Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing
© 2020 Diane Lind
Prior to the 20th century, Americans enjoyed the same rich diversity of housing options as anyone else: detached houses of varying sizes, granny flats, boarding houses, rented rooms, and apartment hotels only begin the list. By the mid-20th century, however, American cities were hard at work creating housing shortages for the future, by restricting residential development to either sprawling acres of single homes, or the odd apartment tower. As we move deeper into the 21st century, Diane Lind posits that the state-mandated tyranny of detached homes is being broken and that alternative housing options are making a comeback.
Lind begins with a quick and serviceable history of American housing, which covers how single-family dwellings became virtually the only permissible residential development allowed in the United States. Unsurprisingly for a contemporary author, she places heavy emphasis on racial drama, with less-charged economic and environmental factors taking a distant backseat. (Suburban Nation, Crabgrass Frontier, etc offer more detailed and less politicized analyses of the same trend.) More constructively, she demonstrates that the nuclear family, consisting of one couple and their children in a detached home, only became the norm as the 20th century opened, driven by both the state’s desire to expand homeownership, reform groups’ attempt to clean cities up by attacking shared living arrangements, and the shift of the American economy from agriculture to industry.
Social factors today are reversing that shift. Young people are entering adulthood already laden with debt baggage, and are delaying starting families, often well into their thirties. They often have neither the means nor the desire to buy a house in the suburbs — and even if they did, the large cities they prefer to live near all have enormous housing shortfalls (sometimes thanks to the city government itself squelching development, in the case of San Francisco). There’s a great deal of interest and energy in creating new ways to live, and the bulk of Lind’s book addresses three trends: co-living, accessory dwelling units, and multigenerational housing. She ends by arguing that housing should be reframed, and that housing and health policy should ruin together.
Two of the two trends are restorations of how people used to live before the suburban experiment, and allow people with different needs to serve one another: accessory dwelling units, which lumps approaches like garage apartments and tiny houses together, offer more affordable places to live for young people, while giving older landowners a source of income and companionship. Multigenerational homes are likwise mutually beneficial: not only are basic household costs shared, but the generations support one another: while Grandma is helping babysit the grands, her own children can likewise better monitor her health — and everyone benefits from companionship. While these revived approaches were created specifically to ease expense, Lind’s version of co-living is rather different. She addresses not young people living in homes together, but housing developments that were specifically created with a dorm-like plan in mind: small private living spaces, connected with more communal shared kitchens and living areas. These allow college grads to continue meeting interesting people and living in community, but are certainly not cheap: indeed, Lind writes that these young people are willing to pay a premium for the experience, which often includes doormen and planned recreation.
I greatly appreciated Lind’s emphasis on how our living spaces effect our total well-being, not just our financial standing: this is something I became aware of after reading Jim Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere. The big flaw in Lind’s focus here is its emphasis on new developments: even when existing housing stock can easily be adapted to incorporate ADUs or multiple families, she devotes most of her focus to new construction that has multiple families in mind. The co-living chapter is the biggest offender here, because it’s more of a niche product , the dorms attractive to wealthy but single millennials. The problem with new developments is that by their nature they’re difficult to make affordable, since first-gen tenants are essentially helping pay for the building’s development, whereas tenants in later years are only covering maintenance and the landlord’s income. (Jane Jacobs wrote on the importance of old buildings for maintaining affordable stock.) Lind also emphasizes subsidies for making the dream of affordable housing happen, when zoning regs and state incentives were responsible for creating the housing dilemma in the first place. When bureaucrats are removed from the picture, industrious humans have a way of solving the problems at hand.
Not Just Bikes’ “The Houses That Can’t Be Built in America”, covering how zoning laws distort the market and reduce stock
It’s a Sprawl World After All: The Human Costs of Unplanned Growth, Douglas Morris.
Strong Towns articles on tackling housing crunches by allowing for ADUs, etc
Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in America, Paul Groth