The NY Times Questions the Value of the Single-Family Home

For 100 years, U.S. cities have favored single-family home development. Is there a coming backlash?

It’s the bedrock of the 20th century American Dream: four-walls, a little lawn, and space for a family and personal equity to grow. Over the past 100 years, urban areas in the United States have doubled down on the single-family home as the de facto form of American life. And even with the romantic allure of city living that re-sprouted in the popular imagination in the 1990s—as the apocalyptic urban visions of Shaft and Taxi Driver gave way to the boho congeniality of Friends and Seinfeld—single family homes have remained the dominant mode of living. According to a (perhaps a little dated) 2011 study, 70 percent of Americans live in single-family homes, but 80 percent wish they did.

But cities are starting to alter their assumptions about single-family homes—a development that we’ve commented on before. Today, the New York Times deep-dives into the trend. The report is in response to several recent attempts to change the rules of urban zoning in order to discourage single-family homes and encourage more density. The Oregon legislature is considering a law that would end zoning for single-family homes throughout the state. California is looking to do the same. We’ve written about Minneapolis’ new zoning policy that forbids single-family zoning. And Democratic presidential hopefuls are also talking density.

The causes for debate are all the familiar talking points we hammer away on from time to time in this space.

There is an inherent unsustainability written into the single-family home model. When density is discouraged, tax bases struggle to pay for necessary services. The era of single-family home development is partly to blame for lingering segregation, a housing affordability crisis, and the perpetuation of a development model whose inefficiencies contribute to the carbon emissions that are causing global climate change.

The whole problem is probably best summed up by Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn who labeled the phenomenon the “Growth Ponzi Scheme.” It’s worth noting that Marohn is no bleeding-heart coastal liberal. If anything, his fiscally conservative approach to urban analysis is evidence that the unsustainability of sprawl-based growth is an issue that, at least on the local level, should bridge the contemporary bipartisan political chasm.

If you have been following the issue, this NY Times report doesn’t bring a ton of new material to the table. It points out that it is illegal to build anything but a single-family home 75 percent of American land—a figure that is higher in Sun Belt cities (Arlington, it points out, reserves 89 percent of its land for single-family homes). It highlights the fact that, while this new push for density may seem radical, it is only a response to the radical shift a century ago when single-family houses emerged as the norm.

Plano, a city built on the ideal of single family housing. (Photo by Dean Terry via Flickr)

The article also frames the NIMBY vs. YIMBY debate, without using those terms. On the one hand, critics argue that bringing back density brings back all the old—perhaps half-forgotten—urban problems that drove the development of single-family housing in the first place. Apartments are crowded, noisy, and dirty. They block sunlight and can over-crowd neighborhoods. But in the push to rid American cities of the messiness of urbanity, most American cities were emptied of their life and vibrancy. Density affords cities their social, cultural, political, and economic advantages—it is the very reason why human societies have settled in cities for thousands of years. A lack of density creates the kinds of problems Dallas is all too familiar with: the inability to support basic public services like street maintenance and public safety, the failure of effective public transit, income inequality, and a lack of upward mobility, to name a few.

The article also highlights that the opposition to increasing density is often stalled by homeowners. Which makes sense. After all, the primary way most Americans build wealth and equity is by purchasing single-family homes. Multi-family homes are seen by homeowners as a threat to their home’s value. No one wants to be the guinea pig in an urbanization experiment–the first block in a neighborhood that allows a new multi-family unit that could potential drive down property values.

But the challenges of this question of density go deeper than what the NY Times article has the space to explore. Even with the question of the value of residential real estate, there are complexities that can’t be addressed by simply noting the proliferation of the single-family housing stock and questioning the configuration of zoning. For example, to what extent are property values a function of the lending market, with the ability to purchase homes with extremely low interest rates and little money down driving up the cost of housing? Will the proliferation of three- or four-plex apartments throughout a city have the same effect on property values as multi-family has today, when they are largely limited to segregated districts?  And won’t the creation of more density in a neighborhood help support the kinds of services and shops that make neighborhoods more attractive to buyers, thus stabilizing the value of the existing single-family home stock?

Or, will rapid densification erode the market for single-family homes, reducing their value to the cost of the land and creating an incentive to scrape and rebuild stable neighborhoods? What is the cost of upgrading the services—from sewer to wear-and-tear to public safety—of a denser neighborhood? And is the introduction of more density across single-family neighborhoods really a panacea for ending economic and racial inequality? Low-income apartment dwellers want the same thing that single-family homeowners do: the ability to build wealth. Does an expansion of the renter culture offer an opportunity to do this, or does it ignore the challenge of introducing truly affordable housing to markets that are bloated by speculation?

All these questions circle around a reality that presents a deeper challenge for cities. That fact is, whether or not it permits or forbids density, zoning is a blunt tool when it comes to solving cities problems. Cities are dynamic, organic, extraordinary complex organisms. What we love about great cities–what makes them great and vibrant–are their endless variables, their uniqueness of character, the improvisational aspect to their form and life. The cities that exemplify this urban character took shape before zoning pounded contemporary cities into their current form. That’s because zoning restricts a kind of messy, organic growth and incremental individualization that help great cities thrive.

The fundamental question, then, doesn’t seem to be how to implement the correct zoning, but, rather, how do we return to a kind of growth that pre-dates contemporary zoning? How do you rewind the clock? How do you go back to a time when cities could grow organically and respond to extremely localized conditions and opportunities? And how do you go back without re-introducing the public health and safety challenges that zoning was introduced to combat?

I don’t know the answer, but I don’t think the answer is better zoning—or at least, it is not better zoning exclusively. It will likely require, in addition to zoning, new financial regulations and tools, and a way to address the fundamental economic pressures of the real estate market. And I don’t think the answer is state-wide solutions like the ones being mulled in Oregon or California—or even city or regional solutions—to land-use regulation. The solutions have to come up from neighborhoods, to be developed neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block, empowering street-level community leaders and residents with the ability to make decisions that best fit their situation on the ground.

We have a solid example of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this brand of urban revitalization in Dallas. North Oak Cliff’s success was a product of a slow build of 20-plus years of investment by individuals who lived in the neighborhood. North Oak Cliff’s recent growing pains are a result of expansive new zoning that opened the floodgates to density that brought institutional investment. Oak Cliff shows how hyper-local investment can help rekindle a neighborhood’s vibrancy, but it also shows that expansive zoning can fuel the very gentrification and displacement that density proponents are currently selling a solution for inequality.

The lesson here is that there are no cookie-cutter solutions. As developer Monte Anderson has preached before, real, sustainable urban revitalization is a product of small-scale opportunities, each neighborhood recognizing its strengths and building on them bit-by-bit.


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