The evolving American Dream: more dense but still private

I’ve written about several aspects of the American Dream including unhappiness and how the American Dream might now be about perfection rather than acquiring goods or status. One key aspect of this Dream is housing, often viewed as a single-family house in a suburb. A new report from the National Association of Realtors suggests homebuyers now have some new preferences:

The 2011 Community Preference Survey reveals that, ideally, most Americans would like to live in walkable communities where shops, restaurants, and local businesses are within an easy stroll from their homes and their jobs are a short commute away; as long as those communities can also provide privacy from neighbors and detached, single-family homes. If this ideal is not possible, most prioritize shorter commutes and single-family homes above other considerations.

1. The economy has had a substantial impact on attitudes toward housing and communities…

2. Overall, Americans’ ideal communities have a mix of houses, places to walk, and amenities within an easy walk or close drive…

3. Desire for privacy is a top consideration in deciding where to live…

4. But, having a reasonable commute can temper desire for more space…

5. Community characteristics are more important than size of home…

6. Improving existing communities preferred over building new roads and developments…

7. Major differences in community preferences of various types of Americans…

All of these points are from the executive summary which also has some key percentages for each point.

The results of this survey seem similar to a recent report (see here) earlier this year from the National Association of Home Builders that suggested Generation Y wants more urban settings and more social (and smaller?) homes. In the long run, it remains to be seen whether these changes are broad cultural changes, generational changes (driven by younger generations), or opinions changed primarily by recent economic conditions.

Richard Florida sums up the report this way:

We’ve come to a crossroads that neither dyed-in-the-wool sprawl advocates nor crunchy urbanists dreamed of two decades ago, in which the choice isn’t between urban and suburban but between neighborhood and subdivision. A great neighborhood is a great neighborhood whether it’s in the city or the suburbs. It’s not an either/or, between crowded apartments or Cape Cods on cul de sacs, it’s more of a blend. Developers and planners take note: there is a potentially enormous market in cities for narrow single-family houses on small lots, like you see in places like Santa Monica and Venice. And as I wrote in The Wall Street Journal not too long ago, there are countless ways that our suburbs can be densified and reinvigorated. The American Dream hasn’t died–it just looks a lot different than it did in the 1950s. It looks a lot different than it did a decade ago.

So this report may not really be a repudiation of the suburbs but rather a new vision for suburbia: private yet dense (with still a clear 80% preference for single-family homes) and with neighborhood amenities. I am a little surprised that there aren’t more specific questions about preferred housing size or housing costs. Additionally, the survey seems set up to ask a lot of questions about smart growth with little explanation why this was the main focus.

(A side note: the study was a web survey:

The 2011 BRS/NAR Community Preference Survey is a web-enabled survey of adults nationwide using the Knowledge Networks panel. Knowledge Networks uses probability methods to recruit its panel, allowing results to be generalized to the population of adults in the U.S. A total of 2,071 questionnaires were completed from February 15 to 24, 2011. The data have been weighted by gender, age, race, region, metropolitan status, and Internet access. The margin of sampling error for the sample of 2,071 is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. A detailed methodology can be found in Appendix A.

Knowledge Networks (KN) is a firm that gets around some of the common problems of web surveys (typically having to do with having a representative sample) by having representative panels who take web surveys. In order to get a representative sample, KN employs this technique:  “Since almost three in ten U.S. households do not have home Internet access, we supply these households a free netbook computer and Internet service.”)

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