Why large communities just for 55+ residents may not be a good thing

One researcher suggests the development of 55+ only communities limits opportunities for the residents and the communities:

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Del Webb of Sun City fame recognized that, rather than rocking away their “golden years” in the northern cold, older adults could be convinced to pull up roots, leave empty nests and move to communities of similar people and lives of leisure. A radio jingle promoting this new model of living sang out: “Don’t let retirement get you down! Be happy in Sun City, it’s a paradise town.”

But is a town without the sounds of children and a diversity of races and styles really a paradise?

A growing number of older adults say no, recognizing that living with neighbors of all ages and from all walks of life just makes sense. They realize that intergenerational connections are not just valuable for them but for their communities and country.

They recognize that ageism will not be defeated by a retreat to age-segregated corners, but only by engagement, collaboration and dialogue across age, race and class divides. They believe that there is more to graying than playing.

I wonder how housing and community organized by age fits with ongoing and persistent processes of residential sorting by race/ethnicity and social class in the United States. Looking at the Census QuickFacts for The Villages, Florida shows the community is almost 97% white and the poverty rate is 4.6%. Since wealth in the United States is related to race and ethnicity, how racially segregated are 55+ communities?

This commentary also hints at a broader issue in the United States: why is aging treated as it is? Why aren’t older adults seen as resources rather than liabilities? Why aren’t intergenerational relationships and communities celebrated more? These communities might be considered the physical embodiment of particular cultural values in the United States.

Looking toward the end of COVID-19 housing help

COVID-19 led to pauses on mortgage and rent payments and moratoriums on evictions. As deadlines for regulations near, several data sources suggest fewer owners and renters will be affected:

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The share of mortgage borrowers in forbearance programs fell below 4% as of June 8, the lowest level since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Black Knight Inc., a company in Jacksonville, Fla., that provides data and software to mortgage lenders and servicers…

In August, Census projected that there were 1.7 million American adults living in households that weren’t current on their mortgage payments and who thought it was very or somewhat likely that they would lose their homes in the next two months. By just before Christmas that was up to 1.9 million. It fell to 1.2 million by March and was around 900,000 in the latest survey covering May 26 to June 7.

The trend is similar for renters. In August Census projected that there were 3.8 million American adults living in households that were behind on the rent and who thought it was very or somewhat likely that they would lose their homes in the next two months. Just before Christmas the total was 5.2 million. It dropped to 3 million in March. In the latest period it edged back up to 3.2 million.

This is still a large number of people and there are additional concerns:

That’s not to say all is well. Many people fall through the cracks. In an analysis of the latest Census data, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that one in five renters in households with children were behind on the rent as of the May 26-June 7 survey. There are also disparities by race. While 10% of non-Latino White households were behind on the rent, 16% of Latino households and 24% of Black households were behind on the rent.

COVID-19 helped bring to the forefront the issue of housing facing many Americans. On one hand, someone could say that COVID-19 was such an unusual event that affected so many jobs. On the other hand, there are other social changes – think automation or the decline of major sectors in the economy – that could also affect the ability for many Americans to find and keep decent housing. Add to this the other oddities of the COVID-19 housing market, including those with resources could leave cities and the limited supply of housing, and there are numerous issues to consider.

More broadly, this offers an opportunity to discuss housing in the United States. Should people be afraid for their housing in a time of crisis? Where is more affordable housing going to come from? What should landlords, builders, and investors expect in times of economic trouble? Is housing itself a primary driver in the inequality in wealth and access to housing? How much should income be tied to the quality of housing?

These are not new questions but perhaps ones that are more pressing in light of current events. Of course, addressing housing at a national scale is not easy. Yet, the number of people still in a housing lurch in the coming months might help move the conversation on housing forward.

The answer Canada may not want: lean in completely to American-style sprawl to get more housing

There is not enough developed land around Canadian cities for what Canadian buyers want:

The world’s second biggest country by landmass is effectively running out of space, and that has Canada on course for a reckoning. The dream of a detached home and a piece of land, which generations of Canadians have taken for granted, and which continues to entice new immigrants, may soon be out of reach in the places where people want to live. That could force an expansion of the idea of home to include condos and rentals, potentially transforming how the middle class does everything from raising families to saving for retirement…

In Canada, buying a home has long been seen as the surest path to middle class security. Canadians on average live in some of the biggest houses in the world, and post higher rates of homeownership than in the U.K., or France, or even the U.S. The pandemic has put an even bigger premium on backyards and extra space…

Still, developers don’t seem to be responding. Though construction started on a record number of new homes in Canada’s metro areas in March, the percentage that were single family-detached actually fell to 19% from 24% the previous year, according to government data. While this ratio improved in April, new home starts slowed that month overall…

It comes down to land. While Canada boasts a total area of about 10 million square kilometers (3.9 million square miles), roughly 40 times the area of the U.K., most Canadians are clustered in a handful of major cities not far from the U.S. border. That’s where the jobs are. And while the work-from-home era has expanded that radius for some, turning quiet farming communities and weekend-getaway spots into the hottest real estate markets in the country, the possibility of returning to the office even a few days a week has kept most workers from striking out too far afield.

The proposed solution in the article is more condos, apartments, and townhouses. These would have provide denser populations and expand the housing options. But, this is not what all Canadians want: like in the United States, the idea of a single-family home is both popular as an ideal and investment.

Here is a different answer from Canada’s southern neighbor: sprawl. More and more sprawl. The article says Canada is out of land; this is not quite true. Keep building suburban areas out from cities. Take advantage of the work from home days of COVID-19. Build on the interest of some Canadians to have their own home and land. Give in more to car culture. Go thirty, forty, fifty miles out like the biggest American cities. There will still be plenty of land in the middle of the country for farms and up north for open space.

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This may not be a welcomed answer. This all leads to more driving, more dependence on roads. It means less energy efficiency, perhaps particularly during cold winters. It might introduce the same problems that plague sprawling American metropolitan areas.

But, if Canadians do not adjust to living in smaller units in closer proximity, sprawl is one option. The emphasis on homeownership and vehicles is already there. It could be a different kind of sprawl, maybe denser than the American version or more community oriented. Perhaps some lessons could be learned from the mistakes made in the United States. At the least, it could relieve some housing pressure, provide jobs for builders and developers, and set up new subdivisions and future communities for decades to come.

What is the acceptable amount of neighborhood or community change for current residents?

A look at possible ways to provide more housing in Los Angeles runs into a problem common to many communities in the United States: how much change is allowed?

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What’s missing? The low-rise, multifamily housing that the city banned in the 1970s and ’80s. Which is why Christopher Hawthorne, the city’s chief design officer, held a competition, “Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles” to solicit new blueprints for so-called “missing middle” housing. “There’s a narrative in L.A., as in many cities, that neighborhoods are changing too fast; but in reality, L.A. is changing less rapidly than at any point in its history,” Hawthorne told me. A former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times (and for this magazine), he plans to use these designs to win hearts and minds in the community forums where upzoning goes to die.

The winning entrants, announced on Monday, are a reminder that multifamily housing does not need to look much different than single-family housing. Instead, these models weave apartments right into the neighborhood, with understated architecture and clever use of space. In theory, these modest plans ought to take the “neighborhood character” argument against housing growth off the table.

Then again, the whole dialectic of NIMBY vs. YIMBY, Hawthorne contends, doesn’t accurately describe the situation on the ground. “When we actually talk to communities and neighborhoods, we find most people are in the middle. A lot of recent scholarship has clarified historic issues”—such as single-family zoning’s legacy of racial exclusion—”pandemic and wildfire have clarified others. Most people are ready to say our approach of land use and zoning in low-rise neighborhoods is not a sustainable pattern for the 21st century.” They just need help visualizing what change looks like.

There are multiple layers of issues present in these three paragraphs. Here are a few of the issues as I see them:

  1. There is a continuum of change within a neighborhood ranging from frozen in time for decades to immediate massive change in a relatively short amount of time (perhaps in urban renewal style after World War Two). All communities change to some degree but this is affected by time, demographics, and other factors. I wonder how effective it is, as above, to note the relative lack of change to people in a neighborhood who might perceive it differently. I cannot quantify it but I would guess there are plenty of people who move into a location and expect it not to change (or only change in ways that they approve).
  2. The change in character, often equated with adding anything different to single-family homes of the same kind, is hard to combat. Perhaps more people see the need for more housing but how many want it on their block or immediate area as opposed to somewhere else in the city?
  3. I agree that design can help ameliorate these issues. It might be worthwhile to build one of these options with no one’s knowledge and then see who notices. There are ways to construct affordable or even subsidized housing in ways that do raise the attention of nearby residents who might otherwise oppose any efforts to have cheaper housing.
  4. How much would local politicians push for these changes as opposed to representing the existing residential interests? This could matter less if local politicians are at-large representatives but this would also raise the ire of particular neighborhoods.
  5. Neighborhoods with more resources – higher-income residents , people with more connections to politicians and community groups – may be able to slow down or delay possible change more than others. And if the new housing might bring in people not like them, the race/class/”others” issues could be more at play than any actual debate about housing options.

How much change in a neighborhood or character change is desirable? It could vary from community to community and depend on numerous factors.

Black homeownership rate barely improved since 1970

One marker of success in the United States is homeownership, particularly in the suburbs. Yet, the Black homeownership rate has not increased much over the last five decades:

After this chart at the top, the rest of the article is an in-depth look at race, lending, and housing in the Los Angeles area. While some of the story involves factors pre-1960s, there is also much after the Civil Rights Movement that has limited homeownership. All groups on the chart had higher homeownership rates into the early 2000s but conditions changed for Blacks such that they experienced a decline.

All of this makes the recent efforts in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, all the more interesting. The discussions of reparations there have settled on providing funds for housing. From the City of Evanston FAQs:

In July 2019, the Equity and Empowerment Commission held community meetings to solicit feedback from community members on what reparations would look like for the City of Evanston. Affordable housing and economic development were the top priorities identified during those meetings. A report was submitted to the City Council for consideration and was the basis for  Resolution 126-R-19, “Establishing the City of Evanston Reparations Fund and the Reparations Subcommittee.”

Reparations, and any process for restorative relief, must connect between the harm imposed and the City. The strongest case for reparations by the City of Evanston is in the area of housing, where there is sufficient evidence showing the City’s part in housing discrimination as a result of early City zoning ordinances in place between 1919 and 1969, when the City banned housing discrimination.

View the Evanston Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African American Community, 1900 – 1960 (and Present) draft report written by Dino Robinson of Shorefront Legacy and Dr. Jenny Thompson of Evanston History Center.

With housing underlying much wealth in the United States, it is important to address this issue in the long run.

Will those who won COVID-19 housing bidding wars want to ease the path for others?

Henry Grabar puts forth an interesting idea: the many bidding wars of housing during COVID-19 might help many push for more housing so that others do not have to go through such a process.

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Sadly, those who win these all-out bidding wars will probably, suddenly feel that there is enough housing, and yes, we need affordable housing, but really affordable housing, you know? (And not here!)

But for every winner there will be many losers, and maybe the process can radicalize these would-be buyers, and their friends, and their parents, and the people they talk to. There really aren’t enough places to live. Those people can channel their frustration with bidding wars into political activism aimed at housing suppressants like parking requirements, restrictive zoning, and density limits. If appeals to neither historical wrongs nor economic growth get the job done, a strong dose of self-interest can’t hurt.

Here are three reasons why I would not hold my breath waiting for the successful homeowners to advocate for cheaper housing:

  1. Americans often subscribe to the idea that their individual successes are due to their actions, not necessarily due to systems. The winners of individual bidding wars can talk about the particular factors that led to their success. Those who did not win can adjust their individual strategies. It is a leap for many to think that their individual choices matter less than the conditions that empower or constrain their choices. (Site note: this sounds like explaining the basics of sociology in an individualistic society.)
  2. Suburbanites for decades moved into subdivisions and communities and then limited similar opportunities for others. The postwar suburban boom did not provide opportunities for all in a variety of ways. This could come out this way: people might yearn for and then move into a new development but subsequently complain about similar developments proposed right around them as a potential threat to their way of life. Can suburbs be frozen in time at the point at which people first moved in? Or, are suburbs and all communities in some sort of constant flux? Combine this with #1 and I could imagine some saying, “We bid successfully, we do not necessarily want a lot more of people like us being successful because this would change the community we bought into, and now we will resist future efforts.”
  3. Regarding putting pressure on politicians and others: how many homeowners were in this position and how would they join together in a movement? Housing is very difficult to address at a national level because of local particularities and politics. At the local level, proposals often run into issues with #1 and #2 above. People may be in support of the abstract notion of more housing or cheaper housing but they often prefer it somewhere else. Significant social and/or political change often requires tipping points or catalysts whereby interests come together and action is possible. COVID-19 could be one of those situations for housing but it would require much sustain effort.

How searching for houses online became sexy

With SNL poking fun at the ways people in their late 30s use Zillow to look at housing, what makes online home shopping such a current phenomena? I thought of the numerous factors that had to come together – here is an incomplete list:

SNL “Zillow”
  1. The rise of online real estate sites and apps. These have been around for years but between Zillow.com, Redfin.com. Realtor.com, Trulia.com, and more, potential sellers and buyers have a lot of easily accessible platforms. These options are now ubiquitous: people can search at any time from any location for any length of time. And now that some online listings have video tours and/or 3D models, viewers can get a good sense of what a property is like without ever getting near it.
  2. COVID-19 adds much to existing patterns. With some people interested in moving out of cities and health risks making it more difficult to see homes, online viewing may be the primary option.
  3. The SNL spoof targeted a particular age group – people in their late-30s – who might be in the middle of a housing dilemma. By this age, those interested in settling down somewhere may or may not have the resources (think school loans, unstable employment during COVID-19 and the last economic crisis in the late 2000s) to buy in the places they want. But, the browsing is free and all sorts of homes in all sorts of locations are available.
  4. The single-family home has always been an important part of the American Dream. Today, this is true and in new ways. The home is a respite away from COVID-19 and political polarization. It is an important investment as buying the right home is not just about enjoying day-to-day life; it should pay off in the future when the homeowner wants to sell and housing values have continued to rise.
  5. Americans also like to consume and compare their social status or possessions to others. With homes occupying such an important part of American mythology, these larger patterns carry over to these sectors. Browsing homes online allows for window shopping and comparisons on one of the most expensive investments. And homes are not just dwellings; they offer windows into lifestyles and neighborhoods.

Put all of these together and you get an SNL reflection on how home searching and purchasing happens today.

Missing any conversation about housing in the 2020 presidential campaign

The Democrat presidential primary for 2020 contained occasional talk of housing on the campaign trail or in debates. But, leading up to Election Day 2020, there has been little attention paid to housing. A few notes on this:

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  1. Some broader campaign themes could be related to housing: talking about the middle-class, taxes, providing opportunities for more Americans. But, these typically do not directly address housing even if it may be implied (such as being middle-class includes the ability to own a home, often in the suburbs).
  2. COVID-19 has had a direct effect on a number of areas. While there has been much said about jobs and the economy, the connection to housing is missing. For many, employment status directly affects housing status and there have been moratoriums regarding rent and evictions. Yet, the primary focus is on the direct means of making money (jobs, stock market, etc.) rather than what many hope their earnings translate into (a nice residence to own or rent in a good neighborhood). Additionally, the housing and real estate industry contribute to the broader economy but little has been said about activity here outside of some people are leaving cities.
  3. Even without the 2020 election and COVID-19, housing is related to a number of other key forces in American society: local schools, property values, building wealth, local neighbors and social networks, access to jobs, health care, amenities, and local services. Yet, it continues to merit little mention or go under the radar all together. Even as it is a difficult issue to address at the national level due to local complications and a complicated and controversial history in the United States, ignoring the issue does little.

Rasmussen poll finds few Americans want the federal gov’t involved in deciding where people live

New poll data from Rasmussen suggests Americans would prefer the federal government not be involved in where people can live:

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The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 83% of Likely U.S. Voters say the federal government should not play a role in deciding where people can live. Just 10% disagree. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Sixty-five percent (65%) still say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods in America so that people of different income levels live together. But that’s down from 83% when Rasmussen Reports first asked this question in mid-2015 as the Obama administration prepared to release its new housing regulations. Twenty-three percent (23%) now say that diversifying neighborhoods is a government role, up from eight percent (8%) five years ago…

Twenty percent (20%) of blacks and 21% of other minority voters feel the federal government should play a role in deciding where people can live, but just six percent (6%) of whites agree. Seventy-one percent (71%) of whites say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods, compared to 52% of blacks and 53% of other minority voters.

Interestingly, voters who earn $100,000 or more a year are more supportive of government neighborhood diversity efforts than those who earn less.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I do not know the accuracy of this data. I do not think this is a survey question that is regularly asked of a national population.

2. That said regarding #1, it does seem to align with patterns in the United States. Housing is a very localized issue and involvement from the federal government is not often viewed favorably. Part of the appeal of suburbs is local control and exclusion. A diverse vision of suburbia may not catch on.

3. As I argued earlier in the week, even though attitudes may have improved regarding outright housing discrimination, this does not mean there are not ways to keep people out of communities or neighborhoods.

4. It is a little strange that Rasmussen asked directly about different income levels living together and not also about different racial and ethnic groups living together.

5. If we cannot tackle the issue of residential segregation – which is an outcome of the attitudes in the poll – it will be very difficult to address race.

What could lead to Americans considering what they want the suburbs to be

Yesterday, I wrote about competing visions of American suburbs. Under what circumstances might a national conversation, debate, and/or reckoning take place regarding what suburbs should be in the future? Here are a few possibilities:

photo of houses under starry skies

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  1. An election. As noted yesterday, elections can help to bring issues to the forefront. The suburbs are not a key issue in the 2020 presidential election but this does not mean they could not be down the road.
  2. Building concern about housing. The need for cheaper housing in certain metropolitan areas has led to local and state-level debate but this has rarely reached national levels. I am pessimistic about national level discussions about and solutions for housing – but it could happen.
  3. Some sort of crisis or unusual occurrence in suburbia that pushes people to rethink what suburbs are about. Perhaps it is ongoing police violence – like in Ferguson, Missouri – or an usual place like Columbia, Maryland that people want to emulate.
  4. Declining interest in living in suburbs among future generations. Whether millennials and their successors want to or can live in suburbs is up for debate.
  5. A redefinition of the American Dream away from single-family homes, driving, and private spaces to other factors ranging from different kinds of spaces (perhaps more cosmopolitan canopies?) to an inability or declining interest in homeownership compared to securing health care and basic income or a rise in AI, robots, and technology that renders spaces less important than ever.
  6. Black swan events or large changes beyond the control of the average suburbanite. Imagine no more gasoline or a disease that strikes suburbanites at higher rates or a collapse of the global economy rendering the suburban lifestyle difficult. (Because these are black swan events, they are hard or impossible to predict.)

For roughly seventy years, the United States has promoted suburbs on a massive scale (with evidence that a suburban vision has existed for roughly 170 years). With a majority of Americans living in suburbs, it would take work or certain events for a robust conversation to be had and then a wind-down of the suburbs and shift toward other spaces would likely take decades. At the same time, future researchers and pundits might look back to important conversations, events, decisions, or changes that started the United States down a path away from suburbs. Those precipitating factors could occur today, in the near future, somewhere down the road, or never. While the suburbs in the United States have tremendous inertia pushing them into the future, they do not necessarily have to continue.