Thursday, April 16, 2020

Post #4: Demographics and Urban Form - Part I

“Why are so many apartments being built”?

I would be willing to bet that this is the most common question city planners in the Midwest have gotten from non-planners over the past few years. A full answer to this question would have to reference several different factors, but one of the primary ones is a demographic trend that I want to explore in greater detail in today’s posting.

The decline in household size is a long-standing trend that all planners should be familiar with and it has gotten enough publicity that most members of the public are probably somewhat aware of it as well. But I think that most people, even professionals, don’t appreciate the impact that this trend should have on cities in the long term.

This chart looks at just two slices of this trend to illustrate in clear terms the exact scope of what has happened. Very small households consisting of just one person have grown from roughly 13 percent of all households in 1960 to more than 28 percent in 2019. (1) At the same time, large households (five or more people) have moved in a nearly opposite manner, declining from nearly 23 percent of all households in 1960 to less than 10 percent today. This demographic trend stands in stark contrast to what I think most people view as the predominant housing form in midwestern cities. I think that most people assume that the predominant housing type is, or at least should be, single family homes.

I should point out that this trend is not limited just to the extremes. The percentage of households containing two people has also been growing, and represents the single largest share of total households (34.5%). The percentage of households containing either three people or four people (mid-sized, if you will) has been falling, although not as quickly as the percentage of large households. The bottom line is that the “typical” household now is smaller than would rationally require a single-family home, and yet our housing policies and much of our city planning efforts don’t seem to reflect this reality.

It is tempting to discount the small-household phenomenon in two ways. First, some might assume that it is a temporary condition that people generally would avoid if they could. In other words, people might be living alone now but in a relatively short period of time they will become part of a larger household. For some households, this is true -- a young, single person might get married and start having children, for example. But the larger trend is not temporary. People are choosing to live in one- or two-person households with no real intention of changing. In fact, the percentage of people living alone increases as income increases. People don’t live alone because they are forced to, they seem to prefer privacy in their living arrangements and they purchase this privacy by living alone as their economic resources increase. (2)

Second, it is often assumed that people living alone are a relatively narrow subset of the general population -- recent college grads just starting their career or empty-nesters, for example. Again, there is a larger trend that goes unappreciated. A hundred years ago, most single-person households were young males but today the gender split is nearly even and actually favors women (54%). Similarly, there is no concentration in terms of age. Thirty six percent of single-person households are between 45 and 64 years of age, matching the percentage that are 65 and older, and exceeding the share that are 44 and younger. (3) People who live in small households are not just young people starting a career or elderly spinsters, they are people of all ages, all genders, and all races who choose to live in small households for a wide variety of reasons.

Where this demographic trend intersects urban form is in the range of housing options. In midwestern cities, the most widely produced housing types are large, single family homes and apartments (including condominiums in an apartment style building). Single family homes, of course, can come in a wide variety of sizes and designs, but the reality is that only 10 percent of new single family homes are built with either one or two bedrooms. And although multi-family housing can come in a wide variety of forms, the reality in midwestern cities is that over 90 percent of multi-family units are in apartment projects containing 10 or more units. (4) While there is nothing wrong with either large single family homes or traditional apartment buildings, my contention is that these two housing forms do not effectively meet the wide variety of housing needs or preferences that are contained within the small-household demographic.

It is my belief that small households -- now comprising more than half of all households in this country -- should be able to choose from a much wider variety of housing forms that can supply the amenities and features that they want without forcing them to purchase more housing size than they need or packaging them into apartment communities that don’t meet their lifestyle preferences.

The reason that a wider variety of housing isn’t being produced is that our current housing industry -- including municipal housing regulations -- is still dominated by systems optimized for suburban style development. That may have been fine 40 years ago when demographic trends were different but it does not meet today’s needs. Those
systems are good for large developers who produce housing “at scale” but they do not incentivize small developers producing creative housing options for the numerous demographic niches that small households tend to form. In fact, rather than being incentivized, small developers often face obstacles that large developers do not.

Prior to the suburbanization phase of urban development, cities generally contained a wide variety of moderate density housing types that are rarely produced today. Quite a bit has been written about this so-called “missing middle” but few steps have been taken to actually encourage it to be built again. In this posting I don’t have room to describe all of the possible options for housing that could be beneficial for small households, but I will go over a couple of options that can serve as examples.

Accessory Dwelling Units The first option is what is known in planner jargon as an Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU. This is an idea that has actually been around for centuries, going back to large estates that had servant’s quarters over the carriage house or a gardener’s cottage in the backyard. More recently, they have been used for elderly relatives and commonly referred to as “granny flats.” Now they are starting to be used simply as another way to meet the demand for relatively affordable housing in existing neighborhoods.

Nelson/Pitt/Mix Accessory Dwelling
An ADU is simply a second living unit added to an existing single family home. It can be in the form of an apartment carved out from a large home or constructed as an addition to the main house, but more commonly it is a separate structure built in the backyard. A typical ADU is roughly the size of a large, two-car garage and is generally one or two stories in height. Even though accessory buildings, such as detached garages, sheds or workshops, are almost universally allowed in single family zoning districts, accessory dwellings are typically banned in midwestern cities. And yet where they have been tried, the overall impact on the community has generally been positive.

The advantages are numerous. To begin with, the small size is often the perfect match for the needs of a small household. Second, they don’t require the building of new streets, water mains or streetlights, thus adding to the assessed value of a neighborhood without adding to the infrastructure that needs to be maintained by the city. Third, they typically require new construction or extensive remodelling which means they have the latest appliances, high energy efficiency, and can be designed to be handicapped accessible. Fourth, they are typically added to existing neighborhoods which means they are perfect for nearby households looking to downsize but wanting to maintain their social networks and neighborhood familiarity. Finally, they can serve as a
secondary source of income for the occupants of the main structure, thus increasing housing affordability in a different way.

Cottage Courts  This second option is a new spin on an old concept where small, single family homes are clustered around a shared open space. Although not as common as accessory dwelling units, cottage courts are gaining popularity particularly in the northwest due to the work of architect Ross Chapin. In addition to developing several cottage court projects, he has also authored a book on the subject called “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World” (2011).

Ross Chapin Cottage Court

Once again, the homes in a cottage court are typically quite small -- perhaps 800 to 2,000 square feet -- and consequently can fit the needs of small households better than traditional single family homes which now are typically being built at 4,000 square feet and up. In addition, the shared open space means that the land area per dwelling is also very small, generally 3,000 to 4,000 square feet. Enough area to allow your pet to get some exercise or to indulge in some gardening, but not so much that it becomes an economic burden. This means that a cottage court can reach the density of a small apartment building (8 to 12 units per acre) while using a single family form that is generally more acceptable to existing neighborhoods. It also lends itself to shared contracts for landscape and exterior maintenance, thus relieving small households of maintenance chores that they typically have no interest in performing themselves.

Perhaps best of all, cottage courts promote at least some degree of socializing between the various households. While many small households might not feel the need to socialize with their physical neighbors, social isolation is a concern for a certain subset of households, particularly for those who live alone. The cottage court layout lends itself to casual conversations as you come and go, which also means that someone is more likely to check on you if they don’t see you for several days.

The problem is that cottage courts do not fit neatly into the vast majority of zoning regulations, particularly when such developments are proposed in existing neighborhoods which is where they logically belong. They are likely to either not be permitted at all or permitted only with a variety of variances or zoning adjustments. If the units are going to be owner occupied, there are likely to be similar problems with subdividing the property because of the unconventional lot layout. By not following the conventional pattern for single family homes, cottage courts not only run into problems
with governmental approvals, but their individual buyers may have difficulty finding a financial institution that will give them a conventional mortgage at competitive rates.

Conclusions The easiest way to be a successful developer is to mimic successful developments that have been done by others in the past. It simplifies the process of getting development approvals, arranging financing, and finding buyers because everyone understands what it is you want to do. The system breaks down, however, when societal needs change and the housing that is being produced no longer matches the characteristics of new households.

Sure, small households can adapt to old housing formats. An elderly couple can live in a four bedroom house despite the maintenance burdens that result from that choice. And a single parent with a school-aged kid can live in an apartment complex despite the lack of amenities for children. But why shouldn’t there be more options that might better meet their needs?

The housing options that are typically built today are only partially a result of developers supplying what the market demands -- they are also the result of governmental, financial and marketing systems that warp supply to what was common in the past rather than what will be needed in the future. We are fitting square pegs into round holes because we are really good at creating round holes, instead of breaking out of the box and learning to create holes of different sizes and shapes.

Fifty years ago, society encouraged conformity and the result was subdivision after subdivision of nearly identical houses. Our society now celebrates diversity and it is time for the housing stock of our cities to reflect that change.

Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at

  (1)  US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey

  (2)  Rose Kreider and Jonathan Vespa, “The Changing Face of Living Alone, 1880 - 2010”, September 2013

  (3)  George Masnick, “The Rise of the Single Person Household”, May 2015, Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies

  (4)US Census Bureau, Characteristics of New Housing

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