Would more Americans move to cities if they could live in a suburban neighborhood in city limits?

This summer, the New York Times profiled two neighborhoods in a “Suburbs in the City” series. See the profile of Ditmas Park in Brooklyn and Marble Hill in Manhattan. Many American cities have such locations: neighborhoods within the city limits of a major city but with single-family homes, quieter residential streets, and wealthier residents. This is true of both older American cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago – as well as newer cities that are more sprawling – Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas.

Three quick thoughts regarding such neighborhoods:

1. Americans like suburbs in part because they offer proximity to the big city and its amenities without necessarily having to feel like they live in a big city. I would guess at least a few Americans would consider attractive urban neighborhoods that have the feeling of a suburb. Single-family homes with yards alongside assurances that their kids are safe and will get ahead are huge. The biggest downsides might be issues like a further removed city government and higher taxes.

2. David Rusk discusses how important it is for big cities to capture such locations within city limits. What he calls elastic cities, places that have successfully annexed more land in recent decades (and many cities in the Northeast or Midwest, like Detroit and Chicago, have not), tend to do better on a number of economic and social measures. These neighborhoods allow some city residents who would otherwise move to the suburbs (like many other Americans) to stay in the city.

3. How much should big cities work to enhance these more residential neighborhoods to entice wealthier residents to stay versus deploying resources to neighborhoods who need the resources more? Chicago presents a great example: the city has worked to reassure whiter and wealthier families that residential neighborhoods, particularly on the north and northwest sides are worth staying in (read about one white flight reassurance program). On the other hand, mayor Rahm Emanuel and others have been dogged by claims that the city cares little about poorer neighborhoods.

Multiple factors behind why younger Americans may fewer homes in their lifetime

A report on the real estate market in the Chicago region hints at a possible trend to watch: Americans will buy fewer homes in their lifetime.

Many first-time buyers share the Joshis’ perspective that it’s smarter to find the right house to grow into than to get a toehold in the market with a starter house, only to see much of that early equity sapped by transaction costs a few years later when moving up to a larger house.

“When we started looking, I had in mind a starter house, but it was so exhausting to look that we thought, no, one and done,” says Vrushank Joshi.

There are numerous societal changes that contribute to this:

  1. People are getting married later and going to school longer. This means they are not buying a home in early adulthood as often and are waiting longer to purchase their first place.
  2. With more education, increasing student loans means it takes longer for potential owners to save money for a down payment.
  3. Fewer starter homes have been constructed in recent years.
  4. Mobility is down in recent years as Americans seem interested in staying in places for longer.
  5. The specter of the late 2000s housing bubble haunts possible buyers.

A system that used to rely on people starting with a smaller product and then working their way up over a lifetime may have to make some major adjustments if Americans buy fewer and different homes compared to before.

“Americans demand more bedrooms, baths”

I argued a few days ago that the American system is set up to encourage people to purchase bigger homes. Look, the system is working! Americans continue to build and buy bigger homes.

The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show newly-constructed homes in 2017 are 4 percent larger on average than a decade ago. And they come with a larger price tag — the average price of a new home jumped 23 percent from $313,600 in 2007 to $384,900 last year. Meanwhile, the average family size in the U.S. continues to shrink, from 3.33 persons in 1960, to 2.54 in 2017…

Below are some takeaways from the Survey of Construction data released in June. Based on the most common features, the most popular home built in 2017 was a two-story, two-garage home with more than four bedrooms and three bathrooms.

Several graphs highlight the proliferation of bedrooms and bathrooms in recent years:

Chart: Number of bedrooms in new single-family houses completed

Chart: Number of bathrooms in new single-family houses completed

Even with plenty of critics, American builders and buyers still seem to want larger homes. Perhaps the market is primarily open these days to wealthier buyers and builders may not be interested in constructing starter homes but this is not an isolated blip in the data: for decades, Americans have sought larger homes.

 

Americans are conditioned and enabled to buy large homes

Findings regarding how Americans use the space in their homes may show they do not use all the space equally but evidence may not matter much. Americans want larger homes and the society and system is set up to push them towards this. Some of the factors involved:

-A consumption heavy culture where people enjoy shopping and buying items to signal their worth and for their own enjoyment. People want bigger homes like McMansions to impress others. Owners want a bigger home for all their stuff (and not necessarily for larger families).

-A lending industry that often requires relatively small down payments and repayments of a mortgage over three decades. Even if borrowers pay more in interest over time, they can afford a bigger home up front. Mortgages are socialized.

-A building industry that can make more money per house on selling a larger house. Building starter homes – a smaller house a couple might start with – or smaller single-family homes is a minor part of the industry.

-An emphasis on private family space as opposed to thriving public life on streets, urban public spaces, or third spaces. Additionally, Americans like their personal space.

An emphasis on suburban culture and spread-out settlement.

With these conditions, making a choice to have a smaller home is going against the grain. Perhaps this is why the tiny house movement is small.

 

Why Americans love suburbs #1: single-family homes

The primary feature of suburbs is the single-family home. It is where people live and spend their family time in a society where people have become increasingly private. It represents ownership of a piece of land and a dwelling. It is a status symbol to friends, neighbors, and the broader society. It is an investment (though single-family homes were not always viewed this way). Arguably, the rest of suburbia is geographically laid out around single-family homes with networks of roads, stores, and businesses all ordered around residential areas and subdivisions. The federal government even subsidizes single-family homes.

At its base, the single-family home may be about a place away from the rest of the world. If Americans are individualistic, they need a place to which they can retreat. Suburbanites protect their homes, land, and property values. The battle lines can be both grand – planning whole zoning schemas around protecting single-family homes – and minuscule as neighbors bicker (two good examples here and here). The ultimate goal is to have private space where the owners can enjoy the best America has to offer inside their own home.

The single-family suburban home has evolved over the decades. In the mid-nineteenth century, the suburban home was more like a cottage in the woods. Even as mass-produced homes started in the early twentieth century, many suburban homes were still built by small builders or even by residents through the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II, the large subdivision became more common, even if many suburbs and builders never reached the scale of the paradigmatic Levittown on Long Island. These many suburban homes are also marked by a variety of styles, including Victorians in the late 1800s, bungalows in the early 1900s, ranches and Cape Cods in the postwar era, and McMansions in recent decades.

One key marker of American suburban homes is their size. On the world scale, Americans have big homes. The size has steadily increased over recent decades even as many would argue such large homes are not necessary. Why exactly do Americans need such large homes? If they do not regularly use much of the space, why not make and purchase smaller homes? Perhaps they have a lot of stuff, perhaps they simply can afford more space. They probably do not really need it need it but since large homes are common, why not join everyone else? The biggest regret homeowners have is not purchasing a larger home.

The meaning of the single-family home has also changed in significant ways. I’ll highlight two changes here. First, the home is a status symbol. In a consumeristic and wealthy society where what people own presumably says something about them, the home is an important marker. Americans can choose among dozens of kinds of homes in different locations and can endlessly customize the exterior and the interior. Even the lawn can become a coded or not-so-coded message about the owners. Second, the home is an investment. Whereas in the early days a home was a dwelling and private space, most Americans now expect to make good money when they sell their home. This changes how homeowners treat their home as well as how they use the home as part of their wealth portfolio.

All that said, single-family homes can be found in many cities, whether in denser neighborhoods of row houses and brownstones or in more sprawling urban Sunbelt neighborhoods. Yet, I would guess suburban aspirations rarely include images of living in apartments. The dominant picture of suburbia is living on a street of well-kept single-family homes (and this is often replicated in media depictions such as on television shows). Even if suburbs become denser (very likely in numerous locations), the single-family home will remain the key feature of suburban life.

Quick Review: No Place Like Home: Wealth, Community & the Politics of Homeownership

Even though I was inexplicably slow in reading sociologist Brian McCabe’s No Place Like Home: Wealth, Community & the Politics of Homeownership, I am glad I finally had the chance. My thoughts on the book:

  1. Few sociologists have explained the development and ongoing importance of homeownership in American life. McCabe does this well in a succinct book. The important topics are all covered – the development of the idea of homeownership, government polices promoting homeownership, the shift from homes as dwellings and anchors of communities to investments, possible changes to the future of homeownership – and a new argument is advanced. I could see handing this book to undergraduates and feeling good knowing that they will see good sociological work in an accessible book.
  2. The best contribution of this book, in my opinion, is the analysis of survey data regarding how homeowners and renters contribute to communities. Americans have argued for decades that homeownership leads to more civically involved citizens. McCabe shows this is not as clear-cut as often presented. The homeowners can even exercise their civic involvement in such ways that limit the participation of others (usually those with fewer resources). More civic involvement does not necessarily lead to the greater good.
  3. Another worthwhile idea in this book is the concept of tenure segregation. While residential segregation is well-studied by sociologists, the difference in locations between owners and renters merits further study. I suspect the differences between wealthier homeowners and less wealthy renters is stark but the interesting stuff may come between owners and renters with more comparable incomes or who are living in relatively integrated places. For example, I recently looked at a Zillow map of west Los Angeles and was intrigued by all of the units for rent for expensive prices. How different are neighborhoods with renters and owners at similar income levels compared to places where renters and owners are more different?
  4. The brevity of the book also comes at a cost. Other texts cover similar topics at much more depth but also require more time and patience. (The first book that came to mind involving homeownership and the development of the single-family home: John Archer’s Architecture and Suburbia). Also, the current cases used to illustrate the arguments of this book are brief. They may arise for a few paragraphs but have relatively little depth. (This blog has also featured the opposition to affordable housing in Winnetka.) Using more case studies, whether tracking a single case in more depth throughout the chapters or utilizing a metropolitan region where different communities illustrate various concepts in the book, would help flesh out how these issues work on the ground. Of course, such depth would require more research time and more pages.

On the whole, this sociology book is a concise and engaging introduction to the issues surrounding homeownership in the United States. As Americans think about the future of housing (even if it does not become a national political issue), this book offers much to ponder.

The never-ending summer hum of lawn mowers, construction, ACs, pressure washers, and more

As soon as the weather started turning warmer, the summer drone began. Not crickets or the sounds of children playing baseball or swimming at the pool. Rather, it was the background noise of summer that seems unavoidable for months: in a suburban subdivision with numerous nearby subdivisions, there is always someone within a relatively short distance using a lawnmower, a weedwacker, a pressure washer, or construction equipment. The noise starts as early as 7:30 AM and stops around 8 PM.

The typical idyllic summer looks something like this with green lawns, sunshine, and peaceful looking homes:

Lawn

But, this image fails to include the background noise that is ever present. That noise is often less than idyllic, particularly if it is close and/or persistent.

I know the expectation of having quiet is one that is not possible in many settings, particularly in urban areas. Many American residents have little exposure to true quiet (and may even find it unnerving). But, the early suburban ideal of the mid 1800s was to help urban residents get back to nature (or an altered environment that fit certain standards of “nature). That quiet of nature – rustling trees, bird calls, insects, stillness – is simply not possible in most suburban settings today either. Some of this is due to location and the need to locate near major roads or other land uses (such as commercial or industrial properties). Some is due to the rise of air conditioning which made development possible in certain climates. Yet, it also comes from all the maintenance required for single-family homes and their environment. Home upkeep to typical standards, such as a good looking lawn, is aided by noisy tools.

I thought recently about having noise free days in suburban neighborhoods. Could everyone in a certain portion of a community schedule their outdoor maintenance for two or three days a week? This would make it more difficult to schedule things but the trade-off could be less noise for everyone. This could work with homeowner’s associations since they already contract for regular lawn service that typically happens on the same day each week. Imagine residents could have at least one weekday in which they knew the only noise outside would be from vehicles – would it be a better experience?