Three thoughts on the finding that 7.5% of housing in Naperville is affordable

Naperville is a large – over 140,000 residents – and wealth – a median household income of just over $114,000 – suburb. It also does not have much affordable housing:

A state agency recently faulted Naperville as the only Illinois community of 50,000 or more lacking affordable housing, which, according to the federal government, means housing costs make up no more than 30% of a household’s income. In a report last year, the Illinois Housing Development Authority found just 7.5% of Naperville homes are considered affordable based on the regional median income, among the lowest percentages in the state.

Some elected officials fear Naperville’s high housing costs could drive out seniors and push away recent college graduates and middle-class professionals. As those city leaders consider a slew of new developments, they and housing advocates are debating how and whether to include affordable units that could bring in new residents and help people such as Melekhova stay…

Efforts to include affordable housing in Naperville developments have been met with some resistance. Residents have questioned the effects affordable units would have on their neighborhood and whether the look of buildings with affordable units would fit the character of the area.

One question submitted on a note card during a panel on affordable housing in May was more pointed: “What steps can landlords utilize to minimize the potential negative impacts of the associated tenants utilizing affordable housing?”

Based on my research on suburbs and Naperville, three quick thoughts:

  1. Naperville enjoys being a wealthy suburb. It has a really low poverty rate for a city its size. It has lots of white-collar jobs. While this tends to be put in terms of having a high quality of life, nice amenities, and good schools, there is clearly wealth.
  2. There is not a lot of affordable housing because that is not the kind of housing Naperville prioritized for the last fifty years. As the suburb really started to grow in land area and population in the 1960s, there were public discussions about building apartments. This is not what won out in the long run and the community approved subdivision after subdivision of nicer single-family homes. (See my 2013 article that details some of this.)
  3. More recent discussions and the comments highlighted in the article are common ones in suburban debates over affordable housing. When suburbs discuss affordable housing, they often are thinking of people that would desire in the community such as younger adults and retirees. They are not explicitly seeking out poorer residents. Such concerns can be put in different terms – privileging “quality” development or protecting the “character” of neighborhoods – but they often do not address housing for the many Americans working in lower-paying jobs. And there may be some support for affordable housing units but it is harder to find the suburban homeowners who want to live near those units.

All that said, truly addressing the issue of affordable housing requires more effort than adding a few units spread throughout the large suburb. A larger discussion about what kind of housing the community desires and what kind of residents it wants would have to take place before the number of affordable housing units would truly jump.

Imagining suburbs completely covered by security cameras from single-family homes

After a story from Kane County, Illinois about the extra work for prosecutors in going through video evidence from video doorbells, this got me thinking about surveillance in the suburbs. Imagine in the next few years the typical suburban neighborhood is covered by homeowner surveillance cameras of one kind or another: video doorbells plus consistently-running or motion-detection cameras mounted on the inside and outside of homes.

Traditionally, suburban areas have been more fond of privacy with the emphasis on single-family homes, interactions with neighbors by choice, and a willingness to fight local initiatives if they threaten said property and home. Big cities have long been home to more surveillance ranging from Jane Jacobs’ famous line about “eyes on the street” to the rise of CCTV in London.

What exactly is the cause of all of this? A few factors may be at work:

  1. The ease and low cost of the technology. Why have a regular doorbell when a video doorbell does not cost that much? (And the Internet suggests some people have fears of answering the door.)
  2. Fear of crime, even in relatively low crime suburban areas and after violent crime has dropped in the United States.
  3. A belief that video evidence is much more conclusive evidence compared to other types.
  4. A want to monitor/protect one’s single-family home at all times.

But, if every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

If suburban neighborhoods are increasingly under video surveillance, I wonder if this might change some decisions about where people live. Could this push people to more rural areas or perhaps to communities that more tightly control entries and exits (think gated communities with a real presence all around the perimeter? Or, would the extra surveillance encourage people to live in certain suburbs? Perhaps the decades-old neighborhood watches will be replaced by an unblinking eye on every house.

Counterarguments to the claim that people should not waste money on a big house

Economist Robert Shiller argues Americans do not need large houses:

“Big houses are a waste. People are still in a mode of thinking about houses that is kind of 19th century. As we modernize, we don’t need all this space,” Shiller told the Journal…

Shiller said advanced technology has replaced the need for extra space in our homes.

“For example, we don’t need elaborate kitchens, because we have all kinds of delivery services for food. And maybe you don’t need a workshop in your basement, either. You used to have a filing cabinet for your tax information, but now it’s all electronic, so you don’t need that, either. And bookshelves, for people who read a lot. We have electronic books now, so we don’t need bookshelves anymore,” Shiller said.

“Having a big house is a symbol of success, and people want to look successful. People have to know about your achievements. How do you know, really? Who knows what people are doing in their day job? But you do see their house.”

The counterargument for a typical owner of a large house might look like this:

1. What else could be such a worthwhile investment over time? Many people assume their home will appreciate in value and a big home purchased today means not only more space but more money down the road when the home sells.

2. Private space is still important. The kitchen may not be just about cooking. Of the spaces Americans do use in their homes, the kitchen is one. Or the idea of a workshop: there can be public spaces where people could come together to share tools and use common space but how many Americans are ready for that?

3. Shiller may overestimate the rate at which people are willing to get rid of stuff in favor of electronic copies or technology-aided alternatives. Shiller cites paper and books above. But, Americans simply consume a lot, ranging from video games to decor to furniture to electronic gadgets. Don’t they need bigger houses to fit all their stuff?

4. Status symbols matter in American society. A home is a very tangible expression of status, particularly compared to smaller items like watches, smartphones, jewelry, clothing, and other items.

All of these reasons may not be the most efficient or rational but they are a product of decades of social and cultural action and values. For more reading, see an earlier post: “Explaining Why Americans Desire Larger Homes.”

Get creative and sell home and new car together as package deal

Thinking about an earlier post linking new upscale car purchases with suburban gentrification, I had an idea: why not sell more homes and new cars together as a package deal? Here are reasons this could be a good pairing:

  1. Americans like the lifestyle that comes with a single-family home and driving a car. It is particularly important in the suburbs where owning a home and the ability to drive rank high in importance. Put these two big purchases together and sell a whole lifestyle.
  2. Both a home and a car are a status symbol. Pairing the two really provides an opportunity to brand the owner. Would someone want to purchase a McMansion but still drive a two Toyota Tercel or a Pontiac Aztek? Or, retire and downsize to a nice urban condo and keep driving a minivan or an older model SUV? Matching the home and the car at the same time provides a unique opportunity to establish oneself.
  3. I wonder if there are some “efficiencies” in purchasing both at the same time. On the producer side, developers and dealers want to move properties and cars; if selling them together helps, this is a deal. On the buyer side, perhaps they can roll all of the costs together and just pay one lump sum a month for two important items. (Mortgage documents might be hard enough to put together, let alone a joint document rolling together a mortgage and a car loan). Could it all be cheaper for the buyer (or get the sellers/lenders more money in the long run on interest)?

I would guess there are also good reasons this is not done widely. Still, given how much Americans like buying properties and like driving and cars, there may be potential here.

Now is the time to see who really cares about their lawn (and social appearances)

This is the time of year in our area to see which residents really care about maintaining their lawn. There are three main features of the lawn to look at to make this determination:

1. Is the lawn regularly cut to keep up with the rapid growth? At this time of year, the grass grows quite quickly with plenty of rain and warmer temperatures. This likely requires mowing more than once a week in order to keep the grass at a pleasing-to-the-eyes height.

2. Are there no dandelions visible? This hints as the groundkeeper’s efforts regarding weeds. Green grass is all that should be seen as people pass by. The shame of an uneven lawn might be outweighed by having a yard full of dandelions surrounded by perfectly green (and yellow-free) yards.

3. Is the grass uniform and lush? Even with all of the rain and sunshine, different kinds of grass (and other kinds of ground cover) plus patchy spots in the yard could indicate the homeowner is less invested in the lawn.

Two bonus features about the landscaping (often connected to lawn maintenance) to look at during this time of year:

1. If the residence has blooming flowers. This requires either foresight – planting perennial flowers – or time each year to put in new flowers.

2. If fresh mulch has been applied to beds on the property. This may be accompanied by a particular smell or a visible pile (or dirt mark) on the driveway or side yard.

As I have argued before, all of these markers are signs of both residential social norms and class-related behavior.

Seeing kitchens of the future on TV and in movies

A look at the evolution of modern kitchens in the middle of the 20th century includes one paragraph on how the new kitchens ended up in the media:

Midcentury movies, TV shows, and cartoons are loaded with examples of Rube Goldberg–like futuristic kitchens that automated cooking and cleaning tasks, sometimes to an absurd degree. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons debuted on ABC in 1962, portraying a nuclear family living in mid-twenty-first-century Orbit City. The Jetson family—husband and wife George and Jane, son and daughter Elroy and Judy—lived as a typical early 1960s family would have. Jane was a housewife, and George worked (just a few hours per week, it’s noted) for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets. The Jetsons had a robot maid named Rosey, who wore an old-fashioned black-and-white maid’s uniform, and zipped around the Jetson household on a set of wheels. The Jetsons’ kitchen was like a futuristic version of the Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers could select meals and desserts from behind little glass doors. A device called the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle offered tried and true dishes like Irish stew, beef Stroganoff, prime rib, pizza, and fried chicken on demand.

Perhaps the book says more about the mass media depictions of kitchens around this time – there is certainly no shortage of scholarly work on the TV shows and films of the postwar era, the time when more and more Americans moved to the suburbs and encountered new kitchens as well as new ideals about how kitchens should look and be used.

But, this paragraph does not give us the full picture of what kitchens looked like on television and in movies. Instead, we hear about lots of examples and one specific example from The Jetsons. Just how many depicted kitchens at the time actually had “futuristic kitchens”? And were these futuristic kitchens popular (part of popular television shows and movies) or influential (tastes changed because of the depictions)? This is less clear.

Indeed, as I suspect this book would argue, how exactly the modern kitchen evolved is a complex tale. This is true for many social phenomena as rarely can one firm or design or product upend everything. And accounting for changing tastes is quite difficult.

Possible limits even as more Americans seek housing that accommodates multiple generations

If more Americans want to live in multigenerational households, can they find homes that make room for this arrangement?

But for complex reasons that still puzzle researchers, multigenerational households are now on the rise once more. As many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Living with your parents (or your adult children) has plenty of potential benefits–everyone tends to save money, it can potentially benefit health outcomes, and you get to spend more time together.

Just one problem: American housing stock, dominated by single-family homes and connected by cars, isn’t really designed for it…

The advent of commercial air travel and the rapid expansion of American suburbia made inexpensive, single-family housing–and cross-country travel–attainable for more and more people. By 1950, just 21% of American households contained two or more generations. New funding for nursing homes from the Federal Housing Administration led to a boom in private nursing homes in 1950s and ’60s, and over time it became more and more normal to self-select into senior housing rather than living with your children. By 1980, the number of multigenerational homes had dropped to just 12%, according to Pew

But in any case, homes designed specifically for multigenerational living are still a small segment of the housing market. Far more common are families that have renovated their homes to suit aging parents or adult children, like the architect Cini, whose firm Mosaic Design specializes in senior design, particularly assisted living centers. Her personal experience with multigenerational life eventually led to a book, Hive, a practical how-to for other families who, either by necessity or choice, are moving in together. In large part, Hive addresses the unspoken taboos and tensions of living with your parents and grandparents.

No doubt there are complex social and cultural shifts behind this. The 20th century of mass American suburbanization may be an outlier in human history with the significant move to private single-family homes.

The larger issue that is reflected in this housing crunch may be that of increasing individualism and autonomy in recent centuries. Even the discussions of possible solutions to this housing issue betray this. The nursing home frees the family from obligations to care for elderly or infirm family members. Cohousing provides more community but residents still retreat to private units. Making alterations to a single-family home to accommodate family members can often lead to in-law suites or separate entrances.

Put another way, economic conditions and/or changing relationships between generations mean that more families want to live together but there are limits on how much autonomy or privacy family members are willing to give up. How a family arranges the space in its home could take many different forms. I don’t think anyone is recommending family members all sleep in just one or a few rooms, something common to much of human history. But, living together also does not necessarily mean that family members sharing an address actually see each other that much. A converted single-family home could be more like a duplex than a tight multigenerational setup. Family may be good to have close but perhaps not too close?

Or, to put it a third way, how many Americans would choose these multifamily or cohousing setups if the price of housing was not too high? The social benefits of a multigenerational family home could be high but Americans also value their autonomy.