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The housing mix that suburbs need: It’s not ‘single-family or nothing’

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President Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson are not wrong to roll back the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulations, which threatened a cutoff of federal community development funds for localities that do not develop plans for more low-income housing. Low-income rental housing, starting with public housing, has been ill-fated — most of all for its supposed beneficiaries.

But the president and housing secretary do err, in a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, when they argue that single-family homes should exclusively comprise the ideal suburb. The nation’s post-World War II move toward single-family-only suburbs has pushed prices up and made it difficult, if not impossible, for young families to buy homes in the communities where they grew up. The most obvious examples of this unfortunate trend have been in Silicon Valley: In San Jose, at least prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, modest 1950s ranch houses have been bid up above $1 million.

We don’t need the federal government to impose a vision of low-income rental high-rises on such communities. That fails low-income Americans by limiting their chances for ownership and their opportunities to build assets. But we do need more housing choices — and imposing a vision of single-family zoning from above fails Americans, too. 

The onus should be on local zoning and planning boards to realize this and to adjust their policies away from single-family exclusivity and its close cousin, large-lot zoning. Yale Law School’s Robert Ellickson describes the current situation in much of the U.S. as a “zoning straitjacket: the freezing of American neighborhoods of single-family homes,” in which suburbs never adjust their zoning regulations despite increased demand for housing. In his recent analysis of 37 suburbs in California, Connecticut and Texas, Ellickson found that “municipalities had set aside 91 percent of their residentially zoned land exclusively for detached houses.” 

The alternative was once common, even in affluent communities. Suburbs that permitted a “housing ladder” of two-, three-, and four-family homes, including some on small lots, would see reductions in the price of housing. In the pre-zoning era, this was the norm: three-family homes in New England, duplex bungalows in Chicago, row homes in Philadelphia. These were examples of what might be called naturally-occurring affordable housing, or NOAH. And even single-family homes were once commonly built in smaller sizes and close together: Homes in Levittown, N.Y., the quintessential postwar suburb, were only 750 square feet and had just two bedrooms, commonly requiring doubling up in baby boom-era families with three or more children. 

The architect Witold Rybczynski has described Levittown as “bare bones living.” The Census Bureau has found that the median square-footage of a 1960s-era single-family home was 1,500 square feet. By 2019, that figure had risen to 2,301 square feet. We should not be surprised that housing costs have risen since the 1960s — or that many find it difficult to enter the market. 

It’s within the power of local zoning boards to permit the construction of a range of housing types. Indeed, the advent of zoning itself was the result of a national advocacy campaign begun in the 1920s by Lawrence Veiller and the group he led, the National Housing Association. But housing progressives did not envision a system in which single-family homes comprised entire towns. Instead, they thought that avenues would have a mix of housing types and commercial structures, and side streets might be single-family redoubts. Some version of a housing mix today would be a way to keep kids in town when they become young adults and start their own families — and would help them build the equity they need to buy now-expensive homes that older residents eventually will want to sell. 

It is a cardinal rule of American housing patterns that those of relatively similar socioeconomic status tend to seek each other out. Shoehorning low-income housing into high-income communities risks backlash and making those who are the ostensible beneficiaries feel out of place. Of course, true fair housing — enforcement of the law that anyone who can afford to do so can rent or buy whatever they can afford — must be enforced aggressively. Voluntary adoption of local housing standards is far less likely to spark the controversy that the president has identified.

America needs more housing choices. It does not need Washington to dictate them.

Howard Husock, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is at work on a book on the history of American low-income housing.

Tags Affordable housing Ben Carson Donald Trump Economic inequality Suburb Urban planning zoning

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