Asking in San Francisco why a McMansion is allowed but a fourplex is not

McMansions may not just be undesirable on their own. If a McMansion is built, another kind of dwelling is not. One proposal in San Francisco aims to address this:

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He will introduce an ordinance making it much harder to build giant homes — the ones increasingly dotting the hillsides above Glen Park that many San Franciscans deride as monster homes or McMansions, but which are perfectly legal to build.

He will also ask the city attorney to draft legislation making it legal for any corner lot in the city that’s currently slated for one home to allow up to four units. And, most significantly, the legislation will allow any parcel within a half mile of a major transit stop like the Glen Park BART Station to be converted into a fourplex — corner property or not. The extra units could be rented or sold.

Yes, in large swaths of San Francisco — this supposedly progressive bastion — it’s currently legal to build an enormous, over-the-top house for one family, but illegal to build a small apartment building of the same size for four families.

This question plagues many desirable neighborhoods in big cities and suburbs: should anything that disturbs the existing character and/or property values be allowed? If this is the driving question, a McMansion might be a threat because it is a different kind of home – derided by critics as too big, architecturally incoherent – compared to what is already there. At the same time, the McMansion is still a single-family home. If that single-family home was replaced by a multi-family unit, residents then express concerns about increasing densities. They might also have concerns about renters moving into what was a neighborhood of homeowners as many Americans assume renters are less committed to their community.

And, as the article notes, making changes like this often means neighborhood by neighborhood conversations to consider the implications. Will a change have different impacts in different communities? What might be some of the unintended consequences? What will neighborhoods look like in a few decades with changes?

San Francisco may have a particular need for solutions but so do many other locations. The answers might come slowly on a case-by-case basis.

Finding housing in former strip malls and big box stores in California

In a state with a need for cheaper housing, some in California are looking to commercial properties along main roads:

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Joe DiStefano sees boulevards like El Camino Real as more than just spots for takeout or an oil change. He sees a “perfect storm of opportunity.” Cofounder and CEO of UrbanFootprint, a software company that builds urban planning tools, DiStefano has done numerous studies on the housing potential hiding in California’s commercial strips. According to UrbanFootprint’s analysis of El Camino Real, this lone corridor could theoretically accommodate more than 300,000 new units if the road was upzoned to allow residential development and its parking lots and big-box stores became low-rise apartment complexes…

Converting underutilized retail and office space into apartments is not a novel idea, but it’s gaining fresh attention from California lawmakers, especially as pandemic-fueled e-commerce and remote work trends continue to empty brick-and-mortar stores and business parks across the state. In December, California State Senator Anna Caballero, who represents the Central and Salinas valleys and cities such as Merced, helped introduce Senate Bill 6, which would fast-track the creation of walkable infill development and make it easier to turn land zoned for commercial uses into housing. Another member of the state’s legislature, Assemblymember Richard Bloom, has a similar proposal to encourage commercial-to-residential conversions, Assembly Bill 115. (California has a bicameral legislature.) And Senator Anthony Portantino introduced AB15, which would incentivize turning vacant big box sites into workforce housing…

But more than 40% of commercial zones in California’s 50 largest metros prohibit residential development, according to a recent report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Berkeley. “Residential Redevelopment of Commercially Zoned Land in California” highlights the growing potential of such rezoning proposals. “It’s a perfect infill option,” says David Garcia, a co-author and policy director at the Terner Center. While legislation like these proposed bills hasn’t been passed in other states, he believes they address a universal problem. “You’re really plugging in gaps left by shifts in the commercial marketplace, by Covid and the shift to e-commerce.”

There are three main types of projects ripe for this kind of reuse, Garcia says: commercial strips in more urban areas, often along existing transit lines; former big box retailers in more suburban areas; and vacant land in the exurban landscape that’s been reserved for future development. Researchers found there was actually more acreage of available commercial space per person in more suburban/outlier areas, an opportunity that, if paired with increased investment in transit, could quickly bring more density and valuable walkable development to fast-growing and diversifying suburban centers, some of which have already done a relatively good job of building new housing. “Instead of thinking about a bill like this as another state mandate cities need to adhere to, it should be looked at as a tool for doing the good planning they need to do anyways,” Garcia says. 

This might be hard sell before COVID-19 but the severe issues for retailers and businesses may make a lot of properties available.

Even with these issues, I wonder how many communities would quickly give up commercial properties to be rezoned for residential use. Many communities rely on commercial properties along major roads for sales tax revenue. If commercial property disappears from the local zoning map, how would a community make up those revenues?

Of course, providing possibly cheaper housing could be desirable to residents, even if it comes at the expense of commercial properties. And new residential units might even revive some local commercial activity.

If this is enabled at the state level, it would be interesting to see how quickly communities and developers would move. Vacant property is not desirable for any municipality. Would this move more quickly in certain kinds of communities compared to others?

Rent prices down in Chicago during 2020

Several sources suggest rent dropped in Chicago during this past year:

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And she’s not alone; in Chicago, rents dropped by almost 12% in December compared to December 2019, according to a new report from Apartment List, a website for apartment rentals. Average rent was $1,355 in Chicago a year ago; it fell to $1,193 in December.

Zillow data, too, marked the starkest plunge in year-over-year rental prices in the Chicago metropolitan area since it began analyzing national rents in 2014, with a decline starting in July and continuing through the latter half of the year.

Zillow reported a 2.2% decline in Chicago-area rents in November compared to a year earlier. When including the suburbs, Apartment List’s figures — which the service claims is more closely aligned to U.S. Census Bureau data — showed a similar decline of 6%, suggesting the suburban markets have not been as hard hit as the city.

Chicago was among the most severely impacted cities when it came to falling rents, said Rob Warnock, who co-authored the Apartment List study. Due to the pandemic, more expensive cities with competitive job markets saw rent decline — many for the first time in a decade.

It is good to see more data on the effects of COVID-19 on housing. As the article suggests, even a small drop in rents could be helpful for people in more uncertain economic times. This is not a big drop percentage-wise in Chicago, particularly compared to larger drops in Manhattan or San Francisco, but the Chicago market as not as overheated as some locations.

At the same time, it would be fascinating to see more detailed data addressing:

  1. Within cities and metropolitan regions, where have rents dropped, stayed about the same, or risen? And how does this line up with other social patterns?
  2. How much longer can renters and landlords continue on this path? How might this matter by location, different kinds of housing, and different landlords?
  3. Does this do anything to help address long-standing affordable housing issues in Chicago or is it a slight blip?

Some of these will take time to resolve as will the question of whether rents will go back at some point. In the meantime, many people in many communities are affected by these changes.

The billions owed in back rent in the United States because of COVID-19

Estimates for how much Americans owe in rent because of COVID-19 are in the tens of billions:

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Estimates for the nation’s total rent shortfall on Jan. 1 range in the tens of billions of dollars, potentially exceeding the amount of emergency rental assistance that Congress may or may not deliver over the next few weeks. If lawmakers fail to act, the New Year could trigger a long-feared disaster — an avalanche of evictions during the dead of winter, as the pandemic rages.

Back rent owed by struggling U.S. households — about 11.4 million renters in all — averages about $6,000 per household, or around three-and-a-half months’ rent, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. Most of it has accrued since the expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act expired over the summer.

“These are low-income households,” he says. “They’ve probably already borrowed as much as they can from family or friends. They have no resources left.”…

The National Council of State Housing Agencies commissioned its own report on the nation’s overdue rent, arriving at a figure of $34 billion back in September. Stout, the global advisory firm that produced the report, has since issued a biweekly report on households facing eviction, drawing on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and its weekly Household Pulse Survey. Stout’s tracker currently estimates that 7–14 million households will face eviction for nonpayment in January, with rental arrears totaling between $13–24 billion.

Even if COVID-19 ended tomorrow or the vaccine is quickly distributed, administered, and effective, this is a lingering effect that will take a long time to work through. It will affect renters, landlords, other actors in the real estate market (including lenders and investors) as well as communities if there are unpaid bills and/or people left without housing.

Even as the media coverage of this issue might focus on certain housing markets, the effects could stretch across many markets. Imagine the priciest markets: with high rents to start, how can people make up the money if they do not have jobs or the same income or how could they easily find housing? But, the cheaper markets may run into similar problems: if you cannot afford to pay back rent, how many cheaper housing options or replacement housing options could people find? Given the possibility of regional differences, this might mean more local units of government – states, municipalities – could provide different options that better address local circumstances.

More broadly, this hints at ongoing housing issues that seem to get little attention. Housing is a foundational, daily issue for many and COVID-19 just exacerbates existing issues. Relief money from the federal government may provide temporary help but housing costs and quality need attention in many places.

Do not forget the thousands of public housing units lost

With comments from a variety of experts addressing housing issues connected to COVID-19 and other social factors, I noticed the last expert cited provided a reminder about lost public housing units:

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“There’s a lot of talk about a universal voucher program in housing and entitlements, which would be a game changer for family homelessness, but you still have the problem of there not being enough places for people to rent,” Popkin said. “So we need to push both on the supply side and on the increased assistance side.

”Funding could go toward replacing tens of thousands of public housing residences lost between the ’80s and now, whether it be with new construction or renovating older buildings, she said.

“I’d like to see them built in a thoughtful way that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” she said.

The demolition of public housing high-rises in Chicago and numerous other big American cities had multiple effects. One of the stated goals was to help deconcentrate poverty. By moving public housing residents into other neighborhoods, it was hoped this would help their life chances.

But, this has not worked as well as might have been hoped. If the goal was simply to remove an eyesore in the city and push problems with housing and poverty out of the public eye, mission accomplished. The stigma of such projects disappeared with their demolition. Some of the land, when it was in desirable locations, was redeveloped. If the goal was to help people find good housing and attain more opportunities, this would involve a more robust approach to building and making available good housing. In Chicago, there were promises to provide for better lives and build more units…and it did not happen.

Just because the public housing high-rises are not visible in many locations does mean there is not need for cheaper yet quality housing. Americans do not have much stomach for public housing but the need is there to be addressed.

Proposing the rowhouse as the solution to an over-priced housing, McMansion world

If you do not like McMansions, perhaps the rowhouse is a preferable alternative:

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The great thing about rowhouses — that is, narrow, long, tall houses built connected to one another, sometimes called townhomes — is that they have most of the stuff Americans say they want in a home in a dense, efficient format. Typically they are single-family homes between two and four stories (though they can be built or split into apartments easily enough), with a front and back yard. The yards are small, but big enough for most purposes — you don’t need a McMansion-style soccer field to have some friends over for drinks and burgers, or let the dog run around, or simply get some fresh air and sunshine.

Then because the houses are connected to each other and on tiny lots, they are vastly more efficient. Instead of construction crews working on separate detached projects one after the other, they can build an entire block all at once. Shared walls means smaller bills for heating and cooling. Perhaps most importantly, the high density they enable allows for walkable neighborhoods with lots of shops and workable public transit. South Philly, which is almost entirely rowhouses, has about 24,000 people per square mile — which is not as dense as Brooklyn, but more than five times as dense as Phoenix and easily enough to support a subway line.

Rowhouses do have somewhat less privacy, of course. (I occasionally hear my neighbors even through the foot-thick brick walls, and I’m sure they hear me on occasion.) But even this has its upside — most obviously in a more vibrant neighborhood culture. When the sun is shining the folks on my block like to sit on the porch, chat with each other, smoke some meat, keep an eye on the neighborhood kids playing on the sidewalk, and so on. It feels like a friendly, alive place much more than the silent suburban cul-de-sacs I have visited in my life. And besides, who really wants to mow a three-acre yard all summer? Occasional weeding is more than enough work for me…

But rowhouses make a perfect middling addition to the American urban housing toolkit. Wherever a location is near to an urban center but not quite suitable for high-rises, slapping down a quick set of rowhouses ought to be the default option whenever land is freed up. By the same token, many American cities are also desperately short of moderately large apartment buildings, in the 3-8 story range, at somewhat more valuable locations like directly adjacent to transit stops.

The advantages and disadvantages to single-family homes amid American sprawl are clearly laid out here. The advantages include a lower price, efficiency in construction and heating and cooling, a smaller yard to maintain, and a lively, denser street. The disadvantages mirror these advantages: less space, less privacy. At the least, rowhouses in cities and denser suburbs provides opportunities for homeowners.

I have three further questions about rowhouses. First, what about rowhouses constructed for wealthier homeowners? In this piece, part of the appeal of rowhouses is a cheaper price point. Yet, rowhouses can be constructed with plenty of space and a lot of features for wealthier buyers. These homes might even give the appearance of being denser but are then trapped in small spots in cities or in suburban subdivisions far from anything walkable. Zoning is indeed an issue in certain places but I am guessing that is matters less in wealthier neighborhoods or communities or rowhouses are not viewed as a threat but rather as an intriguing change of pace.

Second, the importance of privacy may be understated. Americans like suburban single-family homes in part because they want to be separate from others (for privacy, because of race and class, to have their own property). Some homeowners want density and vibrant neighborhood life; others do not. If given the choice between a single-family home, a rowhouse, a condo, a townhouse, and an apartment (and controlling for particular neighborhood characteristics), what would most Americans choose?

Third, how much of these chooses about development depend on regional approaches to housing? As noted in the story, rowhouses are common in some places like Brooklyn and Philadelphia. They are not common in many other places. Having lived in one such development in the suburbs of the Midwest, it was an unusual choice among the typical options. And when that community and other nearby ones have been given choices about what to build since, they have largely eschewed rowhouses (except for more expensive ones). Getting communities to change up these options, particularly if there are worries about property values, is not an easy task.

An ADU as an investment opportunity on HGTV’s Flip or Flop

Last night’s new episode of Flip or Flop, Season 9 Episode 7, featured a home with an ADU (accessory dwelling unit). And this unique feature of the home offers a chance to make more money:

After Tarek and Christina realize the garage in the backyard is now a living space, Tarek lays out the argument: this is not just a studio space or a he/she-shed. It is possibly a rentable unit. This may make this property even more enticing.

This got me thinking. ADUs are supposed to help provide more housing units in more expensive markets like Portland and Los Angeles. Instead of building denser, taller housing in single-family home neighborhoods, ADUs take advantage of existing yard space, garages, or other buildings on residential properties.

But, while the ADUs might provide more housing, they may not necessarily provide housing that is that much cheaper. Take the example from Flip or Flop: with a home valued at over $1 million in North Hollywood, they estimated they could rent the studio ADU with a full bathroom and kitchen for $2,000 a month. How many people could afford this?

Further, such units could become a tool for residents and developers to generate more revenue. In such competitive markets, adding any kind of residential unit presents an opportunity. The ADU could enable a homeowner to generate money from their property. An investor interested in a single home or one with multiple homes could generate even more money with ADUs.

To truly provide housing that is more plentiful and at a reasonable price, it seems like a lot of ADUs are needed. They cannot provide as many units as large multifamily developments might. Yes, they do not disturb the existing character of a neighborhood much. But, if the ultimate goal is to broadly expand housing options, the occasional ADU in an expensive area might not be enough.

How are suburban apartments designed with COVID-19 in mind different?

A proposed apartment building in downtown Glen Ellyn, Illinois includes several features in response to COVID-19:

The latest iteration creates dedicated, work-from-home spaces inside apartments. South Bend, Indiana-based Holladay Properties is looking at installing voice-activated elevators to limit touch points. The project also would incorporate small conference rooms and phone booths where residents could take a call or prepare for a presentation.

“It’s hard to ignore the global pandemic,” Holladay Vice President T. Drew Mitchell said. “It’s in front of us everywhere, so some of the things that we’re doing inside of the units is sort of a reaction to that.”…

“What we’ve encountered in our product in suburban Chicago is overwhelming demand,” said Mitchell, who’s based in the firm’s LaGrange office. “We have a waitlist right now at Burlington Station in downtown Downers Grove, and what we’re seeing unfortunately for Chicago is people are returning to the suburbs.”

In Glen Ellyn, rents would range from about $1,400 to nearly $3,000. Glenwood Station amenities would target young professionals working in the city, empty nesters seeking a lower-maintenance lifestyle and other demographic groups.

From the picture provided, this looks like a fairly typical apartment building for a wealthy suburban downtown. The building is not too tall; height is a problem in many suburbs as residents do not want structures to dwarf other buildings, particularly houses). There is room on the sidewalk for pedestrians with streetlights and plantings. While there is some variation to the exterior, the design is not too crazy for a bedroom suburb. The building is not too large; there are just 86 units. There are American flags flying at the street corner.

The changes, according to the article, seem to focus on interior spaces. If you live in an apartment, how do you find space to separate home and work? This may be easier in large homes. What additional spaces could an apartment building or complex contain that gives residents some variety without having to leave? The suggestion above is to provide private spaces elsewhere in the building. It will be interesting to see how apartment developers and owners will in the future modify public spaces – gyms, pools, gardens, dog areas, party rooms, etc. – when restrictions may not allow apartment dwellers to use them in the same way.

What is missing from the COVID-19 apartment approach? Given the economic insecurity and the housing pressures many feel, will apartments be cheaper? These are not cheap apartments according to the story. Will this bring different kinds of people to Glen Ellyn than who might have typically moved there? The amenities are said to be geared toward the types of people suburbs often want to attract as opposed to affordable housing that would better serve those who truly need decent housing.

In other words, suburban development continues in fairly normal ways: the developer gets TIF financing, the city gets a building that fits its character and aesthetic, and suburban downtowns become a little denser.

How far might rent drop in Manhattan and other cities and who will benefit?

As some people reconsider living in Manhattan and other cities with high housing costs amid COVID-19, how far might rents drop?

According to StreetEasy, the median rent has fallen below $3,000. That is the lowest price since 2011.

The third quarter of 2020 also marked the first time since 2010 that Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens all recorded year-over-year rent declines.

StreetEasy says renters are no longer willing to pay the so-called “commute premium” of living in Manhattan, because so many people are working from home.

Any rent drop in Manhattan or in New York could provide opportunities for people who even just a short time ago had little chance to live there.

At the same time, dropping below $3,000 for the median suggests that rent is still pretty high. Who can take advantage of this drop? Those with resources to do so, not necessarily people who need affordable or cheap housing. Indeed, if these lower rents quickly induce a number of people to take advantage, then rents could stabilize and head back up.

Perhaps there is little that could actually move rents and housing prices in certain housing markets to a point where many more residents could take advantage. A pandemic is unlikely to lead to the production of more housing and struggles with employment, among other factors, will limit who would move to big cities with temporarily lower prices. At the same time, COVID-19 could help nudge conversations about housing in a productive direction.

Former Lt. Governor of Illinois now devoted to fighting for fair housing in Chicago suburbs

As Evelyn Sanguinetti transitions to addressing fair housing after previously serving for four years as lieutenant governor of Illinois, she describes the kinds of housing discrimination that occur:

brick building facade on cold clear day

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Discrimination takes so many different forms. It’s not as apparent as it once was decades ago. The wrongdoers have become better at this sort of illegal activity. You will see it taking the form of lying about the availability of housing or home loans or home insurance, or applying a no-pets policy on service animals. You will see discrimination in the way of illegal steering. So when a prospective tenant wants to look at one apartment, the company showing the apartments says, “No, no, you really want to look a few blocks over; that’s where you really want to go.” A lot of people do not know their rights and they do not realize that this is what’s occurring. Another form it takes is offering different terms or conditions to members of a protected class, such as requiring sex in exchange for rent.

You see discrimination in the form of constructing inaccessible buildings — that’s a big one, too. A lot of the cases that we have pending and a lot of the work we do from a previous settlement, is we make improvements to make housing accessible to people with disabilities.

Another form of discrimination is saying, “No children allowed,”bwhich to me is like a stake straight at my heart. I grew up with my abuelita, my great-grandparents. I mean, there were a lot of us in one household and a lot of children. But the wrongdoers also find a way of making sure children are not allowed. Well, children need to live somewhere.

This sort of discrimination is often quietly done and scattered across locations. It rarely comes up in the news. It may be hard for people to guess how often it happens. The people affected by it may not know how to fight back or bring the issue to light.

Some of the issue might be defining fair housing. Sanguinetti explains the concept:

There’s always this conclusion that goes on with a lot of people like, “Fair housing? Free housing! That’s cool.” And I’m thinking, “No, no.” The Fair Housing Act provides that if you have the resources to live where you want, but you’re being prevented from doing so because you’re a member of a protected class, that’s illegal.

I imagine some might confuse fair housing with affordable housing which is often about providing housing for those who do not have the resources to live in a place. If we do not have a foundation of fair housing, it would be even harder to make the case for affordable housing – which is hard enough in many suburbs.

At the same time, efforts which help ensure fair housing do not necessarily help with getting residents resources (jobs, income, wealth, connections, etc.) that would help them access housing). Fair housing addresses the housing side once people try to acquire housing. Work is also needed on the other end in helping people get to a point where they can have housing choices that help them meet their goals.