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@jasperskywalker on tumblr asked to hear my opinion on the impacts and implications of single-family homes. This is the answer, and it got LONG.


Housing 101: the “single-family home” is generally defined as “a free-standing structure that is meant solely for the residential occupation (no business activities) of a nuclear family (two adults and their children), and that is located on a piece of land also owned by the same people and which has no other structures on it (except a garage/shed).”

The concept of single-family housing is not particularly new, and it isn't inherently evil or anything either. There are plenty of great perks to living in a single-family home, and for many people it is perfectly suited to their lifestyle. *I* live in a suburban single-family home, and as much as I hate some aspects of that, I admit it does have some benefits that I enjoy. So please don’t take my rant here as if I’m saying single-family housing is bad and needs to be bulldozed entirely. That’s not my intent.

However, everything needs to have a balance. The dominance of the single-family home in the modern housing market is historically very new, and that dominance is destroying our cities and our economies, expanding the income gap, dividing us socially, increasing stress and general unhealthy lifestyles, and reinforcing the cycle of poverty in our society.

The main problem with single-family housing is that it is INEFFICIENT, in several more ways than you might think. Obviously in terms of land acreage, single-family homes take up far more space than an apartment complex or a row of townhomes. And that means your physical resources are more spread out too - everything from more water pipes in the ground to energy lost heating and cooling isolated spaces. But single-family homes also create an inefficient lifestyle: car-dependent, socially isolating, and expensive not just for infrastructure but for each individual family locked in their own separate world.

I'll break that down into more detailed pieces, but first, a tangent for background context and discussion on home ownership:

Due to a number of different factors, the single-family home has become the ultimate intrinsic status symbol of our society. There are benefits in terms of square footage and fenced back yards that you can't get in an apartment, but that's more to do with housing typologies and supply than ownership as a concept. (More on this later.) So, focusing on ownership for a minute: most people don't even consider another option than to eventually own a home (typically in the suburbs, but I'll get to that). This goal is so ingrained that to do otherwise requires defensive tactics even in casual conversation: “Oh, I’m waiting to buy a house until I get married / get a full-time job / save up for a down payment / finish school / (insert justification of your choice).” Home ownership has become a standard benchmark of “adulthood” and “success”.

Part of this home ownership mania is due to the glamorization of suburbia over the past 60 years - the “American Dream” of success as defined by the white picket fence in front of your cozy cottage home. Our society also has a (not untrue, but way overblown) tunnel-vision on the financial benefits of ownership: people who buy a home can actually own it in truth once they pay off their mortgage, which in the long run is a huge financial advantage as compared to having to pay rent even after you retire. But the financial benefits can be had through other scenarios, and in my opinion they don't always outweigh the hidden costs of the single-family lifestyle.

Speaking of money, home ownership is definitely an economic class issue, too. It's very true that saving up for a down payment is difficult, almost impossible for those economic classes that don't have much disposable income and can't afford to store away $10k-$20k in any reasonable length of time. Then once you own a home you have to maintain it, and as someone who dropped $9k on new air conditioning units this summer, let me tell you, that's not the kind of thing you want to be doing when your bills are already almost exactly equal to your income. So it's a pretty simple, obvious economic standard: poor people usually don't own their homes.

Now, getting back to the single-family home as a concept, whether owned or rented - let's talk about infrastructure. Single-family housing requires a lot of space and is generally a hugely inefficient use of available land, aka this is why we have suburban sprawl. This cost isn't just in the use of raw land that could have been preserved or better-utilized. I'm talking about the cost of installing and maintaining far-flung underground utility lines, the cost of bussing kids to school on winding neighborhood streets versus densely-packed mixed-use streets, the increased scope of drainage and runoff capture for average impervious square footage per acre. These are costs that are not a one-time hit; they are inherent to the system, a constant invisible drain on the users (residents) and maintainers (the government, utility district, school district, etc) of a neighborhood, and once your neighborhood is built, they are extremely difficult to retrofit.

Next let's talk about transportation. All those expensive single-family homes are in far-away, sprawling neighborhoods that are (usually) restricted by land-use zoning to be only residential in nature. Job centers, entertainment venues, shopping, and etc are all located elsewhere (usually freeway intersections), so as not to be a “nuisance” to residents. But suburbia has little or no public transit service because - shocker - ridership in suburban neighborhoods is pretty thin and the trips are inefficient from the perspective of transit planning, so most metros just throw up their hands and don't provide any service at all. Those who can afford a single-family home can usually also afford a car to get to and from said house, so for the average homeowner this is not a problem. But it makes life SO much harder for the folks who live in a house but don't have a car. Thanks to land-use zoning, it's hugely impractical to be a pedestrian, because having separated land uses means those different uses have to be spread apart, with an average of several miles separating houses from grocery stores, for example. Nobody wants to walk that far just to buy milk.

More on land use: most cities have defined “single-family” and “multi-family” (aka apartment complexes) as the only two residential land uses ever to be permitted. Things like row houses, townhomes, duplexes, and etc are usually familiar concepts but are not necessarily allowed by right. But concepts like tiny houses, live-work studios, granny flats, garage apartments, subleases, and other small-scale two- or three-family arrangements are a legal nightmare to get approved, or just flat-out against ordinance and impossible. So in general, this means that housing typologies are pretty limited. Your housing options are either apartments (which are rarely designed for large families), or detached single-family homes.

If you have any other options in terms of housing, you are very lucky.

Now we come to social/interpersonal cost, and the fact that the idea of the nuclear family is destroying people's income and usually also their health via increased stress. The nuclear family is socially inefficient. Extended families have complimentary skill sets that re-balance many of the burdens of daily life. Elderly family members, young teenagers, or those with disabilities may not be able to work a full-time job, but they can care for children, buy groceries, keep up the house, and generally provide support for the family. In return for their household support, those family members receive the financial stability of having a place to live and food to eat without having to work a full-time job or depend on government welfare. This is how families worked for a long time throughout the world, and how many cultures still operate today, because it makes sense.

In a nuclear family, if the kids are not at the helpful ternager age range, the parents have none of those support options available to them. Some families are lucky enough to have relatives living close by (and even luckier if those relatives are not also desperately working to make ends meet), but it's becoming less common as people become more able (and more required) to move to where their job is, instead of staying where they grew up. So all those support roles are left vacant and must be filled in other ways: either the parents are perpetually sleep-deprived, stressed, and overworked (hello, this is me), or they hire lawn services, nannies, housekeepers, and etc. Great for capitalism in general, not so great for the family's disposable income.

This doesn't even touch on concepts like friends living together long-term, or commune-style group/community living, or polyamorous relationships with more than two people in the “parent/spouse” role. All of the same benefits apply, but those arrangements are all considered weird and deviant by society as a whole, for no good reason except moral/religious snobbery. It's also considered unacceptable for young adults to still live with their parents long-term, despite the economic sense in that arrangement - but that's a whole other conversation. And God forbid two whole families wanted a cooperative living arrangement; if that's the goal, you’d better hope to find a duplex or you’re out if luck.

So let's say you push through the obstacles and try it anyway. Whether you're an extended family living together, or a group of adults living together, you somehow have to make that work within the rigid, unimaginative confines of your available housing options: an apartment, a typical single-family home, or *maybe* something in between, if you are very lucky.

The other interpersonal element that is lacking from single-family neighborhoods is friendships and social relationships. It’s difficult for members of pre-existing friendships to stick together in a single-family neighborhood the way they can in a dorm or apartment complex, which is why it's often said that when a college friend has kids and moves to the suburbs, that is the death knell of their friendship. From personal experience, I can attest that it is very hard work to hold on to those friendships. So a lot of people who move from an apartment to a single-family home are losing the support network of friends that they previously hung out with. That feeds directly into the social isolation and the lack of support networks in single-family housing, just like not having access to extended family.

It's also difficult getting to know your neighbors in a new single-family community, because you rarely have activities in common with them, and when you do get to know them, they tend to be People Like You. Single-family communities have a high tendency to be homogenous in terms of income level, lifestyle, social/cultural background, and even things as basic as what sleep schedule you keep to, since most home owners work normal business hours. That means you don’t rub elbows with people of different backgrounds and interests, and that lack of exposure leads to a lack of understanding and mistrust of Those Other People. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering and racism and bombs in the Target bathrooms and etc.

(I have a whole other rant about social safety and eyes on the street, but Jane Jacobs said it better, so just go read that chapter of ”The Death and Life of Great American Cities” instead.)

So now we come back around to money, specifically the urban economy and the housing market. Generally speaking, housing inside of and close to city centers (aka job centers) is getting heinously expensive in pretty much every city everywhere. This is true for all types of housing, not just single-family homes, but since that is my topic here I will try to focus on the effects for single-family homes in particular.

We have two kinds of single-family housing to consider: older, established neighborhoods that the city has grown up around and swallowed, and new communities that are either filling in gaps inside the city, or new fringe/suburban development. And there are two reasons for the cost of housing to go up: property value increase, which happens as population increases and gentrification sets in, and supply/demand. The former is difficult to control, but the latter is what we need to pay attention to. (I’ll get back to it in a few paragraphs.)

There are older existing neighborhoods of single-family homes in the heart of most every city, but that land is usually extremely valuable, so most potential homeowners can't afford a single-family home close to the city center. Instead, they end up playing the “drive til you can buy” game: the further into the suburbs you go, generally the cheaper the land/home prices will be. That in turn guarantees a longer work commute, which brings us back around to pedestrianism and suburban hell: if you don't own a car, you NEED to live within walking/biking/bus transit distance of your job, and if you live in a suburban single-family home then that's almost guaranteed not gonna happen.

And this is where the housing market comes back around to lifestyle. For people who don't own a car, the best lifestyle they can live is in a densely populated neighborhood with a lot of different things all mixed together (no land use zoning), living somewhere close to their job, their school, shopping locations, etc - close enough that they can ride transit or walk to get around. That's a largely pedestrian lifestyle. Unfortunately, due to land use zoning, there are very few places where this exists, and even worse, it's a lifestyle of *convenience*. Unless it's hardwired into society, convenience costs money. The kind of walkable urbanism that would allow non-car-owners to survive and *thrive* is currently considered a fad for well-to-do childless couples and unmarried yuppies, and the houses/apartments that are located to best advantage are actually more expensive per month than owning a house in the suburbs. Walkable mixed-use urbanism used to be the norm for city development, but in the past 60 years it has become against code to build this way. We have a lot of damage to un-do.

But remember that it isn't just single-family houses affected by the rising cost of housing in urban areas. Apartment prices are going up too. Poorer people can't even afford to live in apartments inside the city, let alone buying a single-family home near their job, and they end up living in apartments in the suburbs, or in downtrodden neighborhoods, and taking that two-hour bus ride every day. And to add literal insult to injury, we *still* have the social stigma that people who rent an apartment instead of own a home are failing at life.

Now if only there were more residences available inside the city….

Fact: more people world-wide live in cities (urban/suburban settings) than in rural communities, and that *IS* a new thing, as of just a few years ago. Our cities need to be more efficient about housing, but the cost of urban housing has been going up across the globe. This is simple supply and demand: there is not enough housing available inside cities, so the cost of what *is* available goes up as much as the market can handle. Where housing is inefficiently spread out, the cost goes up even higher.

And let me say it again: single-family housing is extremely inefficient. The average density of a city or region is measured in du/ac, dwelling units per acre. Single-family residential development averages 3.3 du/ac, but the kind of density an area really needs to sustain a walkable urban environment is closer to 15 du/ac. Apartment complexes range 15-25 du/ac, so that's a good choice for living inside the city, but other than that, single-family homes are the only thing being built, and there's usually no middle ground. There's no garage apartment to lease to a local college kid or single adult, no live-work studio or loft apartment, no granny flat for your mother-in-law to live with you but have her own space, no three-family townhouse. No options for different lifestyles. (There are plenty of families who own a single-family home and would be happy to renovate to add a rentable space above their garage or whatever - but it’s not allowed by city rules.) And there isn't enough housing in the city center, so even the oldest, most roach-infested apartments are getting incredibly pricey.

So what we're left with is gentrifying urban centers where poorer people can't even afford to rent, and sprawled out suburban edges where it takes two hours on the bus to get anywhere, and people everywhere are grinding themselves into the ground because they are so isolated by their lifestyle that they have no support and no options. Obviously the neighborhoods that already exist are difficult to fix, but if new development could break away from this pattern of binary housing typologies, we could create better options going forward. We need to heave ourselves out of the rut of building only single-family homes and apartments, and allow people to either build other concepts as new construction, or retrofit older buildings for new configurations. And if we could just grow out of this insistence on each nuclear family living alone, a lot of our socioeconomic struggles would be improved, but instead our society is clinging so tightly to the American Dream of Suburban Home Ownership that no other options are being pursued.

This has been a soapbox rant about pedestrianism, housing typologies, land use zoning, and walkable urbanism.


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