Skepticism on whether the AFFH will improve urban housing

An overview of how the Trump administration might work with the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule includes this skepticism from a sociologist:

While these baby steps are improvements on the status quo, it’s easy to see why many housing experts remain skeptical of the rule. “The whole history of enforcement of fair-housing law … shows that more conservative and more liberal politicians use different rhetoric but act pretty much the same,” Brown University’s John Logan, a well-regarded expert on segregation, told me. “Only through court action, with HUD and/or localities as defendants, have real steps been taken.” The history is certainly not heartening.

The real question regarding housing integration or affordable housing is how government officials can convince wealthier white residents to live near cheaper housing and non-white residents. Residential integration does not come easily, and as Logan suggests, court action is often required before it will happen. If the new AAFH is successful, will it be because fair housing is built in less white and less wealthy areas?

Row houses popping up in suburban downtowns

For the last twenty years or so, condos or luxury apartments have been constructed in numerous suburban downtowns in the Chicago region. The communities may have now moved on to row houses:

What’s in vogue now, at least in upscale living, might just be the row house, say developers of a six-unit project called Charleston Row.

These $1.1 million to $1.3 million row houses will have two or three bedrooms, two- or three-car garages, 3½ or 4½ bathrooms, a basement, a large mudroom, not one but two rooftop terraces and even their own private elevator…

After years of building new homes on the sites of teardowns in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn and Naperville, Charleston leaders said they started hearing a new trend. They noticed a desire for something other than the 5,000-square-foot luxury house, standing on its own with a good-sized yard in a subdivision on the outskirts of suburbia.

What these buyers want instead, Van Someren said, is what Charleston Row offers: convenience to a downtown with dining, night life and shops, a low-maintenance lifestyle without a massive lawn to mow, and luxury features such as custom staircases and tile work, hardwood floors, a butler’s station, a breakfast nook and countertops made of granite, marble or quartz. The fancy stuff.

In addition to the factors cited above, I wonder if a few other forces are also at work here:

  1. Row houses may connote a more luxurious or trendy setting than condos or single-family homes. One of the examples cited in the article suggests this: row houses may inspire images of similar higher-end dwellings in London. (On the flip side, these row homes do not remind suburbanites of the row houses in poor neighborhoods such as depicted in Baltimore on The Wire.)
  2. Row houses offer similarities to single-family homes but with densities that builders, suburbs, and opponents of suburban sprawl can appreciate. Builders would like them because they can fit more (expensive) homes on the same amount of land. Suburbs like them for similar reasons; the housing is contained in attractive locations. (I’m guessing not too many suburbs want block after block of these row houses – that would be too monotonous.) For those who dislike sprawl, these might be symbols of denser suburban housing that is ultimately better than continuing to build new subdivisions way on the suburban fringe. (At the same time, such row homes are often not cheap and are not within the reach of most suburbanites, continuing to push them further out.)

We’ll see how long these continue to attractive to the parties cited above.

Ending a long-term relationship can lead to downward mobility in housing

The end of a long-term relationship can negative influence one’s housing options:

Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review.

How drastic this fall will be depends very much on the housing market environment (see Figures 1 and 2). In the past in Britain, easy access to housing finance and high supply facilitated (re-)entry into homeownership for ex-partners even under house price inflation in the 1990s and early 2000s. In tight housing markets ex-partners will face more difficulties, and once access to mortgages becomes restricted, as happened in Britain after the recent crash in the housing market, problems may arise. So in the past British ex-partners could return to homeownership at some point in their lives because access to mortgages was easy – and they needed to return because alternatives in the private and social rental sector were and are unattractive. This may no longer work in future. Ex-partners may increasingly face similar problems that new market entrants currently encounter, for which the term generation rent has already been coined.

To better understand what may happen to British ex-partners, we can consider the example of Germany. The German housing market is in many ways different from the British, not the least because private rental accommodation is an attractive alternative to homeownership. Access to mortgages is also more restricted than in Britain, even after the recent tightening of regulations in Britain. High down payments are the rule in Germany. In this market environment, homeownership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, while a considerable share of people will never enter homeownership. After separation, very few Germans will be able to return to homeownership (see Figure 2). Ex-partners will be less likely to be in homeownership through their lives post-separation. This scenario may foreshadow the British situation in the near future.

Being excluded from homeownership in the German context is not as consequential as it may turn out to be in Britain, however. First, more Germans will accept to rent after separation compared to the British, because attractive, and most of all, secure accommodation is available for – internationally seen – reasonable costs. Second, the German public pension system is relatively generous for those who continuously worked throughout their lives. To build up private wealth as a cushion for old age is not as necessary as in Britain. In Britain, where individuals are expected to privately invest in financial products and property to build an individual safety net – an idea called asset-based welfare – people that experience a separation may lose this safety net. This may result in stark disparities between the separated and those remaining married in old life.

Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review. – See more at:
Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review. – See more at:

The authors conclude that changes in family structures over the past few decades mean that housing policy primarily built around families and stable relationships just won’t work. In other words, we need more housing options for smaller, changing families and people who live alone.

I wonder if the same findings would hold in the United States. Perhaps it might be particularly problematic in higher-priced markets where buying homes and renting can be difficult even for stable, middle-class families.

Preparing for a lot more baby boomer friendly housing

An aging population means that more Americans are going to be looking for housing that meets their needs – and there may not be enough of it:

While affordability is a problem on the horizon for some older residents, accessibility challenges are virtually guaranteed for all. While increased life expectancy and a factor that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cites as “compression of morbidity” means that older generations (even beyond the Baby Boomers) are living actively later into life, disability eventually affects almost everyone. One of the great equalizers in life, disability arrives without any deference to income or race. (Privilege in these realms often makes it easier for people to adjust to disabilities, of course.)…

The housing stock built for Baby Boomers largely wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind. There are five universal-design housing features that tend to address a variety of disabilities that residents face as they age: no-step entries; single-floor living; switches and outlets set at lower heights; extra-wide hallways and doors; and lever-style doors and faucets. Nearly 90 percent of existing homes have one of these features, according to the report—but just 57 percent have two…

Homes built more recently are more likely to accommodate all five universal-design features. Among these universal-design features, the one that’s most common in homes today is the single floor. More than 86 percent of homes in non-metro areas features single-floor living. These figures for cities and suburbs are high as well: 74 and 72 percent, respectively.

Yet these detached, single-floor, single-family homes—and the automobile-centric society that comes with them—are only going to fall further out of step with the needs of residents over time. And sooner rather than later. Homes can be retrofitted with lever-style handles and no-step entries (albeit at great expense). It’s much harder to turn exurban and rural communities where older Americans live into places that nurture seniors rather than isolate them.

A range of issues to consider from design to the layout of communities. Given the retirement savings of Americans, how many of them could afford to move to a new or retrofitted home as they age? One benefit of aging is that these Americans could theoretically have already paid off their homes or gotten close to that point, capping how much they spend on housing. How many want to search out a new mortgage or pay for potentially costly renovations? Some possible solutions:

1. Building more housing for all ages that meet these guidelines. Accessibility can be an issue even for younger residents.

2. Finding funds at a federal or lower level of government to help people retrofit their current residents to better meet these standards. This has the benefit of helping them do what many want as well as letting them stay engaged in and involved with the communities they care about.

3. Aging Americans living in suburbs is a tougher issue as it often requires dependence on a car and it is more difficult to distribute social services. This might require finding ways to make single-family homes multi-unit or building pockets with suburbs that cater to older residents (and not necessarily creating whole new communities like Del Webb).

Another take on “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl”

Here is an excerpt from a new book where the author suggests suburban sprawl has reached the end of the road:

Despite the struggles of the 1970s, or perhaps because of them, sprawl moved on. It spread over wider territories. It mutated into new forms. The eye was assaulted by landscapes never seen before. Fields of McMansions sprang up in the countryside, gated communities cowered behind stucco walls, office towers were sprinkled among parking lots…

These toll lanes were quickly dubbed Lexus lanes, and they deserve the name. A study showed that drivers with incomes above $100,000 were four times more likely than those who earn less than $40,000 to have used the toll lanes on their last trip. Tolls can reach levels that seem astronomical to drivers accustomed to free interstates, yet they rarely bring in enough money to pay back the cost of construction. Most Lexus lanes need heavy subsidies.

Highways are thus segregated by economic class, much like suburban neighborhoods. Lexus lanes, by design, serve a minority—if most of the cars were in the pay lanes, the free lanes would move at the speed limit and there would be no reason to pay. The tolls are primarily an allocation mechanism, and only incidentally a source of revenue. Their purpose is to deter those less able to pay from using the new lanes. Those wealthy enough to afford the tolls bypass the traffic jams, while everyone backed up on the free lanes gets to pay the bills…

Only the tightening of land use regulation in the nimby era can explain the falloff in construction of apartment houses. Their builders face stricter zoning, growth controls, and aroused neighbors.

It would be interesting to see the unique argument of this new book because this excerpt puts together a number of the complaints about suburban sprawl that have been around for decades: roads are expensive and wasteful as regulations and taxes encouraged driving, promoting bigger single-family homes leads to more private lives marked by NIMBYism and increased consumption, and all of this led to a housing bubble and economic crisis. Perhaps the new argument – hinted at in this excerpt – is that the pace of all of this really picked up from the 1970s through the early 2000s. Sure, American suburbs existed before then but even the post-World War II exemplars, the Levittowns, had much smaller housing and were denser compared to the far-flung new waves of suburban development of recent decades.

Guinness World Records for housing

Here is a roundup of some of the 2014 Guinness World Records in housing:

Knapp, who died in 1988, lived in the same house in Montgomery Township, Pa., for 110 years. And for that feat, she earns the title as the person who has lived the longest time ever in one residence, according to the 2014 edition of the “Guinness World Records.”…

While we’re at it, a nod to the world’s tallest real estate agents: Laurie and Wayne Hallquist are 6’6″ and 6’10”, respectively. She’s a full-time agent with Prudential California Realty in Stockton, Calif., while he’s a part-timer with the company…

The skinniest house on record is in Warsaw. It is three feet two inches wide at its narrowest point and just about five feet at its widest. It contains a floor area of 151 square feet, and instead of stairs, occupants climb a ladder to reach the bedrooms above…

The tallest resident-only building is in Dubai. Princess Tower is 1,356-feet high, with the highest occupied floor at 1,171 feet. But the title of tallest residential apartments belongs to Burj Khalifa, also in Dubai, which combines a hotel, offices and apartments. There, the highest residential floor—the 108th—is at 1,263 feet.

Houses, their furnishings, and apparently, their agents, come in all shapes and sizes. However, when I think about these records, it strikes me that most housing in the United States is relatively uniform. I don’t mean that the housing is uniform – this is a common criticism of suburban housing and I don’t think it is particularly fair – but that most housing is within a standard deviation or two from normal. Give or take a few rooms, a few decades, and some furnishings and decorations, most housing is “normal.” The housing cited in Guinness tends to be unusual and extreme outliers.

New tool from HUD to estimate combined commuting and housing costs

Opponents of sprawl argue too many people buy cheaper homes further from the city without considering the added transportation costs. Here is a new tool to help address this issue:

More than 3 in 4 home buyers polled in the National Assn. of Realtors’ latest Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers said commuting costs are either “very” or “somewhat” important to their ultimate purchase decisions. After all, the combined cost of housing and transportation consumes close to half of the typical working family’s monthly budget…

The Location Affordability Portal from the Housing and Urban Development Department and Transportation Department enables users to estimate the combined housing and transportation costs for a specific region, neighborhood and even street.

LAP is actually two tools: one, a map-based Location Affordability Index, is a database that predicts annual housing and transportation costs for a particular area. The other, My Transportation Cost Calculator, enables users to customize data for their own household and potential residential locations.

LAP includes diverse household profiles — which vary by income, size and number of commuters — and shows the affordability landscape for each one across an entire region. It was designed to help renters and homeowners — plus planners, policymakers, developers and researchers — get a more complete understanding of the costs of living in a location given the differences between households, neighborhoods and regions, all of which affect affordability. The data covers 94% of the U.S. population.

Use the tool here. Some good info here. I plugged in some quick numbers of our housing and transportation costs and the yearly transportation costs were about 57% of annual housing costs. Driving, even with commutes that aren’t that far, add up quickly. Here is what the Location Affordability Index looks like for much of the Chicago region:


On this map with combined housing and transportation costs, I feel like you can quickly see places where the housing is more expensive (some places on the North Shore) and other places where transportation costs are higher (and where there may be fewer jobs – Will County, western DuPage County).

The idea here is that more people need more information about commuting costs when making housing decisions. If they had the commuting costs, they would choose differently. For how many people would this be true? I suspect some Americans would place more emphasis on a cheaper house, even if the commuting costs are higher. In other words, these aren’t equal considerations when Americans, particularly of certain incomes, have to make a choice.

Quick Review: The End of the Suburbs

I recently read The End of the Suburbs, written by Fortune journalist Leigh Gallagher. On one hand, the book does a nice job describing some recent trends involving, but, on the other hand, the book is mistitled and I think she misses some key points about suburbs.

1. If I could title the book, I would name it something like “The End of the Sprawling Suburbs” or perhaps “The End of Sprawl.” Neither title is as sexy but she is not arguing that the American suburbs will disappear, rather that demographics and other factors are shifting toward cities. There is a big difference between ending suburbs and seeing them “grow up,” as one cited expert puts it.

2. Some of the key trends she highlights: the costs of driving (the whole oil industry, maintenance/gas/insurance/stress for owners, paying for roads/infrastructure), a changing family structure with more single-person and no-children households, changes among millennials and baby boomers who may be looking to get out of the suburbs in large numbers, a push toward New Urbanism in new suburban developments to increase density and strengthen community, and builders and developers, like Toll Brothers, are looking to build denser and more urban developments with more mixed-uses and smaller houses.

3. But, here are some big areas that I think Gallagher misses:

a. While she highlights the benefits of New Urbanism, does this lead to more affordable housing? In fact, the need for more affordable housing is rarely mentioned. As certain areas become more popular, such as urban neighborhoods that attract the creative class, this raises prices and pushes certain people out.

b. The main focus in the book is on big cities in the Northeast and Midwest. While she mentions some Sunbelt cities, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, there is a lot more to explore here. There are particular patterns in Northern cities compared to newer, more sprawling Sunbelt cities. And in a book talking about the end of sprawl, how could she not mention Portland’s fight against urban sprawl in the last few decades?

c. It is an intriguing idea that cities and suburbs are starting to blend together. But, some of the examples are strange. For example, she talk about how there is increased poverty in the suburbs, which then could make cities more attractive again. There are still some major differences between the two sets of places, particularly the cultural mindsets as well as the settlement patterns.

d. She highlights thriving urban cores – but what about the rest of big cities? While Manhattan and Chicago’s Loop might be doing all right, what about the poorer parts of those cities? The recent mayoral race in NYC involved this issue and many have complained in Chicago that most of the neighborhoods experience little government help. In other words, these thriving urban and suburban developments often benefit the wealthier in society who can take advantage of them.

e. It isn’t until the last chapter that she highlights some defenders of sprawl – people like Joel Kotkin or Robert Bruegmann – but doesn’t spend much time with their ideas. Indeed, the book reads as if these trends are all inevitably moving toward cities and defenders of suburbs would argue critics of suburbs have been making these arguments for decades.

4. Two questions inspired by the book:

a. Just how much should the American economy rely on the housing industry? Gallagher suggests housing is a sign of a good economy based in other areas rather than one of the leading industries. Sprawl can lead to boom times for the construction and housing industries but it can also face tough times. Perhaps our efforts would be better spent trying to build up other industries.

b. Is the century of sprawl in America (roughly 1910 to today – there were suburbs before this but their mass development based around cars and mass housing really began in the 1920s) an aberration in our history or is it a deeper mentality and period? Gallagher suggests we are at the end of an era but others could argue the suburbs are deeply culturally engrained in American life and have a longer past and future.

Overall, this is an interesting read summarizing some important trends but I also think Gallagher misses some major suburban trends.

A rise in cooperative housing in the United States

More American adults are living with strangers in order to make ends meet:

Two million Americans over the age of 30 now live with a housemate or roommate, and shared households make up 18 percent of U.S. households – a 17 percent increase since 2007.

One group of women sold their homes and bought a house together in Mount Lebanon, Pa., after they all got divorced…

McQuillin, Louise Machinist and Karen Bush call their home a “cooperative household.” Each woman has her own bedroom and bathroom, and they share the common areas of the house, chores and expenses…

In some co-housing communities, families buy smaller homes built around a common building that the entire community shares. Some include communal kitchens and recreation space.

There are more than 100 of the special developments across the nation. Some co-housing operations share housework and childcare duties.

This is a different approach than Going Solo – single-person households have been on the rise in the United States for years now. But, living with other people has benefits including economic sharing.

It would be interesting to ask those who are living in cooperative households if they would choose to do so if they had more economic resources. In other words, is money trumping common American concerns about individualism and privacy?

Highlights from the “Illinois’s 33%” poverty report

A new report from the Social Impact Research Center, “Illinois’s 33%,”  looks at poverty in Illinois. Here are a few highlights:

1. Something I did not realize: the preamble to the Illinois Constitution mentions “eliminat[ing] poverty” (p.1).

“We, the People of the State of Illinois…in order to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the people; maintain a representative and orderly government; eliminate poverty and inequality; assure legal, social and economic justice; provide opportunity for the fullest development of the individual; ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; and secure the blessings of freedom and liberty to ourselves and our posterity—do ordain and establish this Constitution for the State of Illinois.”

2. The report is not just about poverty; it is also about people in near-poverty. The income thresholds for this are here (p.5):

This methodology of measuring people with low incomes or near poverty seems to be growing. The Census reports the median household income in Illinois is $56,576.

3. There is definitely some geographic disparity in these figures. Here are the numbers for the Chicago region which clearly shows wealthier and less wealthy counties and Chicago neighborhoods (p.7):

I did not see any calls for metropolitan approaches to poverty. In the Chicago region, it would be difficult to deal with a particular problem, say affordable housing, in just Chicago or a few of its neighborhoods without cooperation and input from others in the region.

4. The report has more figures and possible solutions in five areas that could help people move out of poverty: employment, education, housing, health & nutrition, and assets (p.3-4, 15-17).