Five years ago, I went on maternity leave with my first-born child. Though there weren’t any COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, I spent the vast majority of my time as if there were, changing diapers, feeding my son, accommodating naps at our single-family rowhome in Fairmount. As my husband and I navigated early parenthood mostly alone, I wondered how humans had survived in much more challenging times if each new family had to fend for itself.
The pandemic has challenged many Americans to rethink their housing. Many families are forming “pods” with extended family, and sometimes entire other families, by moving in together to cope with disruptions to school, work and much of the rest of life. They are recognizing that people are more interdependent than our housing would lead us to believe, and are part of a growing population of people who have come to question whether the presumed benefits of single-family homes and the lifestyle that comes with them are really worth it.
Unaffordable, unhealthy, and out of step
A fundamental part of the American dream is to own a single-family home. But this aspiration and the lifestyle that comes with it has grown increasingly unaffordable, unhealthy, and ironically out of step with consumer demand.
A large and growing portion of the population is unable to access the homeownership lifestyle, even if they desire it. Not surprisingly, the lack of housing choices and the prevalence of exclusionary housing regulations—such as minimum lot sizes and required off-street parking for each household— has made housing grow more expensive decade over decade, even though wages have not kept up with housing costs.
Unaffordable housing is not just a problem for those whose meager salaries and savings keep them from buying a home and accessing home ownerships' potential financial stability and property value appreciation. It is a societal problem. Homeownership divides the country along stark racial lines. In 1950, when 89.5% of Americans classified themselves as white, people of color were legally or extralegally prohibited from purchasing housing in many neighborhoods through redlining — widespread racial discrimination embedded in both public and private lending and realtor practices — and restrictive covenants that literally spelled out on deeds who could and could not own a property. To this day, the neighborhoods that were subject to redlining decades ago are still more prone to poverty — and COVID-19.
Unaffordable housing also comes with serious mental and physical health ramifications. High housing costs often result in trade-offs, where families skimp on food and medical attention in order to pay the rent. There are adverse health effects associated with sprawling, single-family suburbanization, including lower rates of walking and social interaction.
And there are environmental consequences to single-family housing as well. Single-family housing simply takes up more land, requiring more cars and car trips. As wildfires in California show, the push into wilderness to accommodate housing demand has been met with deadly consequences.
Better alternatives to the single-family home
As COVID-19 has encouraged a reshuffling of where and how people live, it’s time to address how our national obsession with privacy, space, exclusion — all inherent in single-family homeownership — has created systemic social, economic and environmental problems. We have to meet these challenges with a deeper commitment to encouraging alternatives to the single-family home, providing people with the options to live more affordably, healthfully, and sustainably.
Co-living, which provides small private bedrooms and large communal dining and social spaces, has become a recognizable asset class like student or senior housing. Even during the pandemic, developers and people are turning to this housing type. Just last month, International House in West Philly was bought by developers to turn the building into co-living. As millions of single Americans endure stay-at-home orders alone, it shows how many of us need community built into our housing.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), the formal term for a variety of housing types including in-law suites, basement apartments, or backyard cottages, are another option. If accessory dwelling units were legal and available to create by right in more of the Philadelphia region’s homes, they could potentially create affordable units accessible to a variety of tenants. ADUs have been encouraged by groups such as AARP for the way they help encourage multigenerational housing and were part of the City of Philadelphia Age-Friendly Action Plan. The ADUs could also be rented to serve as a source of income for homeowners.
The fact is that encouraging more housing types would accommodate more people with different life circumstances. Duplexes can serve as excellent housing for families who want to live close to kin. Single Room Occupancy buildings (SROs) could better house many people unable to pay for a whole apartment than encampments or living on the street. By changing our zoning to not only accommodate more housing, but also changing how we incentivize housing types other than the single-family homes, we could make our neighborhoods more livable and affordable for a wider range of people.
What comes next
Much of our policy from the federal to the local level is oriented around preserving single-family housing. But if homeownership is the primary vehicle for wealth creation, and there are dramatic differences in homeownership rates between white people and people of color, between old and young, economic disparities between past and future America are inevitable. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, we will have to include housing in a broader set of policies to address the country’s deep inequality. But we must do so without prizing homeownership and the single-family home. That kind of policy hasn’t worked for too many Americans for too long and there’s no reason to think this time will be different.
Diana Lind is the author of the new book, Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing.