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Is Our Love Affair with the Single-Family Home Over?

It may depend on what millennials really want. But none of the ideas aimed at that generation would make more than a dent in America's acute housing shortage.

"A man is not a whole and complete man," Walt Whitman believed, "unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on."

Whitman wrote those words in 1856, and I have no doubt that most of his readers believed it, and most Americans have clung to that belief ever since. But is that creed losing its relevance in the 21st century? Are we evolving new societal attitudes that will gradually move us out of our infatuation with the single-family home and into a new notion of shelter more appropriate to the social upheavals of the present moment?

Like many complex current questions, this one seems to imply an equally difficult one that's hard to escape: What is it that the millennials really want? If most of them are truly disillusioned with detached-house living, then it would seem to follow that the developers and the society at large will follow their lead.

And there is some fragmentary evidence that this immense cohort of 64 million people is in fact looking for some new rules of residence. They aren't buying houses in the same numbers as the previous generation. They aren't buying cars or even learning to drive with the same enthusiasm that defined the baby boomers and Generation X.

There are many plausible explanations for that, not least the Great Recession of a decade ago and now the uncertainties of the coronavirus. But in general, there is reason to believe that millions of millennials have a greater fondness for experiences than for physical possessions that past generations craved. That has obvious implications for American housing choices. And it could have more important implications for our efforts to deal with a massive national housing shortage.

Of course, it is plausible that once the virus abates, young people in their 20s and 30s will develop the same attachment to spacious lots and car-dependent suburban homes that their predecessors developed. It is very much an open question.

Diana Lind believes she has some answers. A longtime journalist and urban policy scholar in Philadelphia, she is the author of a new book, Brave New Home, that treats the single-family residence as a relic of a bygone time. She's provocative and engaging, and she raises a multitude of interesting scenarios.

Her fundamental argument is consistent. "Millennials," she says, "are looking at their lives for their present value and their ability to bring joy and connect with people." The detached suburban home isn't high on their agenda. To satisfy millennial desires, in her view," we need to actively transition our policies away from home ownership and single-family homes."

BUT WHAT WILL WE TRANSITION TOWARD? Lind suggests a whole array of options and experiments, some of them already being tried.

First on her list is "co-living," the association of urban residents in a multi-unit dwelling that offers them not only common rooms and common dining but, in many cases, happy hours, gym classes, even kibbutz-style shared child-rearing. "There is an open invitation," Lind writes, "to connect with people in common spaces." One such project, ALTA+ in the New York borough of Queens, provides its residents with a huge gym, a lap pool and a yoga studio. The apartments themselves are small, and the sleeping takes place in fold-up Murphy beds, which Lind describes as the physical symbol of co-living arrangements.


A common work and play space in a co-living apartment building in Long Island City, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of ALTA+)

There is no mistaking Lind's enthusiasm for this kind of experiment. "While co-living might seem like a sub-culture," she says, "it is quickly turning into a widespread phenomenon and real estate asset class. … Developers are thinking that co-living could be as popular in the future as luxury apartments have been in the last two decades."

But could it? How many people actually would like to live this way? My guess is not very many, and especially not many families with children. This is housing for young and unattached people, and pretty affluent ones at that. In one co-living establishment in lower Manhattan, a studio apartment costs $3,000 a month. No doubt the rent would be cheaper in most of the country, but it is hard to see these ventures doing much to solve the nation's acute shortage of places for middle-class families to live in. To her credit, Lind admits this. "For co-living to meet its claims of revolutionizing how we live," she writes, "it can't just be for rich yuppies." But that's the way it may turn out.

If co-living isn't more than a niche answer, then how about just a heavy downsizing, a profusion of apartments or detached homes of 500 square feet or less, marketed to singles, couples and small families. Lind is into this one too. "Small is the new big," she asserts hopefully, "minimalism the new luxury."

Even if we can create a substantial number of homes this small, however, they will have a serious image problem to overcome. "For all the talk of tiny homes being the new lifestyle choices," Lind admits, "the reality is that many are traditional mobile homes in disguise.'' Of course, they could be marketed as bungalows rather than trailers, but it's not clear how many millennials this would convince. In one recent year, just 2 percent of the homes sold in New York City and San Francisco, where the housing shortage is most acute, were under 500 square feet in size. It's not clear when, or whether, that number will grow substantially.

If co-living and tiny homes can solve a piece of the housing dilemma, it will be an extremely small piece. What else might there be? Well, we can encourage people to add ADUs — accessory dwelling units — to the backyards or garages behind their detached single-family homes. Zoning laws up to now have discouraged ADUs, but those laws are changing in quite a few states. In California, Lind reports, "there is a genuine frenzy … to build ADUs. Just 257 were approved in 2016; two years later, the number was up to more than 4,000."

Unfortunately, there is a lesson in the ADU experience up in Vancouver, British Columbia, which has launched perhaps the most extensive ADU experiment anywhere. Between 2010 and 2016, about 2,000 of these units were built in the city. But as you might guess, there's a catch, and Lind is too responsible a journalist not to report it. "In many cases," she concedes, "these homes aren't geared toward low- or even moderate-income households. Rather, they're posh and profitable rentals, Airbnbs, or extra housing for visitors or relatives." That's often the case in the U.S. as well: An ADU in San Francisco can cost $500,000 to build.


An accessory dwelling unit located over a garage. (Photo: Flickr/Creative Common, Radcliffe Dacanay)

IN THE END, no matter how innovative these projects might be, they run into a daunting problem of scale. A study by Freddie Mac earlier this year estimated that the United States faces a housing shortage of roughly 2.5 million units. We can't make much of a dent in that with co-living, tiny houses or accessory dwelling units, even if millennials develop a taste for them. None will solve the housing crisis, even if they become, as Lind predicts, an attractive niche market for a substantial cohort of young people.

Nor is there much good to report in the steps cities and states have made to alleviate the housing shortage over the past decade or so. Many local governments have enacted mandatory inclusionary zoning — developers of new projects have to set aside a certain percentage of the units for low- and moderate-income families. The trouble here is that if you set the mandate too high, the builders just won't build. So they usually are allowed to contribute money into an affordable-housing fund rather than abide by the mandate. This has produced little affordable housing in most of the places that have tried it.

Then, perhaps most dramatically, there are zoning reforms that make it illegal for a community to require new homes to be conventional detached single-family dwellings. Minneapolis did this in 2018, to significant national acclaim. Now any homeowner or developer in the city can construct a duplex or a triplex apartment building almost anywhere they want. It's a reasonable thing to do. But there isn't much evidence so far that it will produce a large amount of additional housing. In the first year after Minneapolis changed its zoning law, according to the Niskanen Center think tank, three triplexes were approved in the city.

So is there anything we might do to deal with the problem at an effective scale? Well, maybe. The California Legislature has been arguing for nearly four years now over a proposal by state Sen. Scott Wiener that would require communities to allow four- and five-story apartment buildings within half a mile of transit stations.

Wiener's bill has been amended numerous times, and I'm not going to try and parse the details here. But the main points are clear. The bill could provide lots of housing — thousands of units in the state's most populous metropolitan areas. It would not be a boutique experiment. The major criticism — one reason it hasn't become law — is based on the fear that it would add too much housing for the affluent and not enough for the poor.

Maybe so. But what really matters is the need to produce large numbers of new units, and to do it soon — and not to bicker endlessly about which income cohort gets what percentage of the new supply. New housing will ease the shortage no matter whom it's built for; even adding luxury apartments will eventually open up more for those further down the economic ladder.

The California proposal will also test whether millennials actually want what so many of them say they want: urban living in dense surroundings with amenities in walking distance and a reduced dependence on cars. If that's in fact what most of this generation is looking for, there may be a way to give it to them and do something meaningful about the housing crisis at the same time.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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