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The Suburbs of the Future

by Keith Wardrip, Center for Housing Policy

In a recent New York Times blog, Allison Arieff suggests to her readers that it is time to rethink the status quo when it comes to home design and community development. She argues that the cookie-cutter, single-family home in the suburbs is not for everyone and that both the housing industry and policymakers should take advantage of the slowdown in construction to rethink the practices of the recent past.

Arieff is certainly correct that if there was ever a time to re-envision housing and community development, it’s now. Housing starts in 2010 numbered fewer than 600,000—roughly one-fourth of the level in 2005. While the earth-movers are idle, households and policymakers have time to catch their breath and challenge the notion that a single-family unit on a large lot is housing’s best incarnation.

Demographic trends suggest that the demand for large, single-family homes in auto-oriented communities should be on the decline. For decades, households have been getting smaller, and our population has been getting older. Combined with rising gas costs and concerns for the environment, these trends suggest that large homes in auto-dependent neighborhoods may not be the most practical option going forward. A university professor speaking at a recent research and practice forum hosted by HUD claimed that the United States already has enough detached single-family housing to satisfy demand for the next several decades, and that the real unmet demand was for attached or multifamily units in urban, transit-oriented environments.

Consumer preference may not be responding to these trends as expected, however. Survey data collected by the National Association of Realtors and reported by RCLCO show that only 19 percent of respondents want to live in a city, with the remainder split between suburbs and small town or rural areas. The most-preferred setting, appealing to 28 percent, is a suburban environment with a mix of uses, rather than one that is solely residential.

As society struggles with the tension between the type of housing that it wants and the type of housing that it – and the environment – appears to need, it must also come to grips with the type of housing it can afford. Regardless of the form and context of tomorrow’s communities, the majority of households today live in the suburbs. Will future generations want to live in the homes that we’ve already built? More importantly, will they be able to afford to?

Aron Chang wrote recently about ways that today’s suburbs can be transformed to accommodate higher densities, a mix of uses, and more affordable options. His ideas include zoning to allow for the construction of accessory dwelling units and the subdividing of single-family homes into smaller units for extended families, tenants, and even businesses.

These are but a few ideas that communities can use to retrofit their current housing stock to residents’ preferences if and when demand for the suburbs wanes. Will these strategies be effective? Are there others?

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