Is it about the home or the location of the home?

I recently saw this:

I think this is promoting living in the country as the person making the statement would be okay with a cabin rather than a mansion. The cabin looks like it is in decent shape, but it is no mansion.

However, this gets at a question I wonder about a lot: what exactly is it that motivates many people to select where they live? Here are several of the major factors:

-How many resources they have? What can they afford?

-What kind of neighborhood or community do they want to live in?

-Proximity to work.

-Quality of schools.

-Proximity to family.

-Preferences for kind and style of residence.

If you choose to live in a cabin in the country, you are elevating some of these factors as more important than others. But, is the choice primarily about the country and nature, the relative lack of people, the different kind of house, or something else? Reducing it to a binary choice of cabin/country versus city/mansion is simple but the decision might be much more complicated.

54% of my block flew an American flag today and what this means

On a quick walk on this July 4th morning, I counted the number of residences on our block with an American flag on display. In roughly a quarter-mile of houses, 22 of 41 residences had a flag. What might this all mean? Several ideas:

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  1. The July 4th holiday tends to bring out the flags to symbolize the United States of America. Yet, is the number of homes with a flag displayed different than displays for other holidays? I would guess the numbers are not that different on this block regarding those who put something up for Christmas or for Halloween, the two primary holidays for decorations. I do not know if some people are celebrating all of the holidays or if different people are celebrating different holidays but this number of flags does not seem out of the ordinary.
  2. I have read online in multiple places that Americans are enthusiastic in displaying their flag compared to residents of other countries. Connected to #1 above, perhaps the real test of this is to see how many residents display flags when there is not a patriotic holiday? (At the same time, they might be frequenting other places that have a flag including schools, civic buildings, and churches.)
  3. YouGov recently released data on how Americans regard flags. Even with declining patriotism and less regard for the flag from younger Americans, 77% had a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” view of the American flag. This is quite a bit higher than any other flag asked about. The more popular a flag is, the more likely it is for homeowners to display it?

The use of flags in suburban settings and among single-family homes with their connection to the American Dream could make for a fascinating study, if it has not been done already.

Roots versus mobility: living a whole life in one suburban house

Offered money for her suburban home for a new industrial project, an 86-year-old woman responded this way:

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“She said, ‘Where will I go?’ How do you start your life again when you’ve lived your whole life in one house?” Kristie Purner said.

What I found interesting in this comment is comparing it to the more regular mobility of Americans in the suburban era. The US government has tracked this since 1947. For several decades after World War Two, the percent of Americans who moved each year hovered around 20%. During mass suburbanization and relatively prosperity, more people moved regularly. Many metropolitan regions, including the Chicago area, boomed during this time. Some of this suburbanization and prosperity was present before the Great Depression as well.

Given all of this, how many Americans can say they lived same place for decades? How many suburbanites stayed in one home? My guess is that it is a relatively small number of people.

Perhaps this might change in the coming decades with decreased levels of mobility among Americans. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a suburbia that is marked by permanence rather than continued growth and change.

What children learn from HGTV #3: Houses are symbols of success and making it

In watching HGTV with children and studying suburbs and housing, I have several ideas of what kids learn while watching the network’s programming.

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Put together the ideas in the previous two posts – homes involve emotionally satisfying arcs and they pay off financially in the end – and add decades-long American ideology and houses are symbols of success and making it. The house, typically a single-family home on HGTV, is a visible, tangible monument that the owner is successful. Residents and show hosts talk about how the house symbolizes all of the struggle and work of a family. They talk about passing down a legacy to kids. They usually do not come out an say it but the home and its exterior provide a positive impression to neighbors and those passing by about the status of the residents.

Homeownership is celebrated on HGTV. An attractive house that meets the needs of the residents and broadcasts a message of success to others is the ideal. Almost no one wants to rent or live long-term with family or friends. Almost everyone is trying to move up to a better and/or more attractive home. The goal is to acquire one’s own home which provides well-being and financial security.

Ultimately, HGTV helps perpetuate homeownership and its link with the American Dream in the way it presents houses and what they are for. The people on the network find success in acquiring and improving homes and almost nothing else is discussed. Kids watching HGTV see that people need to acquire and/or improve a house to be a successful adult.

A significant majority of Americans “believe it is better for the environment if houses are built further apart”

In April, YouGov reported on a survey with a series of questions on how Americans thought about high-density places. Here is how people responded when asked about the relationship between the environment and building homes:

Three in four Americans say it’s better for the environment if houses are built farther apart, while one in four say it’s better for houses to be built closer together. While Americans who live in cities are somewhat more likely than Americans who don’t to say that high density is more environmental, the vast majority of city-dwellers still believe that it’s more eco-friendly to build out rather than up. While Republicans and Independents are aligned on this issue, Democrats are somewhat more likely to say high-density living is environmental, though again, the majority still say it is worse for the environment than building farther apart.  https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/w0YWs/3/

It would be fascinating to follow up on these survey results with interviews or open-ended questions for the respondents: “Please explain why you answered this way.”

Knowing what I know about American preferences for single-family homes and wanting to be closer to nature in the suburbs, here are some factors that could be at work:

-Americans do not know what is best for the environment.

-Proximity to nature matters for how people assess whether the environment is better off. In higher density places, there is less open space or the natural areas have to be planned and protected. If the houses are further apart leaving more room for grass and local creatures, is this better for the environment?

-People really like homes built away from other homes, even if this might not be optimal for the environment.

-It is interesting that the biggest gap in opinions is between political parties and not where people live. Even then, two-thirds of Democrats agree with this. This might suggest anyone promoting density as a solution to environmental issues will run into some opposition.

Many goods come via truck, few want to encounter those trucks on a suburban road

Trucking is essential to the American economy. However, it is not desirable to encounter many trucks on local roads. Here is how one Chicago area county wants to address the issue:

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“The key is really getting trucks onto the interstate as safely and efficiently as possible,” said Patricia Mangano, senior transportation planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

As the county grows and the region continues to be an important national transportation hub, the study recommends strategies to minimize the negative impact of freight traffic to residents and the environment…

The report says that high volumes of truck traffic have led to safety and congestion concerns, especially in sensitive areas such as historic districts, neighborhoods or environmentally protected areas. The study notes western Will County’s natural and cultural assets, such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and the Kankakee River, could be negatively affected by new development and traffic…

“We are the proverbial crossroads of America,” he said, noting residents just want to ensure they can get from work to home to their children’s activities without being caught in traffic.

In recent decades, Will County has become home to an increasing number of warehouses and intermodal facilities. This could be viewed as a positive for economic activity and growth which then leads to more tax revenues, jobs, and prestige.

Yet, certain industries do not necessarily mesh well with the suburban single-family home ideal. Trucks are related to a number of concerns residents have about all sorts of land uses: noise, traffic, lights, threats to the residential ideal they hope for.

I see the point of routing truck traffic along particular roads. This also has the effect of altering those roads. I can think of several major thoroughfares near here that are full of truck traffic during the day. Driving on these roads can be quite different than driving on other main roads. And because the way many suburban communities are laid out, there are often not good alternative routes since traffic in general is funneled from smaller residential streets to larger volume roads.

An impractical suggestion that might please suburban residents: have truck only roads that lead from industrial and commercial properties straight to highways. In many locations, this might work as warehouses and distribution centers are clustered together as are big box stores and shopping malls. On suburban roads without big trucks, suburbanites might occasionally find the opportunity to drive like people do in car commercials: on the open road.

Looking to global examples to address housing crunches in expensive cities

Housing is a very difficult issue to address at the national level. Can the United States look to examples abroad?

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Some suggest that Japan is the model to follow. There, rental prices have largely remained flat over the last 25 years, according to data from the country’s statistics bureau. The reason is that the government controls zoning nationally and is more open to development in the number of houses it allows to be built. Just over a third of Japanese citizens rent the homes they live in, protected by a 1991 law called the Act on Land and Building Leases, which makes it difficult for landlords to end leases or prevent a tenant from extending their rental contract…

So where else should we be looking, if not to Japan, for the model to fix the broken housing market in large parts of the west? One option is Singapore, where public housing is built in specially designed communities and sold to individuals with a 99-year lease below market value. Selling on that property is highly restricted to reduce profiteering, but it can happen after five years of ownership. Nearly four in five Singaporeans live in public-sector housing, according to official statistics. “Prices can never get beyond regular working families,” says Ronald. “They have this virtuous circle, and it makes it interesting to think about the role of regulating housing.”…

Until late January 2022, housing developments in Germany were subsidized by the government below market rates for the first five years after being built. “It means tens of thousands of units every year come onto the market, keeping rental prices lower and preventing scrambles to buy a property,” he says.

A similar model exists in Austria and Switzerland, where the split is roughly 55 to 45 percent (in favor of renting in Switzerland, and owning in Austria), compared to an average European home ownership rate of 70 percent. When you get to the Austrian capital, Vienna, the home ownership rate is just 7 percent.

All of these sound like they would require some fundamental changes to housing policy in the United States. This might include:

  1. A stronger national policy. This could be through programs available everywhere or guidelines that all states and municipalities have to follow.
  2. A stronger emphasis on renting.
  3. More government involvement in the construction of housing and/or longer-term government oversight of housing units.

None of these options would be particularly popular in the United States or easy to implement. Here are quick explanations why for each option above:

  1. A national policy would come at the expense of the power of more local governmental actors. With real estate being so much about location, could a national policy truly address all of the different situations? Americans expect to be able to control or at least provide input into the use of land around them.
  2. Homeownership is ingrained in American life as part of the attainment of the American Dream. This is ensconsed in zoning policy, supported by politicians and policies for decades, and Americans can be suspicious of renters compared to homeowners. Renting is more common in some areas compared to others but it is not seen as the ideal among Americans.
  3. Public housing has never been fully supported in the United States. The government’s active role in housing is often viewed as negative unless it is supporting homeownership.

This does not mean that the housing landscape in the United States cannot change. The need for more housing and more affordable housing is acute. But, changes will likely take decades and sustained efforts.

Still a limited tiny house movement

What happened to tiny houses in recent years? Here is some discussion of the issues tiny houses face:

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“We’re still here,” says Kent Griswold, 63, who lives in Bend, Ore., and is the founder of the Tiny House Blog, which is believed to be one of the first blogs about tiny houses. “The movement hasn’t stopped growing, it’s just not in the public eye as much anymore.”…

Laubach says due to the pandemic, which has made people re-evaluate what is important, retirees, mature widows and single women are driving much of the demand today…

Griswold agrees, but says instead of just the novelty of people looking for tiny homes on wheels, which really drove the movement during the 2007-09 recession, people are looking at other ways to live small…

“Tiny homes on wheels or park models are thought of as RVs, but many jurisdictions are starting to think of them as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Still, the code problems can get frustrating for people,” says Laubach.

Arguably, the tiny house movement was not big to start with and the homes often appealed to particular people with resources.

COVID-19 and the housing affordability issues in many metropolitan regions would seem to be the conditions under which tiny houses would thrive. People want to get away from typical locations and they need cheaper spaces.

At the same time, more uncertain economic conditions might mean that people are less likely than ever to be lenient about zoning and codes. This limits where tiny houses are possible. This is, of course, a much broader issue: many communities want to protect single-family homes at all costs.

Does this mean something has to give in the future? Can people have really high property values, complain about the lack of affordable housing or housing options, and continue to restrict other housing options like tiny houses?

The tiny house movement might be small and it might work steadily but its ongoing presence is at least a reminder that other housing options are possible.

Purchase your home to live in it…and consider its long-term investment potential

In a story about how to buy a home amid a hot housing market, one expert offers this advice:

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Herbert recommended a different way of thinking about the timing of buying a house, one that I found much more comforting. “You ought to be making this as a housing decision and not an investment decision,” he said. If you’re buying a house, he advised, it should be because you want to live in it for at least five years, and ideally many more – which also will mean that even if prices fluctuate, you have a better chance of your investment appreciating over time. “The longer you stay in the house, the [less] your timing in this particular house-price cycle [will] matter,” he said.

This quote interested me for two reasons. First, Herbert says this is about buying a house and staying long term. Sure, the housing market might be crazy right now but a buyer should be thinking about living in the space for a while. But, then the advice pivots a bit to noting how this long-term view can pay off financially. The particular financial circumstances at purchase will fade away if the price of the home increases.

That financial considerations matter as people consider home purchases is certainly true. At the same time, the shift from seeing a home as a place for long-term living to primarily a financial investment is on display here. There are features about homeownership that Americans tend to like – you own the property, there is often some outdoor space, it is more private, it is a marker of success, and so on – that transcend financial conditions. Houses are more than just the dollar signs attached to them…right?

Perhaps it would take an extended period of a cooler housing market and other positive economic stability for houses to not just be financial investments. Or, the costs of homeownership in many places are already at a point where homes can only be viewed as financial objects.

The arguments for and against banning zoning for only single-family homes

The single-family home is very important in the United States and this is enshrined in land use policy and zoning. Because of this, there is a move in multiple communities to ban single-family home zoning and this has prompted debate over the change:

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Originally introduced in Berkeley, Calif., in 1916 as a means of preventing a black-owned dance hall from opening, single-family zoning became increasingly popular — though divorced from its explicitly racist origins — as more Amercans moved to sprawling suburban cities across the country. Today, many of the country’s major urban areas reserve 75 percent or more of their residential land exclusively for stand-alone, one-family homes.

Recently, lawmakers in blue states and cities have moved to roll back zoning rules in hopes of spurring more development. Minneapolis became the first major city to ban single-family zoning in 2019. That same year, Oregon passed a similar law statewide. Perhaps the most significant change came in California where the median home price is estimated to exceed $800,000. A new law that eliminates single-family zoning across the entire state went into effect on Jan. 1. None of these reforms make it illegal or even more difficult to build a stand-alone house, they simply remove barriers that prevent any other type of dwelling from being built.

Advocates for eliminating single-family zoning say it’s the most important step toward addressing the housing shortage, since any other programs to spur more development would be moot if there’s no land to legally build on. Supporters say eliminating what they often refer to exclusionary zoning would have wide-ranging benefits beyond just creating more housing stock, including reducing racial segregation and closing the racial wealth gap, boosting job opportunities in urban areas and reducing climate impacts created by suburban sprawl.

Many conservative opponents of these reforms, including former President Donald Trump, have portrayed them as a “war on the suburbs” that would bring big-city problems to quiet communities while doing little to address the underlying causes of the housing shortage. Some argue that financial incentives, not coercive new laws, are the best way to spur development.

A lot of pro-housing advocates also have doubts about how much of an impact zoning reforms on their own will make. They argue that most of the new laws are riddled with exceptions that limit their scope and few also address the long list of other ways that local governments can prevent dense housing from being built — like minimum lot sizes and parking requirements. Some on the left make the case that the only way to increase housing supply at the pace that’s necessary is through strict mandates that require cities to build a certain number of housing units and impose heavy financial penalties on those that don’t.

This would be a hard change to make and capitalize on in many communities. Housing policy in the United States is difficult to change and is rooted in a long history, cultural narratives about success, exclusionary practices, and local governments and other government actors. Yet, even discussion of such a change at least highlights the need in many places to think more about housing and how it could be more accessible to many.

As about any policy possibilities in the United States, I now wonder if what would work best in this situation is for several different kinds of communities across the country to ban single-family zoning and see what happens. What changes in the community? How do residents and newcomers experience it? How does it affect housing values? Does it significantly alter the character of the community? And if there are success stories – which could range from limited noticeable change (that it does not lead to negative outcomes or the end of the suburbs might be good enough) to positive outcomes – then other communities could observe and consider the option.