Rethinking the value and costs of single family homes
Since World War II, single-family homes have been the American Dream. Very few of us can remember a world without single-family homes and suburbs.
But more and more, experts and buyers are questioning whether or not single-family homes should, or even do still, represent the bedrock of 'the American dream'.
An article from USA Today titled “The single-family house: An american icon faces an uncertain future” provides a good starting place for understanding the issue. (Follow the link for details.)
The following quote from the article is typical of the questions being asked:
“…. The house is too sprawling in a time of climate change, too expensive in a time of economic inequality and just too boring for many city-dwelling Millennials; ... more of us should live closer together, in neighborhoods near mass transit, with less need to drive and more chance to interact.”
The same point is being made in academic research on single-family homes; with the focus increasingly about the environmental issues associated with single-family dwellings.
Environmental concerns over single family homes are growing
In this paper the author, a doctoral candidate at NYU, addresses "The problem of urban sprawl". Again, the primary concern is environmental: not only the footprint of the homes themselves, but the dependence on cars fostered by single-family homes. As the researcher says:
“The most straightforward result of people spreading out in single-family homes instead of clustered together in urban cores is how people transport themselves...This in turn generates more hazardous pollution and carbon dioxide, which directly contribute to environmental problems like smog and climate change."
The negative environmental impact of mega-homes (that is, homes larger than 3,000 square feet) is particularly clear. “One Big Home”, a documentary that has been attracting audiences around the country, is a pointed example of the amount of green space taken up by large single-family homes.
To quote one reviewer, the film is “Vital viewing for those concerned with zoning, affordable housing and the changing character of residential America." (John Rennie Short, Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland.)
This increase in awareness motivates cities around the country to look at what kind of zoning changes are needed to discourage oversize single-family homes.
At the same time, it is becoming clear that cities need to set environmental standards for single-family construction and renovation. As one local example, given Beacon’s tough winters, basic adjustments in how homes are insulated would make a huge difference in the amount of energy needed to heat the house through the winter.
Mandated environmental certification programs may do more good by concentrating on single-family homes
There are a growing number of opportunities to certify single-family homes as “green”: LEED 4 has examples within their programs for single-family homes. There are other single-home certification programs that could be investigated. For more information, see this article about LEED by Freshome.com.
Since half of Beacon’s residences are single-family homes, mandated environmental certification programs for construction and renovation would arguably have more positive environmental impact than the certification of new multi-family homes, which, unlike homes built decades ago, are being built with environmental concerns in mind.
Finally, Beacon public officials concerned with housing should already be considering the current move away from single-family homes as a result of both changes in the tax law and general social preferences.
Changing tax laws discourage current and future home owners
Most publications and news organizations are doing in depth pieces on why buying homes doesn’t make as much financial sense as it used to make.
The Wall Street Journal has a particularly good article addressing the current changes affecting home buyers: "Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage? The New Tax Law Changes the Math".
The most important point is that roughly HALF of the people who were able to take a mortgage deduction in the past will not be able to do so in 2018 and going forward, under the new federal tax laws. This will obviously impact banks, as well as their willingness to make construction loans available for single-family homes, etc.
There is another issue with detached homes that is only now being publicly discussed, which is that detached homes have a historical tie with racism.
Zoning laws reflect archaic racial and class segregation
A provocative article in the L.A. Times "L.A.'s land use rules were born out of racism and segregation. They're not worth fighting for" has started a more open public dialogue about zoning, racism and detached homes.
As the Times explains,
“...single-family-only rules are a legacy of racist exclusionary zoning...Minorities, after all, could usually more easily afford apartment living than home ownership.”
To our knowledge, neither Beacon nor Dutchess County publishes home ownership data by race: anecdotally, it appears that Beacon homeowners are overwhelmingly white.
Planning for the Foreseeable Future
With all of this in mind, and as a variety of experts and communities are coming to the realization that single family homes are no longer the dream, but the emerging problem, it becomes important for Beacon to look at the impact of its predominantly single-family homes. As a city, we need to build a comprehensive plan to alleviate the environmental risks of single-family homes and to address the decline in their market attractiveness.
For future generations, zoning changes may need to be made to keep single-family homes from becoming an environmental, economic, and social liability.
Otherwise, the city is at risk of having created, and creating, residential policies that were created while looking in the rear view mirror.