Diana Lind is a writer and urban policy specialist who is currently the executive director of the Arts + Business Council for Greater Philadelphia and the housing fellow at the global non-profit NewCities. She is the author of Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing.
After the trauma of the Second World War, countries around the world went in different directions to house their citizens. War-scarred Austria and Britain, for example, invested in public housing. But in North America, the U.S. and Canadian governments invested in highways and communities built around cars, extolling the virtues of privacy, space and building equity in single-family homes.
This period coincided with a North American baby boom, solidifying the connection between the suburban single-family home and the nuclear family. Despite centuries of living with extended family, opening homes to boarders and prioritizing close proximity to friends and community, North Americans definitively shifted lifestyles.
In the intervening decades, we have codified and glorified the stand-alone home with a white picket fence. We have praised the price appreciation that comes with home ownership, ignoring the increasing percentage of non-homeowners who bear the brunt of rising property values. We have endorsed the aspirations of privacy, space and exclusivity without a strong countervailing public discussion about the downsides of this lifestyle: increased carbon emissions owing to greater dependence on cars; loneliness and obesity owing to less social interaction and fewer walkable neighbourhoods; and class and racial segregation.
But this period of the single-family home’s dominance is coming to a close. Demographic and cultural shifts demand it. Today, the dominance of white, heteronormative families has given way to a much more diverse United States. Already, children under 15 are the majority minority in the U.S., and the whole country is expected to be minority white by 2045.
The average age of someone marrying for the first time has risen from early 20s in 1960 to late 20s today. Marriage rates overall have dipped to their lowest level since recording began in 1867, to just 6.5 marriages per one thousand people. While the divorce rate peaked in the 1990s, it’s still between 40 per cent and 50 per cent. Today’s average family size is just 3.14 people, including children, and only 35 per cent of home buyers have children under 18 in the home. Some 28 per cent of Americans are now living alone. Average life expectancy is almost 79, having gained a decade in the past half-century. And these are just the demographics of today – imagine the next generation.
Daily life and preferences have also changed, whether by choice or by force, to become more virtual, more mobile and less stable. A society built around driving is looking for ways to incorporate a love of ride-hailing apps, electric scooters and walkable neighbourhoods. Our television habit has morphed into a screen addiction. Single-earner households have turned into dual-earner ones, and women now make up the majority of the college-educated work force. Steady jobs with daily commutes have declined, while the gig economy, working remotely and even a rootless digital nomadism have taken hold. Freelancers currently make up 35 per cent of the U.S. work force and are expected to become the majority in the next decade. Augmented reality and driverless cars are bound to shake up physical and social contours even further.
And yet housing feels stuck in that postwar period. With COVID-19 both decimating the economy and encouraging a reshuffling of how and where we live, it’s the perfect moment to address housing with a grand plan – much the way countries responded after the Second World War.
This time around we should encourage co-living, which provides small, private bedrooms and large communal dining and social spaces, because of the way it can potentially house more people with shared resources and social connection. As stay-at-home orders have made clear, we need housing that has community built into it, where you can form “pods” with neighbours or rely on your housemates to help your kid attend school so you can work.
We can also support zoning reforms, or even zoning incentives, to allow the construction of more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for a variety of tenants. ADUs are the perfect type of housing for these times, as they can provide a source of rental income for homeowners but also serve as extra housing for grandparents or older children moving home. As the pandemic has encouraged generations and kin to move in together, it’s made plain that we need more housing, such as duplexes and in-law suites, that allow families to live close to relatives with a degree of privacy.
Finally, we have to recognize that many people need access to very cheap housing or risk becoming homeless. Single-room occupancy buildings and even converted hotels could better house people unable to pay for a whole apartment. But we have to do more to ensure these types of housing are legal in our neighbourhoods.
The media can’t get enough of stories of people leaving cities for the suburbs and their plentiful privacy. But these stories, framed around families with means and choices, are stuck, like many of our legacy institutions, focusing on a diminishing portion of the population. The stories of housing in the future will be about people finding new ways of living densely, all in the name of affordability, health and sustainability. It turns out that the lemonade made from 2020′s lemons is that much sweeter when you can clink glasses with your neighbour.
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