Diana Lind is a writer, editor, critic and urban advocate. Now heading the Arts and Business Council for Greater Philadelphia, Diana made her mark at Next City, a nonprofit, online news organization focused on urban issues and stories about creating equitable cities. Diana moved to Philadelphia, in 2008, from her hometown of NYC to take over as editor in chief, and she later became the executive director. After Next City she was the founding managing director of the Fels Policy Research Initiative at The University of Pennsylvania, where she worked until joining the Arts and Business Council in 2019. Previously, Diana worked at the Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, and was both a freelance editor for Rizzoli and editor/critic for Architectural Record.
In October, Diana published a new book on the history of and alternatives to the single-family home in the United States, called Brave New Home. Meant as a way to introduce laypeople to the rich (and sometimes troubled) history of housing in the U.S., her book also confronts the housing disparities we must bravely face today. Diana is a frequent public speaker, and has given keynotes or participated in panels at more than 100 events, including major conventions like the World Urban Forum and Smart City Expo. In 2008, she published Brooklyn Modern: Architecture, Interiors & Design, and she has received honors such as the TED City 2.0 prize, the ACLU Stand Up for Freedom award, and a funded residency at Blue Mountain Center. She serves on the boards of Next City and The Philadelphia Citizen.
Insights and Inspirations
- Let’s be brave, Diana says. And brave we must be to solve the housing crisis.
- Governments must bravely tweak their zoning regulations, so that new and affordable housing types can easily be built.
- Developers must bravely experiment with their next housing project.
- Banks must bravely finance new housing products.
- And NIMBYS must bravely accept some change.
Information and Links
- Be sure to check out Diana’s new book!
- And she wants to point people to Next City, “the best source of national news about urban innovations.”
- And, The Philadelphia Citizen, the local solutions journalism website where she is also a board member. It’s a fantastic window into the “good things in Philly” that are happening, and the leaders who are making it so.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:15] Hi there. Thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing. My guest today is Diana Lind. She’s written a book called Brave New Home. In it, she explores the history of and alternatives to the single family home in the United States. Her interest in this subject was kindled by her own experiences as a young mother living in a typical single family home which didn’t quite meet her needs. Diana’s past experiences come into full focus with this book. Professionally, she started life as a writer at Architectural Record, kindling an interest in architecture, and her tenure at Next City cemented her interest in urban advocacy. If you’d like to know more about Diana once you’ve listened in, be sure to go to EvePicker.com to find out more on the show notes page for this episode. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small Change.
Eve: [00:01:42] Hi, Diana. I’m really delighted to have you here with me today.
Diana Lind: [00:01:46] Thanks so much for having me.
Eve: [00:01:47] So, you’re a writer and you’ve spent your career deeply immersed in urban issues. And I’m wondering how you became an urban advocate?
Diana : [00:01:57] Sure, I grew up in New York City. So, living in a city and just adoring all of its creativity, its vibrancy, its density, all of these kinds of things, just as part of who I am. But I originally thought I was going to be a novelist or just a journalist. And when I graduated from college, my first job was working at a magazine, but it was working at an architecture magazine. And I didn’t really know very much about architecture, but it was a fantastic experience. I was working for Architectural Record and I still write for them and it’s a fantastic publication. And really from that experience, that was in the early 2000s, it was a period when there was a big focus on kind of the ‘Bilbao effect.’ How could cities use amazing architecture to spark a downtown revitalization in cities around the country? And so, I really went from architecture into becoming very interested in cities and started working at Next City, which was then known as the Next American City Magazine, in Philadelphia. And that’s really when I transitioned from being focused on architecture, to cities and urban policy issues. And I’ve been in that place ever since.
Eve: [00:03:21] So, did you ever get to Bilbao?
Diana : [00:03:23] I did not, no.
Eve: [00:03:25] I did, it’s a really fantastic city. It’s a really interesting city.
Diana : [00:03:32] Yeah. I mean, what is one of the problems with the Bilbao effect’s translation into the U.S. is that I think a lot of people thought, well, you just need an awesome museum by a brand name architect and you need so much more than that.
Eve: [00:03:45] Oh, no. I think the remarkable thing about Bilbao that I really, was burned into my brain, is the use of public squares and how just the culture is very different in American culture. So, in the evening, you know, families would come out into these little urban courtyards and squares and join other families and the kids would be playing and it was fantastic. That’s really what Bilbao is about.
Diana : [00:04:10] Yeah. And also like an economic development strategy, not just an expensive museum. So, I think you need a fuller package. Yeah, for sure.
Eve: [00:04:20] So, tell me about your latest book, Brave New Home.
Diana : [00:04:23] Sure. Brave New Home just came out in October 2020. And the book is really a history of single family housing in the United States and an exploration of how we went from a country that had many more diverse housing options to one dominated by single family homes. And then a forward looking view at what are some alternatives to the single family home and why they’ve become so compelling. And swirling all around this is issues of demographic change, cultural change, ways in which just society has changed and housing has not kept pace. So, the conclusion looks also at how can we address some of the social, economic and environmental issues that we’re facing as a country through better housing policies.
Eve: [00:05:17] So, why did you write the book? What prompted you to write it?
Diana : [00:05:20] I was inspired to write the book first from a personal level. So, I was one of these people in my 20’s and early 30’s who spent very little time at home. And I was always kind of out working or I was going out with friends or going to different cities, things like that. And then when I had my first child, I just started spending so much more time at home and I really started to question how I had come to assume that a certain style of living, the single family row home that we lived in, was the right choice for our family. And also wondered about why it was, being a first-time mother, very difficult in terms of not having connections to people to kind of learn from and talk to, and other families to have dinner with where it wouldn’t matter if your child was screaming or crying. And I’ve found that we have created all of these sort of workarounds to that, like Mommy and Me classes that you pay 20 dollars to participate in. But that, you know, actually housing, multigenerational housing, neighborhoods that were purposefully built to be, you know, more closely knit as communities. These were ways in which we had raised generations in the past, and that was really no longer the case anymore. So, it started with a kind of personal questioning of how housing affects our lives in the way that we just raise families and exist in the world.
Eve: [00:06:55] Right.
Diana : [00:06:56] And then, this was a number of years ago, when really the price appreciation in Philadelphia where I live, and in many other cities, was picking up at a really fast pace. So, I think in 2016, prices went up by about 20 percent in Philadelphia in just one year alone. And so just witnessing…
Eve: [00:07:18] Wow…
Diana : [00:07:18] Yeah, and, you know, and that was not even the most extreme example. I mean, Seattle was probably the leader that year. And so, recognizing that housing was so expensive and there was such a great need for more affordable housing and just absolutely no way that we were going to be able to just sort of subsidize our way out of that, through whether it was new taxes or new government programs, that there had to be some other ways of addressing some of this affordability issue. And then finally, also in the past couple years, obviously, people had been thinking about climate change forever. But, you know, in the past couple of years, it’s become very evident, especially with wildfires in California, that the ways in which we have built into nature and kind of further expanded development has really had an impact on our ability to bring climate change under control. So, the social, economic and environmental issues had been swirling. And really, I wanted to put it together in a book and write about it in a way that would be accessible to people who knew a little bit about housing, but not a ton, perhaps. And also just sort of like a general person who was very curious about some of these issues and needed a bit of like a foundation of understanding the history of housing in the country.
Eve: [00:08:41] Right. You must have learned a lot researching it. What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Diana : [00:08:48] You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know that I was entirely surprised, but I had, of course, imagined that in the past there were more diverse housing options, like obviously knew about boarding houses or single room occupancy type buildings, or inns and taverns and the very beginning of colonial cities and whatnot. What I didn’t realize was that there were just so many variations upon things like apartment hotels that were built to give people a certain amount of privacy in their own apartment. But to have these kind of communal dining rooms where you could connect with your neighbors. And also how, you know, some of these types of communities were not seen as the way that I think they’re portrayed today, as kind of just bourgeois, you know, laziness, but rather a way to address some of the domestic inequality of women always having to take on the laundry, the cleaning of the house, et cetera. And so, some of these kinds of communities where there were amenities built in, were actually seen as feminist projects.
Eve: [00:10:00] That’s amazing.
Diana : [00:10:01] Yeah. And, you know, gender segregated housing that had a mission to provide for professional opportunities and colleagueship among women or men, over and over, and I couldn’t include it all in the book, but just found really interesting examples of, like, housing set aside for sailors that came in the city. Or, you know, just like so many different types. And we think, you know, pretty much today of just like single family housing and senior housing and maybe student housing. And that’s kind of it, you know?
Eve: [00:10:33] I interviewed someone a few months back who built a project, specifically housing for teachers. So, again, a community like that could kind of really lean on each other in a variety of ways. Interesting. You must have learned some troubling things as well. I read a quote. You said, “The housing that we built is built on a model that was created, frankly, with a lot of classist and racist exclusivity and privacy in mind.” So, you know, tell me about them.
Diana : [00:11:03] Sure, yeah, well, when you look at the growth of single family homes, it really started in the early 20th century at a time when there was an influx of immigrants in cities and a lot of the immigrants were not wealthy people living in crowded situations, in tenements and other housing types. And when both a combination of a bunch of different things happened, housing became more affordable to build through some standardizations of technologies and materials and the proliferation of private cars and trolleys and transit systems that would get people out of cities. You know, the real push for these initial suburbs in the beginning of the 20th century were really opportunities for the wealthiest and the whitest to move out of cities.
Eve: [00:12:02] That was catastrophic. Places like Pittsburgh. Right?
Diana : [00:12:06] Um hum, yeah. And that started, you know, really before what we think of as the baby boom period, which really led to suburbanization and very much car oriented suburbs, which then were communities that were built explicitly to exclude people of color, Jewish people and other minority groups. And that was done both legally, first through redlining and then sort of extra legally continued through restrictive covenants that could determine who was able to own a home or not able to own a home. You know, I think a lot of people in the history that has been talked about of this have really thought about the suburbs as being this great opportunity for people to access affordable housing and improve their quality of life. But it was not an opportunity that was available to all people. And many people have read Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law, but that is a whole book on that particular topic and certainly worth reading for that.
Eve: [00:13:12] Ok, so what does housing reform look like to you after writing this book and doing this research?
Diana : [00:13:18] The key thing is recognizing that there are a lot of different demographics in the country that want different styles of housing and we’ve really tried a sort of one size fits all approach to housing through the single family home and pursued that too. I think in some cases boost property values for people to continue to provide the kind of privacy and seclusion that we associate with the American dream, but which is really benefiting a kind of smaller and smaller group of homeowners. And in fact, as more corporate entities come into the single family home investment space, buying up tens of thousands of properties to use them as rental properties or even as flipping options as Zillow and other companies have done, it’s not even homeowners anymore who are pursuing this dream. So recognizing that we need to provide options for people who are in different economic circumstances and have different cultural and social needs is going to be really important. The reform part of it would really be to ensure that there is the zoning that allows for different types of housing, that there are incentives that provide for different types of housing, and that we’re not really only incentivizing the single family home through things like the mortgage interest deduction, through homeownership oriented programs, but that we’re thinking about ways to say legalize and encourage duplexes, because that might be a style of housing particularly suited for multigenerational households or households where someone needs an in-home caretaker or people need access to rental income or all of these various different things. And it’s really not legal in many neighborhoods, residential communities across the country. So I think step one would certainly be reforming the zoning and reforming what kinds of incentives we provide for housing.
Eve: [00:15:28] Yeah, okay, I suppose that was my next question. What is the impact of zoning on building a more equitable housing landscape is huge.
Diana : [00:15:37] Absolutely. Just yesterday, I was talking with a group of people interested in trying to encourage Philadelphia to reword some of its zoning to allow for accessory dwelling units across the city or in more neighborhoods and make the zoning less restrictive for it. And hearing from developers that were part of the group talking about how it costs time and money to have to deal with zoning variances or the uncertainty about whether a project is going to get it approved, you realize just how these kinds of zoning issues affect the whole pipeline of housing.
Eve: [00:16:19] Enormously. So, we actually have an offering live on Small Change for aiding a developer in Oregon. And there they put an overlay district, I think it statewide, which makes them use by right as long as they conform to a certain size. And he’s built the business around that zoning regulation.
Diana : [00:16:40] Yeah.
Eve: [00:16:40] So that he can move really quickly and create a manufactured unit that is actually half the price, a regular one bedroom unit to build. It’s one hundred and fifteen thousand instead of two hundred and fifty. So they have that in place. But the next problem is that financing them. I mean, you cannot find a bank, a CDFI fund or anyone who really finance these projects.
Diana : [00:17:07] Yeah, I think that’s an interesting issue and something that I talk a little bit about in the book. I give an example of an innovative project in Los Angeles through a nonprofit there, called LA Más. And they were really exploring, along with the city of Los Angeles, how to provide accessory dwelling units that would be both affordable to construct, and affordable to finance and all these kinds of issues. And what they were trying to do was to essentially line up all the parts for the homeowner to make it kind of one stop shopping so that they could have the contractor, the architect, the financing, all as part of a package that you buy into. Because I think one of the other issues is just for so many people, the idea of building an accessory dwelling unit is it’s very difficult. And if you’re not real estate savvy…
Eve: [00:18:02] Oh, it’s impossible. So, this guy actually builds it, installs it, finances it, and then gives them a ground lease. So, the opportunity to buy it at any time, you know, within a 10 year period, I think.
Diana : [00:18:19] Right. So that’s definitely a model that is gaining popularity and with good reason.
Eve: [00:18:24] Yeah, except he can’t finance it. I mean, it’s really difficult like we are with this huge housing need. And while I think people are being extremely creative, developing new models, getting banks and financial institutions to catch up is the next part of the story, right?
Diana : [00:18:46] Yes, absolutely. You know, just today, I got an invite to a webinar about accessory dwelling units with someone from Fannie Mae participating in it. So I think that there is kind of an increasing awareness among our governmental institutions that are financing housing that we need to be more nimble in what types of housing we’re financing and that there’s a I think, a growing awareness among a lot of banks as well. To your point about that statewide overlay in Oregon and some of the reform in California, these are huge markets and there’s a real opportunity there for these banks. So it’s going to become a question of them figuring out sooner rather than later that this is going to be a business opportunity for them. And they would be silly to not participate in that.
Eve: [00:19:38] Yeah, I think what I love most, about ADUs, backyard units, Grandma, in-law units, whatever you want to call them, is that they slip into an existing infrastructure in the neighborhood which has transit options and the grocery store and the school, they just slip in as extra housing without much fuss at all. If you can provide an affordable unit to someone in a great neighborhood that already exists, it’s just a fabulous option and we ought to all be on it.
Diana : [00:20:09] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You know, something I try to stress in the book is that I don’t think there is a single housing option that’s going to solve the housing crisis. And so, you know, accessory dwelling units, they sort of have their limits. And before this call, you and I were talking a little bit about covid. And it kind of reminds me in some sense of what is increasingly called sort of like the Swiss cheese model, which is the idea that you have to wear a mask, you have to do social distancing, you have to limit the time you’re spending in certain places and that none of these various different safeguards is going to be enough to prevent covid. But when you do them all together, then you actually are able to prevent it relatively well.
Eve: [00:20:49] Make some impact. Yeah, yeah.
Diana : [00:20:51] So I think that’s sort of the same thing with housing, which is like, you know, these accessory dwelling units, they’re not going to solve everything, nor are duplexes, nor multifamily because they’re not going to work in every kind of context, but we have to think about what works in a given context and think about how we might be able to update housing to better provide affordability or some of the kind of needs that people have today.
Eve: [00:21:17] So what about co-living or co-housing, which is an emerging affordable housing trend? And I’ve talked to a variety of developers and I worked with a variety of developers just tackling this in so many different ways. It’s really fascinating.
Diana : [00:21:32] Yeah, so co-living was really picking up a lot of steam before the pandemic. And I have heard that there’s continuing to be some expansion and kind of merging of co-living companies. And I think it is still continuing to be a viable product and will be certainly post pandemic. But co-living, you know, is this idea of people having their own private bedrooms but larger shared spaces with programming and a sort of intentional community aspect to the building or the house, what have you, behind it. And certainly there are a lot of advantages of it and ways in which co-living really responds to demographic needs. And that, again, is sort of one of the thrust of the book is that, you know, there are young people who are not interested in acquiring furniture, are not interested in long leases. They want experiences. They want, you know, an Instagram worthy meal. They want, you know, just different types of things. And this is not to say it’s all people. And certainly it is a wealthier demographic of young people that tend to be living in these kind of traditional co-living spaces. That said, co-living has also, I think, de-stigmatized, shared living in a way in which we haven’t seen in a long time. So the kind of idea that living in a small apartment but having a small studio but having access to all of these amenities and other people, that kind of makes it seem cool. But we’ve seen some developers like Common, for example, which has then now partnered with cities like New York and Atlanta to build shared living and co-living spaces for people who are lower income or who are formerly homeless. So it can transcend one market into another. And I think it’s a really interesting housing type to get to address both some of the social needs that people have for actually connecting with people. You know, young people are like the loneliest generation, especially as more people spend time online. I think really value time in person as well. And so it’s a great way to address some of that social need and also provide some of that density that is going to have economic and environmental benefits too.
Eve: [00:24:01] In markets, like New York City it provides an opportunity for someone to live there. I suppose if you want to call affordably, you know, in a place that really could not afford to live.
Diana : [00:24:11] Right. Yes, that is definitely I think part of the whole idea is that for decades now, people have lived in little shoeboxes in New York and San Francisco, you know, sharing a, say, two bedroom apartment among six young people or what have you. And it’s kind of taking a little bit of that same idea. But but doing it in a more thoughtful way. And, yeah, like people are going to be spending a lot of money on rent anyways to live in a prime neighborhood. This is a way to do that and do it and actually sometimes like a more legal and friendly fashion.
Eve: [00:24:49] Right, right. Right. So are there any other housing trends that you believe are kind of really important for our future?
Diana : [00:24:55] Definitely think that multigenerational housing is one of the sleeper issues in housing that has not really gotten the attention of both the marketplace solutions and government policies. Multigenerational housing, so three or more generations under a roof, was on the rise in the U.S. and at the highest level since the 1950’s, I think in 2018. When the next data dump comes out, I’m very interested to see. I’m sure that it is even higher now. Also, people living with kin has also increased. So not just multiple generations, but living with an aunt and uncle or brother or sister or cousin, that kind of thing. People can, of course, live all in a single family home together in a multigenerational fashion. But, you know, there are a lot of housing types that were traditionally available, like duplexes, like multifamily townhouses that worked quite well for this type of demographic that we could see the renewal of that being very important to support in multigenerational housing. So I think that’s going to be a huge trend in the future.
Eve: [00:26:13] That’s kind of ‘the missing middle,’ right?
Diana : [00:26:15] Mm hmm. Right. Yeah.
Eve: [00:26:17] We’ve touched on this, but what role should developers or communities or city government or even federal government play in building an equitable housing landscape?
Diana : [00:26:28] Well, I think it requires certainly all of these different stakeholders. And the role that developers can play is being willing to experiment with housing types, being willing to test out housing that might work for a niche demographic that actually is quite huge. You know, I think that’s one of the things that we found with co-living, for example. Like, you don’t need all young people to live this way because the millennial generation is the largest generation that exists. But even just a fraction of it is a huge market. So a willingness to look beyond the status quo is going to be important from developers. I think from the government side of things, a willingness to accept that we’re not going to be able to simply create all the affordable housing that we need through the old standard measures of old government programs. It would be great if, as President elect Biden has proposed, that of making Section eight an entitlement that will do a lot to create more affordable housing. But I also think that government needs to recognize that there is a role here to play in changing zoning to adjust. Yes. What might actually flourish more naturally in their city if they adjusted the zoning.
Eve: [00:27:47] I mean, it’s so expensive to change zoning regulations. I was part of a zoning regulation rewrite a couple of decades ago, and it was a huge project.
Diana : [00:27:58] Right.
Eve: [00:27:59] You have all these small places that where did they get the funds from?
Diana : [00:28:05] Right, and that’s where I think some of the state reform is really powerful because then you don’t have the same kinds of issues of small municipalities having to figure out how to change their zoning. I’m thinking more along the lines of larger cities that could adjust their zoning and have processes to look at their planning documents every few years. So I think that’s definitely a way to adjust some of it.
Eve: [00:28:34] Right back to you. What are you currently working on?
Diana : [00:28:39] I sometimes marvel at the fact that I was able to write the book because I have two young kids and I have a full time job. And then there’s been this pandemic which has made everything…
Eve: [00:28:50] Three jobs.
Diana : [00:28:51] Yeah, right. So, I think at the moment I’m really just trying to get the word out about the book and kind of get those ideas out there a bit more. I do have some ideas of what some potential next book could be. Very interested in the discussion about how cities are going to transform as a result of the pandemic and more rather than just the pandemic, the increase in online working and how that is going to change cities and the sort of ways in which retail had been troubled pre pandemic. But that has just been accelerated. So, something about that future of the city question and something I’ve written about a little bit lately, and I could imagine looking at that in a larger format.
Eve: [00:29:41] That would be really interesting.
Diana : [00:29:42] Yeah.
Eve: [00:29:43] I just wanted to go back to one other thing. You grew up in New York City and I think you live in Philly now, right?
Diana : [00:29:48] Yeah.
Eve: [00:29:49] What do you love about Philly and what do you think it needs to do better to become a 21st century metro area.
Diana : [00:29:56] Well, I think Philly is a fantastic city for so many different reasons. I think the reason that I love it currently, which is different than a couple of years ago, is just how amazing its cultural institutions are. I now run something called The Arts and Business Council. That’s my day job, if you will. And so I work with people in the creative sector and also businesses who are interested in getting involved in the creative community as well. So that just makes me really excited about the city seeing how that plays out. I live not too far from many of its big institutions, like the museums and the library, the central branch of the library and some of its great parks. So just all of that kind of like cultural infrastructure is built into, baked into Philly, and that is fantastic. The other thing that I really love about it is that it is a city that is changing, but not at such warp speed. That was definitely something I felt in New York in my early 20’s there. It just felt like the city was changing so fast and it was really disruptive. And so there’s like a nice pace of change here. Where it needs to go in the future? I think it just needs to be a more brave to take a word from the book.
Eve: [00:31:16] Yeah. Brave. I love that word. Everyone gets to be brave.
Diana : [00:31:20] Yes, totally. So that’s a little bit of a motto from the book is like, let’s be brave. And, you know, it’s amazing to see how we’ve closed down some streets for outdoor restaurants and taking up parking spaces for that and stuff like that. It’s just exposed how we could reorganize the city to be more pedestrian friendly, more bicycle friendly, all that kind of stuff. And we’ve not had the focus on that. I also think, you know, just a huge issue is the school system here is facing a huge deficit as a result of the pandemic and just a recognition that this is like the top priority for the city and we have to figure it out and do it right, at this point. There hasn’t been consensus around that, but I just don’t see a way forward for Philly if we don’t solve that. So that is going to need some bold action as well. You know, you can take these ideas and a bunch of different directions. I think we could do a lot more in terms of our transit, in terms of our housing, that would just be less about trying to recapture the status quo, but trying something new because we have no other option at this point.
Eve: [00:32:34] Yeah.
Diana : [00:32:35] Yeah.
Eve: [00:32:36] Well, thank you so much for joining me, Diana. I really enjoyed our conversation. And I want to learn more. And I think your book is now my reading list for the holidays, so I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it sounds really fascinating. I can’t wait to get into it. Thank you so much.
Diana : [00:32:53] Thanks so much. It was great talking with you as well.
Eve: [00:33:03] That was Diana Lind. “Let’s be brave,” she says, and brave we must be to solve this housing crisis. Governments must bravely tweak their zoning regulations so that new and affordable housing types can be easily built. Developers must bravely experiment with their next housing project. Banks must bravely finance new housing products, and NIMBY’s must bravely accept some change. Together, surely we can make a difference.Eve: [00:33:39] You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website EvePicker.com. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities. Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Diana, for sharing your thoughts. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Images courtesy of Diana Lind