Don’t wait for urban housing to make itself affordable
Some of us are fervent—and perhaps unreasonably romantic—lover of cities. For those so afflicted, the lack of affordable housing options in America’s most vital cities—and the cultural/economic heterogeneity those options support—makes us sad.
The dearth of affordable housing can be blamed on a bramble of regulatory, lending, manufacturing, and market conditions. This, in turn, leads many urban developers to default to building generic high-end rentals and condos that are inaccessible to non-investment bankers.
While there are hints that the luxury rental market is seriously softening, the status quo leaves many high and dry. But there are a few startups that are creatively hacking market conditions to offer somewhat affordable options to the underhoused masses.
One Step Forward, 6,533 Steps Back
Last week was NAHB International Builders Show (IBS) in Orlando, Florida. Per tradition, the show builds The New American Home (TNAH), an offsite showcase for the latest and greatest in single-family home design and construction.
This year’s entry put the “NAH” in TNAH (it’s also like real estate’s case of IBS…so many puns to choose from). The 6,533 square foot “Tuscan” five bedroom behemoth featured two double garages and a master bathroom suitable for bathing at rhinoceros. Read Treehugger’s Lloyd concise takedown of this monstrosity.
The house is a sad commentary on the mindset of American builders.
Single-family housing is still the main type of American housing, making up 76% of the housing stock. And there’s a huge deficit of low-and-mid-market new housing. Harvard reported last year that “Between 2004 and 2015, completions of smaller single-family homes (under 1,800 square feet) fell from nearly 500,000 units to only 136,000. Similarly, the number of townhouses started in 2016 (98,000) was less than half the number started in 2005.”
This deficit at the middle and bottom exacerbate an already-bleak housing situation. And while there are intermittent signals that builders are interested new, modest models of single-family housing, the TNAH shows that, despite its bad press, the McMansion is alive and well.
Alphabet/Google came out guns blazing last year with the announcement of Quayside, a planned city-within-a-city (Toronto) whose technological infrastructure will put Masdar City and Agrosanti to shame. According to The Atlantic’s Laura Bliss, Quayside will have a “self-contained thermal grid” with recirculating energy, carless sections, autonomous transit shuttles, convertible modular buildings, and much, much more.
Sounds dope. But there’s another aspect that’s less dopey: “a data-harvesting, wifi-beaming ‘digital layer’” covering the city. This layer is ostensibly designed to improve urban UX, but Bliss asks, “But to whom, and how, would this data be made available? And what would such an arrangement mean for any Quaysider who doesn’t wish to be monitored?” In other words, would you want Google or former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s administration to know your every move? Would Ford have wanted anyone knowing any of his every move?
Lest we get too worked up about the whole deal, let’s remember building cities is hard—even within existing cities (just ask Tony Hsieh). Sidewalk Labs—Alphabet’s urban lab helmed by city-hating CEO Dan Doctoroff—has pledged $50 million to Quayside. That should cover a four-story mixed use building, and maybe a bus stop. The rest of the funds will likely come from private developers, who will no doubt make the Sidewalk project more pedestrian.
Any way you look at it, using cities-as-data-mines will be a big deal in the coming years for cities new and old alike. Expect many questions in this realm as well as a growing focus on how data harvesting affects real estate valuation.