After publishing two papers in the last few years on TV depictions of suburbs and their houses (see here and here), it leaves me with one big question: do shows like these directly influence what homes people purchase?
Americans watch a lot of television – still an average of about four hours a day for adults – and they see a lot of dwellings. While there is a mix of housing units shown, scholars point out that television since the 1950s does place a lot of emphasis on single-family homes. This includes fictional shows set in single-family homes in the suburbs (think Bewitched or Desperate Housewives), rural areas (think Lassie), and cities (think Happy Days and King of Queens). More recently, viewers can see homes on HGTV and other networks that emphasize home life (plus the shows on other networks that specifically target homeowners, from This Old House to Trading Spaces). This makes some sense in a country that holds up owning a single-family home, particularly in the suburbs, as an ideal.
But, we know little how about all of this watching about homes translates into choosing homes. My study “From I Love Lucy to Desperate Housewives” did not find much evidence that more popular suburban television shows led to more people living in suburbs (or vice versa). Similarly, outside of some interest from Sopranos’ fans in having a home like Tony, there is little to no evidence that Americans flocked to imitate the home or neighborhood of the Sopranos. While the viewers of HGTV might be relatively wealthy, do they take what they see and directly purchase something like that?
It is relatively easy to make claims about how media products affect thoughts and behavior. However, it is harder to make direct, causal connections. I would guess advertisers around such shows hope such a connection is present. If we could examine this relationship between shows and homes more closely in research studies, it could help us better understand how Americans form, maintain, and change their approaches to homes and communities.
Even if the median size of new American homes is smaller in recent years, this does not mean it is easy to construct smaller new homes in communities:
To propel the movement, he recommends using the term “missing middle housing,” rather than terms such as “upzoning,” “density” and “multifamily,” which he says have a negative connotation.
“I can’t imagine a single neighborhood in the country where people will get excited about the term ‘density,’ ” Parolek said. “Even things like ‘multifamily’ can be a scary term that’s past its life span.”
His larger recommendation is for cities to change their zoning ordinances. Parolek advocates for form-based zoning, which allows more flexibility for what can be built on a property…
“Zoning in and of itself is a system that encourages single-family home construction in cities,” Parolek said. “Most cities don’t have effective zoning for missing middle housing, so the easy thing to do is to build a single-family house. There’s no neighborhood pushback and less risk. There’s a reason it’s being done, but it’s not responding to what the market wants.”
Very few neighbors or communities would be excited to live next to or approve cheaper housing. The assumption is that more expensive housing is good: it will bring in more tax dollars, typically has fewer residents (so lower local costs), and connotes a higher status. In contrast, it is thought cheaper housing brings down surrounding property values and the kind of people who live in cheaper housing are not as desirable as higher income residents.
Would communities react better to “missing middle housing”? Perhaps. Many places talk about the need to have housing where hard working professionals with a stake in the community, like teachers and firefighters, can reside in the place where they work. Or, it is desirable to provide denser housing for young professionals and retirees to keep them in the community. Yet, as Parolek notes, the goal is still to move people toward a single-family home (with some flexibility for townhouses and condos) in the long run. Changing zoning is not easy because many people purchase a home and then work hard for years to protect the value of that home. Cheaper housing may be more acceptable if located away from existing larger and more expensive housing, if it is allowed in the community at all.
Missing from even this suggestion about “missing middle housing” is an acknowledgement of the necessity of housing for lower-class and poorer residents. True affordable housing needs to go beyond the middle-class and provide housing for those working in the retail and service industries. But, I don’t think most communities and America as a whole wants to talk about this kind of housing.
Data from 2018 shows new homes in the United States are getting smaller:
NAHB data shows the average size of new houses fell for the third straight year in 2018. Median square footage of single-family houses decreased to 2,320 last year after peaking at more than 2,500 square feet in 2015.
Although still above the sub-2,200-square-foot medians hit during the Great Recession, the numbers suggest that entry-level buyers and those looking for starter homes might finally have more options in the coming years. It’s also good news for those who have had problems getting a mortgage because of credit issues.
Robert Dietz, NAHB’s chief economist, said the data probably indicates that home builders are turning toward middle-class housing after spending much of the current economic growth period focused on the high-end development.
In the aftermath of the housing bubble and the economic crisis, builders focused on higher-end buyers. With money to be made there and the limited ability of those with fewer resources to purchase new homes, bigger homes were the primary focus.
So what has changed? Lower class and middle class buyers may now again have the resources to purchase new homes. With a steady economic recovery (stock market up, unemployment down, wages relatively flat), homeownership may be attainable again for more people. The homeownership rate has been down during the last decade though up a little recently.
Just one reminder: the decreased median may not mean that fewer large homes are under construction – Americans do seem to want big homes – but rather that more smaller new homes were built.
I realized recently that my suburban home of nearly two years is 45 years old. While there are no major problems with the home, it made me think: how long could the house last? And, how much effort and money should be expended to keep it going?
The home has some nice features but I don’t think there is much that distinguishes it from millions of other suburban homes. Its architecture is bland if not McMansion like and the lot has a good location.
As the postwar housing stock ages, many homes like ours may face more issues and newer housing units in a variety of places provide new competition. Complicating matters is that many of these older suburban homes command a decent price. When located in more desirable communities, these dwellings will likely prove attractive for some time.
But, when will the tide turn? When will the repair costs become extensive? Are older suburban neighborhoods destined for teardowns or complete redevelopment, not just in the wealthiest areas? Will populations shift away from postwar suburban neighborhoods?
I have little idea of how many years I should predict my suburban home will stand. Twenty-five more years? Seventy-five? One hundred? The builders and developers of postwar suburbs probably spent little time considering what their neighborhoods of tract homes would look like in a century but we are not too far from that. Future generations will decide whether homes like mine are worth investing in or no longer the trouble.
Alana Semuels explores what happens when you rent a house from an institutional investor:
I wonder how much of these issues are due to overwhelming emphasis in the United States on homeownership rather than renting. Do large companies think they can do this to renters because the long-term goal is to sell the property for a large sum to a homeowner (or another investor)? Similarly, do renters put up with this for a longer period of time because they expect to leave the rental market? Or, perhaps in markets where renting is more common and more rental units are available, renters would leave these situations sooner and institutional investors would have to do more to keep renters?
I talked with tenants from 24 households who lived or still live in homes owned by single-family rental companies. I also reviewed 21 lawsuits against three such companies in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta devastated by the housing crash. The tenants claim that, far from bringing efficiency and ease to the rental market, their corporate landlords are focusing on short-term profits in order to please shareholders, at the expense of tenant happiness and even safety. Many of the families I spoke with feel stuck in homes they don’t own, while pleading with faraway companies to complete much-needed repairs—and wondering how they once again ended up on the losing end of a Wall Street real estate gamble…
As the industry started to grow, the major players all described their desire to standardize and improve the business of being a landlord. But even to the companies’ employees, the effort to become more efficient started to look more like craven attempts to squeeze tenants. “It shouldn’t be just about making money, but that’s what it turned into,” Shanell Hanson, who was a property administrator for Colony American Homes in an Atlanta suburb from 2014 to 2016, told me. Hanson said the company had six maintenance workers for 2,100 homes in the area she managed. Residents would frequently call with substantial problems: Sewage was overflowing, or the house was full of mold. But with such a small staff, Hanson could rarely deal with the problems quickly. And the law was on the corporations’ side: If tenants want to seek financial remedy for a landlord not keeping the property in adequate condition, under Georgia law, they have to take the landlord to court, a costly and lengthy process. “It’s almost impossible to do without an attorney,” Lindsey Siegel, an attorney at Atlanta Legal Aid who works on housing issues, told me…
Many other single-family landlord companies were cutting corners on maintenance and repairs. “As the corporation got bigger, it just got worse, in terms of what we had to work with and how we had to deal with problems,” a former Los Angeles leasing agent who worked for Waypoint between 2015 and 2017 told me. (She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works in real estate.) Regional teams received bonuses for keeping costs low, she said, which incentivized them to skimp on spending. Instead of responding to tenants personally, supervisors would send calls for maintenance to out-of-town call centers—which would in turn assign maintenance workers dozens of repairs in a day, not realizing that Los Angeles traffic could mean that relatively short distances could take hours to traverse…
Tenants also say that rather than taking advantage of economies of scale, the rental companies are taking advantage of their clients, pumping them for fines and fees at every turn. This impression is backed up by the financial reports of the companies themselves. American Homes 4 Rent increased the amount of money it collected from “tenant charge-backs” (essentially billing tenants for repairs after they move out) by more than 1000 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to company earnings reports, though it only grew the number of homes it owned by 70 percent over that period. In some states, Invitation Homes keeps the utilities in its name, and charges tenants a monthly $10.99 “utility service fee,” which is in addition to the cost of water, gas, and electricity. The company increased its “other property income”—the amount it collected from resident reimbursement for utilities, service charges, and other fees—by 114 percent between the first nine months of 2017 and the first nine months of 2018, despite only growing the number of homes it owned by 71 percent. On an earnings call in 2017, Invitation Homes’ then-CEO John Bartling said that “automated charges to residents” drove profits in the quarter, leading to a 22 percent increase in “other income.”
I would also be interested in more information on the profitability of such companies. How lucrative is it to purchase thousands of homes? While Americans historically are opposed to government involvement in housing (unless it is subsidizing suburban single-family homes), stories like these seem like they could be used to justify more government intervention in regulating housing. But, what if regulations cut into profits? The housing industry is a large and profitable one.
Another angle to take here would be to examine how these institutional investors do or do not contribute to local communities. One justification of homeownership in the United States was that it gave owners a stake in their local community and government. Yet, much capital in the world today is global and real estate decisions made thousands of miles away could heavily influence smaller communities that look like – they are full of single-family homes – they are constructed to emphasize local control.
In watching one of the popular new TV shows, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I was not surprised to see the first episode take place in Lakewood, California. Here are several reasons this makes sense:
- Lakewood is a paradigmatic suburb. It does not quite receive the amount of attention as Levittown but it is known as an important post-World War II suburb of Los Angeles. Read more about the suburb’s unique history on the city’s website.
- The home depicted is relatively small compared to many of the suburban homes constructed today. This is part of the tidying issues the family faces: the American pattern is to accumulate more stuff over a lifetime (partly to express a certain status) and one solution for adjusting to this stuff is simply to purchase a larger home.
- The family is depicted as living an ideal family lifestyle: they have been married five years (if I remember correctly), have two small kids, and live in a suburban single-family home. This family/single-family home connection is strong in the suburban psyche.
- The emphasis of the episode is on the private life of the family inside the home. Even with the show focused on the belongings inside the home, there is very little connection to the outside world, whether neighbors, or the larger suburb, metropolitan region, or nation. All these privately-held goods and familial relationships look like they are in a small bubble that the participants prefer to stay in.
Given the suburban emphases on single-family homes and consumption, perhaps it makes all the sense in the world to start such a show in a well-known suburb.
The single-family home may be the bedrock of the American suburbs and Joel Kotkin suggests both political parties ignore this at their own peril:
However much they might detest Trump , suburbanites are not likely to rally long-term to a party that seeks to wipe out their way of life. The assault on suburbia, both from the ultra-capitalist right and socialist-minded left, neglects the very reasons—space and privacy—people of all ethnicities move to suburbia. Just as Republicans can ignore the unintended consequences of ultra-free market policies, Democrats ignore the aspirations of their own voters.
More important still, the anti-single-family campaign undermines the foundation of our democracy. The essence of American civilization has been the pursuit of a better life for oneself and one’s family. Take away the ability to own one’s home and we are well on our road to a neo-feudal society where the masses will need to rely on the state not only for housing but, without meaningful assets, to finance their retirement.
The clamor to restrict single-family homes and thus push the American dream further out of many Americans’ reach, represents an assault on what both parties once espoused. An America without widespread homeownership is no longer an aspirational country, but a place where people remain imprisoned by their class and unable to pursue what they perceive as a better quality of life.
Kotkin’s argument seems to go like this:
- The suburbs are the way they are because the American people wanted to live in suburbia. Both political parties supported this mission for much of the 20th century through monies and programs.
- Unless Democrats and Republicans cater to suburban voters, they will have a difficult future as political parties.
But, this seems to assume that this suburban way of life based around a home and emphasis on family will always continue this way. To some degree, Americans did desire land and privacy from the beginning yet the suburban experience was really made available to the masses first around the turn of the twentieth century and then even more so after World War II. Younger or future Americans could decide they would prefer cities and denser areas or even rural areas and the political parties could help lead them in that direction.
All that to say, I think Kotkin is right in that a majority of Americans continue to profess interest in living in suburbia. At the same time, this could change in the future and one or both of the political parties could start leading in that direction. Not all Americans want to be suburbanites so there is political room to suggest alternatives.