In her book, Brave New Home, Diana Lind argues that the single-family home is at least partly to blame for our current housing woes.
“A fundamental part of the American dream is to own a single-family home. But this aspiration and the lifestyle that comes with it has grown increasingly unaffordable, unhealthy, and ironically out of step with consumer demand” writes Lind in an opinion piece for The Philadelphia Enquirer. “A large and growing portion of the population is unable to access the homeownership lifestyle, even if they desire it. Not surprisingly, the lack of housing choices and the prevalence of exclusionary housing regulations—such as minimum lot sizes and required off-street parking for each household— has made housing grow more expensive decade over decade, even though wages have not kept up with housing costs.”
The impossible dream
Home ownership, idealized by real estate developers and 20th Century policymakers, is no longer an achievable goal for many. It divides the country not only financially but racially. Redlining and other widespread discrimination have left entire neighborhoods in poverty. The high cost of housing and subsequent poverty can be directly linked to poorer health outcomes. And suburbs full of single-family housing, where cars are required, have caused environmental consequences as well.
Single family homes are just not as suitable as they once seemed. Today, 20 percent of the population lives alone and 20 percent live with extended family in multi-generational homes.
COVID-19 has also challenged the way we look at housing. Stay-at-home requirements during the pandemic brought the need for community into sharp focus. “The fact is that encouraging more housing types would accommodate more people with different life circumstances” writes Lind. “By changing our zoning to not only accommodate more housing, but also changing how we incentivize housing types other than the single-family homes, we could make our neighborhoods more livable and affordable for a wider range of people.”
Other housing types might include duplexes, a good option for family who want to live close to each other; Single Room Occupancy buildings (SROs), a better option than living on the street for those who can’t afford an entire apartment; and Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), a housing type which includes basement apartments, in-law suites and backyard cottages.
So, how do we find a path to what Diana Lind calls “smarter, simpler, happier housing”?
“We will have to include housing in a broader set of policies to address the country’s deep inequality. But we must do so without prizing homeownership and the single-family home.“
‘Missing Middle Homes 2′ by Sightline Institute from Flickr CC BY-2.0