All the single families (all the single families)

For the better part of 80 years, the dominant type of new construction in the U.S. has been suburban, single-family housing. In a CityLab article from a couple years ago, Richard Florida wrote:

  • 60-70% of existing homes are in low-density, suburban areas (less than four homes per acre). Assuming an average household size of 2.54 people, that’s around 10 people/acre. For comparison sake, Manhattan has 112 people/acre.
  • 90% of homes built since the 1940s have been in low-density areas.
  • In the 2000s, 23.3% of new homes were built in undeveloped areas (aka “greenfield”), 33.2% were in areas with a prior density below one home per acre, and 31.9% were in areas with a prior density between one and four homes per acre.

This development trend is as much a function of the regulatory difficulties of building in cities and their immediate outskirts as it is a viable business model for the suburbs—conditions like high infrastructural costs and taxes, high (personal autos) transit costs, and limited economic opportunity plague many suburbs.  

The above are some reasons why suburban poverty growth is far outpacing cities and rural areas. And despite a median sales price of an existing single-family home being a modest $257k, factors like flatlining wages and high rates of debt for both school and auto loans have led to a suburban affordability crisis—evidenced by record low homeownership rates.

This is why any housing solution in America that excludes the suburban, single-family home is incomplete. Here are a couple such solutions that are rocking the suburbs.

Like ‘Friends’ in the suburbs

While there’s a ton of hullabaloo about coliving in city centers, large suburban home sizes and volume of housing stock make the suburbs a gold mine for shared living.

I’ve written about HubHaus in the past. The Los Gatos-based startup chops up and rents rooms in single-family homes primarily in expensive California cities, many of which are “company towns” like Mountain View. Starting rents are around $1000/month. And since many of these homes are in places that lack vibrant downtowns or walkability, the shared house has a greater possibility to forge real communities versus urban coliving, where competition for attention is tougher.

Newbie PadSplit is a startup out of Atlanta that doesn’t even go for expensive suburbs. It takes inexpensive, transit-friendly homes and makes them even more inexpensive—all-in rents can be as low as $435/month according to a Curbed article about the company. PadSplit also performs criminal background checks on tenants, removing some of the potentials for sketchiness Craig Newmark does not.

The house behind the house

And of course, there are ADUs. These small homes are either built into existing single-family homes (ADUs) or sit detached in single-family yards (DADUs). They have the power to increase housing density and lower carbon emissions. They subsidize the primary homeowner through rental or Airbnb income and provide affordable housing for tenants.

ADU legislation was passed a couple years ago in California and permits have seen a dramatic uptick in that housing-starved state. Seattle and Portland are both strongly considering making the unit type easier to build. And even places with bad coffee like Raleigh NC and SLC have given some consideration to the idea (disclosure: the author has never had either city’s coffee).

As such, a number of startups are helping homeowners make their ADU dreams a reality. There’s Portland’s Dweller and SV’s ADU Builder and Point, all of whom help homeowners finance, construct, and operate their ADUs. There’s Small Potato ADU, which is doing much the same thing in L.A. except for the operation part.  

While not the Euro-inspired, transit-friendly, dense urban housing I salivate over, all of the above solutions provide economical, practical housing solutions using existing housing stock. And one real affordable unit is better than two or three imaginary ones.

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