easier for generations to live side by side. If we were to incentivize developers to build additional residential units or a maisonette instead of a 3,000 square meter house with a garage, we would have more living space and this would be much more attractive to multi-generational families.
Co-living was very hot before the pandemic, and while I have heard that many co-living developers have continued to raise money and expand, this trend has stalled just in the places where it has done the best: expensive cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle. These are cities where there aren’t as many young people as before.
Many of the alternatives you describe currently only seem to come in a “luxury” model. How could they be customized to make them more affordable?
Certainly, a properly shared life can offer community residents and developers cost savings. Tiny homes have been sold as less-is-more places to downsize, but in reality they resemble prefabricated homes and are aimed at low-income workers. Wellness communities are definitely high-end businesses, but the concept of comprehensive health care works very well for people who are addicted or homeless.
If there is a demand for different types of housing, why are many builders still focusing on single family homes?
If you want to build anything other than a single family home in most shared apartments, you will need to get zoning approval from a local zoning agency. With no certainty about how you might use the property, many developers will just build single family homes as the time spent on the approval process is a real cost. More flexible zoning pretty much creates more housing options, and more housing options naturally mean more affordable housing and more varied options that appeal to the true diversity of today’s demographics.
Increasing the housing supply in desirable neighborhoods is the most important thing you can do to reduce housing costs. A more flexible zoning like in Minneapolis will make this possible. Many homeowners will fight this because if there is more supply it will likely lower their property values. The Biden government has already focused on targeting funding to local authorities that encourage housing creation through less restrictive zones.
They challenge the long-standing belief that home ownership is “one of the best tools for building wealth in color communities”. Why didn’t that happen more generally? What would be more useful?
It is important to ensure that BIPOC has an equal chance of becoming a homeowner and that we finally rid the housing industry of the racism that continues to this day in terms of finance and sales. Even so, I think we need to move away from home ownership as practically the only means of creating wealth in this country.
We’re working hard to find ways to accommodate people who can’t pay their rent through numerous federal, state, and local initiatives. It’s expensive, difficult, and nowhere near the number of people required. We have many problems with funding subsidized housing, where to find it, how to maintain it, and so on. Instead, we could give money to people in need and let them figure out how to use it. A direct money transfer pilot is currently underway in Philadelphia and several other cities in the country. It is a model that benefits people and that is more efficient for government to implement.
“Nice new home”
From Diana Lind
Books in bold. 272 pages. $ 16.99.