Proposing the rowhouse as the solution to an over-priced housing, McMansion world

If you do not like McMansions, perhaps the rowhouse is a preferable alternative:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The great thing about rowhouses — that is, narrow, long, tall houses built connected to one another, sometimes called townhomes — is that they have most of the stuff Americans say they want in a home in a dense, efficient format. Typically they are single-family homes between two and four stories (though they can be built or split into apartments easily enough), with a front and back yard. The yards are small, but big enough for most purposes — you don’t need a McMansion-style soccer field to have some friends over for drinks and burgers, or let the dog run around, or simply get some fresh air and sunshine.

Then because the houses are connected to each other and on tiny lots, they are vastly more efficient. Instead of construction crews working on separate detached projects one after the other, they can build an entire block all at once. Shared walls means smaller bills for heating and cooling. Perhaps most importantly, the high density they enable allows for walkable neighborhoods with lots of shops and workable public transit. South Philly, which is almost entirely rowhouses, has about 24,000 people per square mile — which is not as dense as Brooklyn, but more than five times as dense as Phoenix and easily enough to support a subway line.

Rowhouses do have somewhat less privacy, of course. (I occasionally hear my neighbors even through the foot-thick brick walls, and I’m sure they hear me on occasion.) But even this has its upside — most obviously in a more vibrant neighborhood culture. When the sun is shining the folks on my block like to sit on the porch, chat with each other, smoke some meat, keep an eye on the neighborhood kids playing on the sidewalk, and so on. It feels like a friendly, alive place much more than the silent suburban cul-de-sacs I have visited in my life. And besides, who really wants to mow a three-acre yard all summer? Occasional weeding is more than enough work for me…

But rowhouses make a perfect middling addition to the American urban housing toolkit. Wherever a location is near to an urban center but not quite suitable for high-rises, slapping down a quick set of rowhouses ought to be the default option whenever land is freed up. By the same token, many American cities are also desperately short of moderately large apartment buildings, in the 3-8 story range, at somewhat more valuable locations like directly adjacent to transit stops.

The advantages and disadvantages to single-family homes amid American sprawl are clearly laid out here. The advantages include a lower price, efficiency in construction and heating and cooling, a smaller yard to maintain, and a lively, denser street. The disadvantages mirror these advantages: less space, less privacy. At the least, rowhouses in cities and denser suburbs provides opportunities for homeowners.

I have three further questions about rowhouses. First, what about rowhouses constructed for wealthier homeowners? In this piece, part of the appeal of rowhouses is a cheaper price point. Yet, rowhouses can be constructed with plenty of space and a lot of features for wealthier buyers. These homes might even give the appearance of being denser but are then trapped in small spots in cities or in suburban subdivisions far from anything walkable. Zoning is indeed an issue in certain places but I am guessing that is matters less in wealthier neighborhoods or communities or rowhouses are not viewed as a threat but rather as an intriguing change of pace.

Second, the importance of privacy may be understated. Americans like suburban single-family homes in part because they want to be separate from others (for privacy, because of race and class, to have their own property). Some homeowners want density and vibrant neighborhood life; others do not. If given the choice between a single-family home, a rowhouse, a condo, a townhouse, and an apartment (and controlling for particular neighborhood characteristics), what would most Americans choose?

Third, how much of these chooses about development depend on regional approaches to housing? As noted in the story, rowhouses are common in some places like Brooklyn and Philadelphia. They are not common in many other places. Having lived in one such development in the suburbs of the Midwest, it was an unusual choice among the typical options. And when that community and other nearby ones have been given choices about what to build since, they have largely eschewed rowhouses (except for more expensive ones). Getting communities to change up these options, particularly if there are worries about property values, is not an easy task.

“Dream Hoarders” in exclusive locations

The 2018 book Dream Hoarders connects the actions of the top 20% in income to where they live and how they control who lives near them. Excerpts from the book:

https://www.brookings.edu/book/dream-hoarders/

The physical segregation of the upper middle class noted in chapter 2 is, for the most part, not the result of the free workings of the housing market. This inverse ghettoization is a product of a complex web of local rules and regulations regarding the use of land. The rise of “exclusionary zoning,” designed to protect the home values, schools, and neighborhoods of the affluent, has badly distorted the American property market. As Lee Anne Fennell points out, these rules have become “a central organizing feature in American metropolitan life.” (102)

Zoning ordinances, which began life as explicitly racist tools, have become important mechanisms for incorporating class divisions into urban physical geographies. This is not a partisan point. If anything, zoning is more exclusionary in liberal cities. (103)

So, those of us with high earnings are able to convert our income into wealth through the housing market, with assistance from the tax code. We then become highly defensive – almost paranoid – about the value of our property and turn to local policies, especially exclusionary zoning ordinances, to fend off any encroachment by lower-income citizens and even the slightest risk to the desirability of our neighborhoods. These exclusionary processes rarely require us to confront public criticism or judgment. They take place quietly and politely in municipal offices and usually simply require us to defend the status quo. (106)

There are numerous connections in this section to earlier posts. Here are a few:

One of the reasons Americans love suburbs is that suburban life allowed for excluding people they do not want to live near.

There is bipartisan white suburban support for homes rather than apartments.

-Housing rarely comes up in national political conversations. It may get a few minutes at debates or occasionally come up in trying to appeal to some voters.

-Tackling this at the state (example of California) or local level is difficult (example of Naperville, Illinois and suburban New Jersey).

In sum, it is hard to understand the life of wealthier Americans without also addressing how this wealth and the opportunities that come with it are closely connected to particular locations.

Suburban opposition to apartments has a long exclusionary history

When the McCloskeys of St. Louis spoke at the Republican National Convention about their fears that suburbs would be abolished, what they said specifically would change in suburbs continues a long-standing argument:

They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIL4dft8VNw&feature=youtu.be

What is so important about single-family homes and keeping out apartments? Here are at least three reasons why wealthier suburbs look to avoid most apartments:

  1. A change in aesthetics and character. Single-family homes are emblematic of people who have made it or successful suburbanites. The bigger and nicer the homes, the better off or the higher status the community. Single-family homes are also more spread out while apartments lend themselves to more density. Bigger lots equals higher status.
  2. The contrast between homeowners and apartment dwellers is thought to be stark. Homeowners care about their property and their community. Because their property values are at stake, they will put effort and money into their home and land. In contrast, apartment residents are thought to transient, not interested in the community, and less invested in their property.
  3. Exclusion. Apartments are not just an eyesore and problems for building community; they attract different kinds of residents than wealthy homeowners. In particular, they are connected to lower-income residents, non-white residents, and/or criminal elements. And if a suburb avoids building apartments (or only ends up with more expensive apartments or rental units), certain groups of people are excluded.

Two quick historical examples come to mind.

-My research on the suburban development of Naperville, West Chicago, and Wheaton showed that the subject of apartments was an important one. In my 2013 article “Not All Suburbs are the Same,” I provide some details of fights over apartments in Naperville and Wheaton. In both well-off suburbs, the communities decided not to pursue apartment growth.

The Mount Laurel case in suburban New Jersey involved efforts by long-time black residents to relocate to apartments. The denial of the apartments from the municipality led to a long court battle.

In sum, the argument from the McCloskeys is not just about a change in density; it is also about local control and the ability to keep (stereotyped) apartment dwellers out.

(Update: I have read other commentary that analyzes the coded language used by the McCloskeys. My primary focus in this post is about the mention of apartments: this is a common form of development that wealthier communities often look to limit because they view them as gateways to particular people in a community.)

Publication in Soc of Religion: “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City Region,1992-2017”

Sociology of Religion today published online my article referenced in the title to the post:

ReligiousFreedomandLocalConflictWeb

I came to this article through wanting to analyze the connection between religion and place. Having seen at least a few stories of religious zoning conflict in the Chicago area (see an earlier study here), I wondered whether these patterns held across different metropolitan regions (and all the variations that could exist there), a longer time period, and within different communities within metropolitan regions. As the abstract suggests, there are some similarities – for example, locations near residences or requests from Muslim groups receive more attention – and differences – including what religious groups are in each region (with a larger population of Orthodox Jewish residents in the New York City region).
More broadly, zoning is a powerful tool communities have. As they set their land use guidelines, they are making decisions about what they envision their community looking like. This applies both to the physical structure or spaces as well as who might reside or work in the community. Americans tend to like local government, in part because it exercises control over what might locate near their homes or residences. But, this impulse to protect homes and property values can come up against other interests a community might have, such as affordable housing or medical facilities.

The spread of upzoning and metropolitan regions

A number of cities and states in the United States have changed zoning guidelines or are considering changes to allow multiple housing units in what used to be areas just for single-family homes:

Minneapolis and Seattle are among cities that have effectively abolished zoning that restricts neighborhoods to owner-occupied, single-family dwellings. Oregon has done so in its largest municipalities, and Californians, like residents of Salt Lake City, are now free to build small cottages, sometimes called “granny flats,” for use as rentals in neighborhoods that were previously single-family only…

Before World War II, only about 13% of Americans lived in a suburb; now more than half of us do, and as the New York Times reported, in many American cities, more than 75% of residential land is zoned for single family use only.

In some cities, the share is even higher: in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, 84% of residential land is zoned single-family; in San Jose, California, 94% is, according to a Times analysis in collaboration with UrbanFootprint…

Other states with single-family zoning in the legislative crosshairs in 2020 include Virginia and Maryland, where House Delegate Vaughn Stewart says upzoning can correct social-justice issues, as well as housing problems. “For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart told Kriston Capps of CityLab.

Sonia Hirt, quoted in this article, argues that single-family homes drive zoning in the United States as the goal is to protect homes and homeowners from uses they find less desirable, threatening to a residential character, and negatively impact property values.

As someone who studies suburbs, zoning, and housing, here are a few thoughts about the future of these changes:

  1. Making changes at the city or municipal level will be easier or more palatable to more voters who tend to like local control over land use decisions. If zoning changes are made at the state level, it will be harder to enforce the guidelines or penalize communities that do not comply.
  2. Wealthier communities will fight hard to avoid these zoning changes. Part of the appeal for some to move to wealthier suburbs is to keep others out and have a particular aesthetic (and these homeowners usually are not looking for more density).
  3. Adding some accessory dwellings throughout single-family home neighborhoods may not change the character of communities much but asking for bigger changes – multi-family housing, apartments, condos, turning large single-family homes into multiple units – on a bigger scale will be a tough sell in many communities.

These difficulties suggest progress in providing more affordable housing or more housing units could be slow. If change and enforcement primarily happens at the local level, this limits the ability of regions to address affordable housing issues because the problem simply becomes one that other communities should address. Housing, like transportation or water, is an issue that benefits greatly from the cooperation of all actors in a region. While it is a difficult topic to address at this level, let alone a national level, significant progress requires broader cooperation and efforts.

“98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage” and local decisions

As Itasca leaders and residents debate a proposal for a drug-treatment facility in the suburb, an update on the story included this statistic:

There were 98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage.

Illinois appeared to be in the middle of states with its rate of opioid deaths in 2017 (see the data here). DuPage County has a lot of residents – over 928,000 according to 2018 estimates – and the Coroner has all the statistics on deaths in 2018.

In the debates over whether suburbs should be home to drug treatment facilities, such statistics could matter. Are 98 deaths enough to (a) declare that this is an issue worth addressing and (b) suburbs should welcome facilities that could help address the problems. Both issues could be up for debate though I suspect the real issue is the second one: even if suburbanites recognize that opioid-related deaths are a social problem, that does not necessarily mean they are willing to live near such a facility.

Does this mean that statistics are worthless in such a public discussion? Not necessarily, though statistics alone may not be enough to convince a suburban resident one way or another about supporting change in their community. If residents believe strongly that such a medical facility is detrimental to their suburb, often invoking the character of the community, local resources, and property values, no combination of numbers and narratives might overwhelm what is perceived as a big threat. On the other hand, public discussions of land use and zoning can evolve and opposition or support can shift.

What would happen if the Supreme Court addresses inclusionary zoning?

A legal case involving zoning in Marin County, California may make it to the Supreme Court.

Back in May, authorities in Marin entered into a new voluntary compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build new low-income housing outside areas where black or brown residents make up the majority. This is now the county’s second big push since 2010 to satisfy the government’s demand that it work on desegregating its affordable housing.

Fair housing is a challenge for Marin, an enclave of million-dollar bungalows across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. According to a nonprofit project called Race Counts, it has the highest racial disparities of any county in California. That’s in part because Marin County doesn’t want to build any housing. Homeowners here are at the forefront of NIMBY efforts to stop plans for new construction, whether they’re local, regional, or statewide.

The county’s iron grip on its land is the backdrop for a case that may soon appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. Back in 2000, two Marin County property owners, Dartmond and Esther Cherk, looked to split their undeveloped land into two single-family-zoned lots. As developers, they were liable to preserve some part of the property for affordable housing or pay into a low-income housing production fund. The fee was nearly $40,000; the Cherks sued.

The Marin County case may test the constitutionality of inclusionary zoning, a tool that local jurisdictions rely on to expand the supply of affordable housing, especially in tight housing markets. The court has expressed an interest in the case, which the justices may wind up using as a wedge to reshape property rights. It’s possible the inclusionary zoning ordinances—and local regulations more broadly construed—will not stand under the court’s scrutiny.

I’m on the record suggesting the Supreme Court would approve inclusionary zoning. While this piece suggests conservatives on the court might be spoiling to affirm property rights, the courts more broadly have helped develop plans to promote more affordable housing (think the Gautreaux case in Chicago or the Mount Laurel decision in New Jersey). Earlier decisions did not eviscerate property rights but they did suggest that the responsibility for housing was wider than a single community and its zoning. Additionally, having developers pay a fee into an affordable housing fund or provide some units of affordable housing as part of the larger project is common practice across American communities.

Beyond just the actions of Marin County and its own housing supply and population composition, the bigger issue is this: if a community or township or county restricts development and/or housing, it puts a bigger burden on other municipalities in the same metropolitan region to provide housing. And if many municipalities refuse certain kinds of development, more affordable housing ends up in a limited number of places that are (1) not necessarily located near jobs and (2) relatively lower-class. Housing is an issue best tackled by a whole metropolitan area (as are other issues including mass transit and transportation). More dispersed outcomes would likely lead to better outcomes across the region with the biggest loss being the communities that cannot easily remain as exclusive as they would like.

 

Suburbanites can rally en masse against (and for) zoning issues

Suburbanites may participate at low rates in local elections but they certainly can be energized by controversial local zoning proposals. More on the ongoing Haymarket case in Itasca, Illinois:

Itasca plan commissioners admitted they underestimated public interest in a proposed addiction treatment center when a crowd representing 16% of the town’s population packed their meeting Wednesday night…

Demonstrators marched earlier Wednesday evening through downtown Itasca to pressure a Chicago nonprofit group to abandon plans to convert a hotel into a 200-bed drug and alcohol treatment center…

Prominent politicians, advocates and other nonprofit groups have thrown their support behind Haymarket, maintaining that the center would address a shortage of easily accessible residential programs for recovering addicts in DuPage County. Proponents also say much of the outcry stems from the stigma around opioid addiction…

Opponents have focused their main objections on the size and location of a facility they say would put too much of a burden on the village’s police and ambulance services.

Quite the excitement for a suburb with less than 10,000 people. Several parts of this latest news report stood out to me:

1. A public march through the community from those opposed to the center.

2. Public demonstrations of support from those in favor of the facility. While there may be a good amount of NIMBY activity, there are also people willing to stand up for the facility.

3. That this all is based on a medical center. This is not a landfill or huge condominium building in a town of single-family homes. Of course, it is not just any medical center: it is one involving drug treatment. (And many suburbs do not like getting involved with anything to do with drugs.)

4. This is not how such local political activity works but it would be interesting to hear where Itasca residents think the facility should be located or whether they could help broker a deal for another community rather than just reject the local proposal. More broadly, how might communities and residents work together to locate facilities that may be undesirable but are needed?

Zoning for single-family homes contributes to California’s housing issues

If a lot of individual communities zone largely for single-family homes, it can add up to larger housing problems:

At its heart, California’s housing problem is one of scarcity: According to one analysis, the state has 3.5 million fewer homes than it needs to house all the people who live there. That gap was created over decades — largely as a result of the zoning policies of individual communities, under pressure from local residents. Randy Shaw, a longtime Bay Area housing advocate and author of the book Generation Priced Out, says the best way to describe the dynamics at play is to look at the city of Atherton. Thirty minutes from San Jose, Atherton is the most expensive city in the country: The median price of a home there is $8.1 million.

“You can’t build an apartment building in Atherton,” Shaw says. City code prohibits anything other than a single-unit building with a footprint that cannot exceed 18 percent of the land. In other words, everything but a single, detached home with a yard is verboten. “You have all of these cities in California where you can’t build anything but a luxury home,” Shaw says. “When you have zoning restrictions that prevent you from building the housing you need, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in the situation we have.”

It’s a problem lawmakers across the state are grappling with, including in San Jose, where 94 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes. “You got lots of family housing, and you’re not going to bulldoze it to go build apartments,” Liccardo said at a meeting of the state’s mayors in July. “At least, not if you don’t want [homeowners] to burn down City Hall.”…

At the start of the legislative session this past January, the housing committee introduced a slate of bills focused on streamlining approvals for new construction, protecting renters, funding affordable housing, and, most controversially, reforming zoning laws. Wiener’s top priority was SB50, an ambitious proposal that would prohibit cities from having zoning laws like Atherton’s. Residential neighborhoods historically reserved for single-family homes would be opened up to multi-unit housing like triplexes and fourplexes. And even higher-density construction would be allowed around transit corridors and “job-rich” enclaves.

With suburban preferences for single-family homes, exclusion, and local control, providing cheaper housing at a state level is going to be a tough sell. As I have asked before, what incentive do wealthier homeowners have to change the rules that let them live with people like them? But, if California can find some path through this all that actually makes an impact – and it will likely take quite a while before significant change could be noted – then it could provide a helpful template for other American locations that suffer from similar problems.