Redefining What "Home" Means (ie. Cozier and Closer to the Action): Urbanists Show Up Strong in NYT Debate

The New York Times "Room for Debate" feature — a round-up of mini-essays on a timely topic from opinion leaders in the relevant field — rises or falls on the quality of its expert panelists. On that score, today's package soars despite a less-than-buoyant topic — how the deep recession is redefining the meaning of "home" and the American Dream is very good indeed. 

Leading off a group that generally expects a long-term a shift away from McMansion excess and (in many cases) a shift toward cozier dwellings in more walkable locations are Retrofitting Suburbia co-authors June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones, the Vice Chair of CNU's board of directors. And since Ellen was reached early in the process, her suggestions led to the inclusion of a strong group including Harvard economist Ed Glaeser and housing market analysts Laurie Volk and Todd Zimmerman (a fellow CNU board member).  In the spirit of open debate — something she cultivates in dubbing CNU "a forum, not a formula" — Dunham-Jones also suggested fellow academic and sprawl defender Robert Brueggman. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy president Gregory K Ingram rounds out the list of participants.

Demographics loom large in the discussion. Here's Zimmerman and Volk in their essay "A Radical Re-alignment:" 

Although influenced by many economic and cultural factors — rising transportation costs, the rise of café society, the lure of urban loft living — the main driver is a simple demographic imperative. The typical American household is no longer a family with children; 63 percent of households now consist of just one or two persons.

 The two largest generations in the nation’s history — the baby boomers (currently estimated at 77 million), born between 1946 and 1964, and the roughly 78 million millennials, born from 1977 to 1996 — are both at life stages where community, socialization, culture and entertainment are paramount. Children are largely absent in the post-nest boomer and pre-nest millennial households.

 The millennials will likely confound apologists for the status quo ante who suggest that the relentless dispersion to the exurbs remains America’s manifest destiny. Millennials are the first generation largely raised in the “perfect world” of the auto-dependent suburbs. Many resent having been held hostage to someone with a driver’s license and vow to bring up their children (when they finally get around to having them) in more walkable neighborhoods. Millennials are truly the first post-racial generation, where whites are a plurality, not the majority; most are quite comfortable with racial, ethnic and religious diversity and appreciate the vibrancy of diverse neighborhoods.

Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

 Their piece is illustrated with a Youtube clip from Arcade Fire's chart-topping release The Suburbs. Dunham-Jones and Williamson strike a similar chord in their contribution "Downsize and Retrofit." Write the co-authors: "The downsizing of housing is coming at an opportune time. Because neither of the big demographic bulges, the Boomers and Gen Y, is in prime child-rearing years, demographers predict that 75 percent to 85 percent of newly formed households through 2025 will not have kids in them. These will be the folks controlling the market. They will be seeking more compact houses and apartments, flexible in use and located in lively settings, both in cities and in the suburban areas where the most job growth can be expected."

Dunham-Jones and Williamson recommend a concise set of policy for forward-looking municipalities and regions:

To adapt and prepare for a more resilient future, communities would do well to revise their zoning and subdivision codes: increase street network connectivity and walkability, eliminate lot size minimums, permit accessory dwelling units, and allow for the subdivision of large homes into duplexes, even quads. Recognize the benefits – from reduced carbon footprints to providing options for “aging-in-community” by older residents – of building well-designed multi-unit housing, including rental, in transit-served locations."

Glaeser's diagnosis of problem policies afflicting the housing market is another high point.

Subsidies that scale up with the size of the house encourage large homes that consume more energy, which makes little sense in an age of global warming. More than 85 percent of single-family detached homes are owner-occupied, while more than 85 percent of multi-unit homes are rented, so pushing ownership means pushing people away from the multi-unit dwellings that are disproportionately in cities. Our current homeownership policy is pro-foreclosure, pro-carbon and anti-urban.

His prescriptions include scaling the mortgage interest deduction back from its current limit of $1 million to $300,000 over 7 years and new standards for loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that discourage gambling on housing. " It would be a mistake to lose this moment for reform -- even if reform must be modest and gradual," he writes.

Read more at the New York Times.  




Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!