Production housing in the suburbs and what Americans want out of homes

An architect describes how production housing helps build the American suburbs:

Its scale is enormous. During the building boom before 2008, production housing—the name for builder-constructed residential developments—accounted for the vast majority of single-family homes. During that time, 1.8 million homes were started in a single month nationwide. Recent figures for January 2018, though down from prerecession highs, indicate 886,000 new starts. By some accounts, architects are responsible for designing no more than 2 percent of those homes. As the architect Duo Dickinson has observed, this means that the profession has largely ceded the best opportunity to be relevant and useful to ordinary people.

Not only does production housing dominate the market; consumers also like its products. The major appeal is affordability, with the housing industry producing a range of prices from modest to high-end. A family of four with a moderate middle-class income can put down $8,120, plus closing costs, to buy a home for $232,000 with three to four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a garage, and a piece of ground for a front and backyard. At the high end, buyers spending over $1 million—who could afford an architect if they wanted one—instead often choose big, builder-designed homes they see as bargains preferable to custom designs.

A second attraction is the quality of housing stock. People sometimes think of production homes as “builder-grade,” made carelessly and on the cheap. But American housing is better built now than ever before, a result of market competition, stricter building codes, and better materials. Basic construction is more solid, but the housing industry also is constantly upgrading the technology and sustainability of its products. As soon as the industry could see that producing energy-efficient homes had marketing advantages, green building started becoming increasingly widespread. These homes are not the ultimate in energy efficiency, but they are continuously improving. And because of the wide reach of production homes, those improvements impact many people.

A third appeal is that the housing industry answers consumers’ needs. Through its trade organizations, research institutes, and publications, it conducts constant research between buyer and seller. The feedback loop includes marketing, professional magazines, and trade shows. For instance, canvasing of consumers indicated that a living room adjacent to the front door, a holdover of the Victorian parlor, was far less important than having more space in a great room. Without reconfiguring the outline of the building—changing slab designs is costly—the front parlor was transformed into a smaller office or guest bedroom. This design makes sense, as the front door is typically not used for entry these days, but as a marker of domesticity. With marketing information at hand, builders can make immediate adjustments to their offerings. The expansion of walk-in closets, great spaces, and open kitchens correlate directly with consumers’ desires.

This list of positives sounds impressive: large-scale production of suburban housing means many homes can be built in many parts of the country at reasonable costs, at decent quality levels, and all while providing what buyers want. Relying on architects and others to design and build homes might push costs up, create more variability, and take more time. If efficiency and predictably for the homeowner is what Americans want, production building seems to be the way to go.

The rest of the article then goes on to discuss various critiques that could be leveled at suburban housing and development. Of course, efficiency and predictability have downsides both for individual homeowners and communities. And more broadly, we could ask about cultural values surrounding houses in the United States: what ends should they serve?

  1. Broadly accessible to the majority of Americans in settings that have broad appeal. This is what production building offers.
  2. Customized to the needs of individual owners and families rather than the limited number of models in #1.
  3. The design and size of homes should be subservient to community goals for land use and social life.
  4. Houses should provide significant return on investment.

Number three may just be the hardest sell as it places a house within a larger context and suggests it (and its owners) need to be part of what others are doing. Number two has the advantage of appealing to the individuality many Americans desire but this likely comes at some cost. Holding the goal of making suburban housing as available to as many people as possible (and you can make a good argument that this has been an American policy goal for roughly 100 years with ongoing socialized mortgages) leads to number one.

Number four is perhaps the most recent idea as it developed in recent decades with rising housing values amid financial uncertainties. This might fit best with number one: if Americans can get a good deal on a home, they can then expect more in return when they sell.

20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home

Occasionally, statistics about the United States stand out. Here is one I recently saw involving language as reported by the AP:

In the United States, one in five people age 5 and over speak a language other than English at home, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In immigrant-friendly Los Angeles, more than half of people do.

This is likely linked to relatively high levels of immigration in recent decades (and projections for more foreign-born residents in years to come). Pew summarizes the trend:

There were a record 43.2 million immigrants living in the U.S. in 2015, making up 13.4% of the nation’s population. This represents more than a fourfold increase since 1960, when only 9.7 million immigrants lived in the U.S., accounting for just 5.4% of the total U.S. population…

PewForeignBornPopulation

And by far, the language other than English spoken most at home is Spanish.

Speculation: more Americans choose to pursue unretirement to find meaning

Various data points show more Americans continuing to work even when do not need the money at retirement age:

Unretirement is becoming more common, researchers report. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired…

Even more people might resume working if they could find attractive options. “We asked people over 50 who weren’t working, or looking for a job, whether they’d return if the right opportunity came along,” Dr. Mullen said. “About half said yes.”

Why go back to work? We hear endless warnings about Americans having failed to save enough, and the need for income does motivate some returning workers. But Dr. Maestas, using longitudinal data from the national Health and Retirement Study, has found that the decision to resume working doesn’t usually stem from unexpected financial problems or health expenses…

Researchers note that older workers have different needs. “Younger workers need the paycheck,” Dr. Mullen said. “Older jobseekers look for more autonomy, control over the pace of work. They’re less concerned about benefits. They can think about broader things, like whether the work is meaningful and stimulating.”

One of the primary ways that adult Americans find meaning is in their jobs. Not only does a job help pay the bills, a job has become a reflection of who you are. Think of that normal question that leads off many an adult conversation: “What do you do?” With a shift away from manufacturing and manual labor jobs, service and white-collar jobs can encourage the idea that our personality and skills are intimately tied up with our profession.
Put this emphasis on an identity rooted in a job or career together with a declining engagement in civic groups and a mistrust in institutions. Americans are choosing to interact less with a variety of social groups and this means they have fewer opportunities to find an identity based in those organizations. We are told to be our own people.
Imagine a different kind of retirement than the one depicted in this article: older Americans finish a long working career and then find time to get involved with extended family life or various causes, secular and religious, where they can provide both expertise and labor. Where would many congregations or civic groups be without the contributions of those who are retired and now can devote some more time to the public good? What if the child care needs that many younger families face be met with grandparents who could consistently help? What if retired Americans could regularly mentor children and teenagers who would benefit from wise counsel and a listening ear? That is not to say there are not plenty of retirees who do these things; however, this approach involves a broader look at life satisfaction that goes beyond a paying job.

Cars, homes, and the American way of life

Can comparative data about owning cars and homeownership in the United States help us think about how the two together help define a unique American way of life?

The data across countries suggest Americans are world leaders in owning vehicles and not so high on the list of homeownership. Few countries have more vehicles than us but over forty have higher percentages of homeownership. Yet, put these two features of life together – driving and owning a home – and they create something fairly unique in the United States.

To start, it is not just that Americans have a lot of vehicles: daily life and spaces are structured around these vehicles. For most Americans, getting to the places that are required for daily life – work, food, school, recreation – requires a vehicle. This is seen as normal and we have adapted in unique ways to this including developing fast food and big box stores (both could not exist in the same way unless people have their own vehicles, and often large ones at that, to operate). It does not have to be this way and indeed many other industrialized countries are not as dependent on vehicles for these daily activities.

As for homes, the availability of cars plus a desire to have a private single-family homes means that Americans are pretty spread out. This way of life reaches its apex in the American suburbs, which range from denser communities where driving involves shorter distances to places on the metropolitan edges where significant driving is needed for every major activity. This suburban form already existed to some degree before cars with the help of trains and streetcars. But, the availability of cars to the public in the 1920s really helped boost suburbanization as did subsequent decisions by different bodies of governments and others to promote an automobile-based society.

Critics of this way of life are plentiful even as we are nearing one hundred years of this arrangement. For more than a third of the existence of the United States, the goal of many is to own a vehicle and a home. To change this would require significant adjustments in a variety of areas. Imagine an America with smaller car companies (think of everything from the economic ripples to what commercials would replace auto ads on TV) or fewer fast food restaurants or no new sprawling suburban developments. We can see the resiliency of car and home narrative still: even as fewer than two-thirds of Americans own their dwelling (with more recent drops after the fallout of the housing bubble plus rising housing costs in certain places), it is still the goal of majority of residents (including younger Americans) and is said to be worth aspiring to. When the economy picks up, it seems Americans return to purchasing cars and homes.

Either cars or homeownership separately may not be enough to mark a unique American lifestyle. Put them together and they shape an entire society of over 300 million people.

American marriage increasingly related to social class

Continuing a trend of recent years, recent studies show that those getting married in the United States are more likely to be middle or upper class:

Currently, 26 percent of poor adults, 39 percent of working-class adults and 56 percent of middle- and upper-class adults are married, according to a research brief published today from two think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and Opportunity America. In 1970, about 82 percent of adults were married, and in 1990, about two-thirds were, with little difference based on class and education.

A big reason for the decline: Unemployed men are less likely to be seen as marriage material…

In reality, economics and culture both play a role, and influence each other, social scientists say. When well-paying jobs became scarce for less educated men, they became less likely to marry. As a result, the culture changed: Marriage was no longer the norm, and out-of-wedlock childbirth was accepted. Even if jobs returned, an increase in marriage wouldn’t necessarily immediately follow…

People with college degrees seem to operate with more of a long-term perspective, social scientists say. They are more likely to take on family responsibilities slowly, and they often benefit from parental resources to do so — like help paying for education, birth control or rent to live on their own. In turn, the young adults prioritize waiting to have children until they are more able to give their children similar opportunities.

I have had this thought when seeing middle and upper class couples that have dated or lived together for years: what is their purpose in getting married? Do they need the government (and occasionally religious) backing to their union or is this primarily about social status?

As I’ve written before, perhaps more and more Americans see living alone as the preferred way to live out their adults lives rather than marriage.

What is the best single marker of being a suburb?

Spurred by yesterday’s post on Alaska’s changing suburbs, I put together a list of the most important markers that indicate whether an American community is a suburb roughly in order from the most important to less important:

  1. Proximity to the big city. If you are within the social and economic orbit of the big city (and this can differ based on the city as well as on the size of the big city), the community is a suburb. This is more vague on the outer edges of the metropolitan region.
  2. A physical layout dominated by roads and relatively spaced out single-family homes. (This may describe some urban residential neighborhoods but I would suggest the homes there are typically closer together and there are often additional transportation options.)
  3. An exclusivity toward undesirable residents and businesses. Suburbs have different socioeconomic levels but there are typically groups that are not as welcome and there are a variety of techniques to keep them out.
  4. A moral order built around the autonomy of individual residents as long as this doesn’t hurt the property values of other residents and a lack of social conflict because neighbors generally leave each other alone (unless they choose to interact through common interests – such as kids in school).
  5. A community emphasis on middle-class family life. This may be more aspirational than reality (whether it involves wealthier residents who claim to be just middle-class or working-class or poorer suburbs who distinguish themselves from poor urban neighborhoods).
  6. Additional physical markers including roads lined with shopping malls, strip malls, fast food restaurants, and big box stores as well as a lack of walkability.
  7. Homogeneity across residents. There are plenty of suburbs today that are not this way but American suburbs are still often perceived as white and wealthy.
  8. An emphasis on local government as community members seek to control their own lives.

It is hard to separate out these factors as many can be found in other geographic settings or are traits of American culture at large. Yet, the combination of these factors leads a unique social setting that can be defined and measured.

The direct and indirect social pressure to buy the bigger house

One money manager explains the difficulty he experienced in not buying the largest house his financial resources allowed:

Our home is unimpressive. I love it, don’t get me wrong. We are very, very comfortable. It is way more than enough space for our family of four. Right now we’re even doing a full remodel of the basement. But I know that compared to many of my peers, our house isn’t the massive, brick-laden, towering McMansion that says “we’ve arrived.” We bought our home days before I quit my last job and launched this firm. We paid $265,000 and financed almost all of it as I was hoarding cash for us to live on since we had zero income.

I’ve had one client visit our home after our youngest daughter was born and I remember distinctly a feeling of anxiety that our modest home wouldn’t measure up to expectations. What I felt bordered on shame. Would people think I was “successful” if they saw our home? Does it present a picture of someone who is responsible, intelligent and capable? Does it represent someone who should be entrusted with managing client assets that now exceed $150 million?

I’ve come to terms with it, but these ideas still creep into my head. I like that we live well within our means. It brings me immeasurable happiness, quite frankly. But there is a lingering social pressure. A fear of a stigma that occasionally whispers from some deep recess in my mind. In general I’m not a person who is given to care much what other people think about me. (Seriously, ask my wife about this one)…

If I can feel these pressures, I imagine they could be stronger for many others. A house is a man’s castle, after all. A giant, expensive, cumbersome representation of your value to society. What would you think if your successful doctor or lawyer or local business owner lived in an average middle-class house? Is s/he in financial trouble? Recently bankrupted? Paying off bad debts? How many Americans would think “Wow, good for them. They have figured out what makes them happy and are spending/saving money in that way.” Can’t say I think it would be many.

There seem to be two kinds of social pressures hinted at here:

  1. Direct pressure where someone says or does something in response to the house.
  2. Indirect pressure where there are standards to uphold, whether within a neighborhood, business sector (the financial one here), or society.

At least in this piece, the money manager only suggests indirect pressure. No one negatively commented about his house or the client who visited did not withdraw their business because the house wasn’t as impressive as it could be. Yet, this indirect pressure – the feeling that there is a standard to conform to and violating that standard has negative consequences – can be consequential.

So where exactly does this indirect pressure to buy a large house come from? There are probably many sources including: conversations we have with family, friends, and acquaintances about what is the “proper” home (as well as observations of the actions of those same people); media depictions of homes (from TV shows to HGTV to commercials to news stories); financial, real estate, and governmental institutions that depict and enable the purchase of large homes; and a society that prizes and promotes consumerism as a primary mechanism of the economy as well as a key marker of our status.

How difficult it is to resist this pressure may depend on the individual as well as their social position. Of course, making a decision to consume something other than the large house – say, a tiny house instead – may also just be another decision made in the interest of conformity and status seeking.