American housing reacts to changes in family and household structures

After looking at some data about how much American families and households have changed in recent decades, Kaid Benfield asks an interesting question about how American housing might change to meet these realities:

So, as many of us connect with families in one way or another on Thanksgiving, I can’t help but observe that there really is no “typical” American family living under the same roof these days, if there ever was.  Rather, we have a diverse and changing array of household types and circumstances that smart planners and businesses will seek to accommodate.  The census data show that the growing parts of the housing market are nonfamily households, smaller households including people living alone, unmarried couples, single-parent households with kids, and older households.  The declining parts of the market are larger families, married couples, two-parent households, and couples with only one breadwinner, though each of these categories clings to a significant share of the total.

Interesting stuff, and mostly good for those of us who would like to see less sprawl and more walkable neighborhoods.  But also a bit complex.

The typical answer I’ve seen online to this question is to point to indicators that suggest younger (see here and here) and older adults (see here) will be seeking out denser housing. This may be true. I think we could also argue that American housing has already shifted to these realities in recent decades through several new options.

1. The rise of townhouses, particularly in the suburbs. These have the advantages of allowing for single-family home ownership, the ability to pay an association to maintain the housing as well as help protect property values, and denser housing which frees up more open space.

2. The rise of condos in both suburbs in cities. In suburbs, this has similar benefits to townhouses. In cities, this has been a boon for redevelopment and the movement of people with money into urban cores.

3. New housing products for older Americans beyond group homes including developments like the Del Webb communities and retirement complexes that include owned units (whether more like condos or detached single-family units).

4. More interest in tiny houses and tiny apartments (see this latest example from San Francisco).

5. Some New Urbanist communities and neighborhoods that allow for denser housing.

Perhaps the argument here about housing is about a matter of degrees; there have been changes in American housing in recent decades but it hasn’t necessarily been mostly anti-sprawl.

Note: I’ve been following some of these trends about changing family and household composition. For example, check out these posts (here and here) about more Americans living in single-person households.

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