Revitalizing Aging One-Family Neighborhoods With Flexibility

In my prior post, which should be read first, I noted that so-called “missing middle” housing, an affordable housing solution now being circulated as a way of getting around suburban exclusionary zoning impulses, has become increasingly desirable and expensive in booming older cities.  And that two of their desirable features were their presence in mixed-use neighborhoods, with a wide range of jobs, stores and services in walking distance, and their flexibility to be used in different ways over time – for one family homes, multi-family homes, or residential buildings with ground floor businesses, studios and offices.

But the “missing middle” argument is about the suburbs, not the cities.   Are their any places where suburbanites might consider allowing attached housing, multi-family housing, and business establishments into their exclusively one-family residential neighborhoods?   And is there any way that additional housing built there could actually be affordable (as opposed to merely subsidized), absent the economies of assembly-line production that developers enjoyed when middle class city and suburban neighborhoods were first built, including Brooklyn’s brownstones and the Long Island houses Brooklynites moved to two generations later?

I think so.  Faced with an inability to sell their houses due to the inability to attract the next generation of households, and the loss of their tax bases, some communities will look for alternatives.  Eventually the NIMBYs will be overcome.  It is already starting to happen.  And factory-built, three-story, standardized with options attached and semi-attached housing, with only the foundation, the façade, and the firebreak between attached houses built on site, could provide economies of scale for housing dropped just about anywhere, because the economies of scale would be at the factory.

First the housing.  In my prior post I noted that the simplicity of the standardized brownstone and Culver house designs – 2 ½ stores or three stories with cellar, with exterior bearing walls and beams across the buildings that allowed the reconfiguration of internal walls – allowed them to be reused in a variety of ways over time.   Here, again, is a standard Culver house, 20 feet wide and 45 feet deep, originally built as a two-family.

These buildings were structured in a variety of ways when they were built, but they were not designed to be restructured into the other alternatives over time.  Each reconstruction involves a mess of plaster dust and damage.  Noted the 1969 plan cited in the prior post.

Getting financing for the renovation job is just as difficult. The job itself, furthermore, can be exasperatingly long and expensive.  The brownstoner must deal with a host of contractors and craftsmen and they have a disconcerting tendency to walk off the job at critical junctures.  Few renovations can occur with something going very wrong.

Now imagine factory built one-floor modules, each 23 1/2 feet wide and 48 feet deep for a total of 1,128 square feet. Rowhouse lots would be 24 feet wide, but there would be a six-inch firebreak and soundproofing wall added on-site between buildings.  Each floor would have its own rough in plumbing and electrical for a kitchen and laundry, its own bathroom or bathroom and a half, its own electrical panel, which could be connected to its own electrical meter, and its own hot water heater, which could be tankless if certain problems are solved. But actual kitchens and washer/dryer need not be installed on each floor.

The entire three-story building, as delivered and installed, could be configured as a very large one-family home – as a mansion with enough money put into the finish work.

Or as a two family home, with the income from a rental unit to help cover the mortgage, as in the Culver houses described in the prior post.

Or as a three-family home, with each unit therefore smaller and cheaper, and the rent from two units to pay for the mortgage.

Or as a one-or two family home with a workspace or store on the ground floor, which would be at ground level, with a cellar below.

The ground floor would be handicapped accessible, and could also be used for a senior unit, perhaps for someone’s aging parents. The bathrooms on the ground floor level could be made accessible as a standard feature.

A homeowner purchasing one of these buildings would be provided with plans to easily convert from one of those configurations to another at any time.  The junction boxes for additional electrical outlets would already be known places to attach to different walls, and the plumbing would be available for different fixtures.  All the parts needed for a different configuration could be pre-cut and delivered from the factory.

A married could with a child could buy a building, live on one floor, and rent two floors out.  Later, they could remove the kitchen from an upper floor, and turn it into an entire floor of large and small bedrooms, still renting one unit.

If someone started a home-based business, a storefront could be installed on the front of the first floor, in place of an apartment.

Some time later, the now aged couple could be living in a senior unit on the ground floor, with their children or tenants living on one or two floors above.

And when they passed on or sold out, the building could be reconfigured again.

Are there any examples of houses that were planned and designed to be easily modified over time?  I can think of one. The original Levitt houses were designed to allow dormers to be easily added to the second floors, to increase their floor area as a family grew.

What, by contemporary suburban standards, would be missing from these imagined factory-built modules.  Two things.  Lots of storage for lots of little used stuff.  And parking for multiple large motor vehicles.

As Americans bought more and more and more stuff, one of the chief complaints about urban housing became its lack of closet space.  But the urban life is about doing, not accumulating, and that seems to be the direction things are going.  Thanks in part to information technology, which limits the need to store entertainment and information in physical form, as books, stereo records or compact discs, videotapes or Blue Ray disks.  Thanks in part to “business casual,” which limits the types of clothing one needs to own.  And thanks to the increasing range of goods that may be rented as needed, and the increasing share of income that is being spent on services.

In our imagined one-to-three family house, the below grade cellar would be filled with storage for all the occupants of the building.  If something wasn’t being used all the time, that’s where it would go.

As for parking, as noted in my prior post high density housing with extensive parking and residential-only neighborhoods creates a worst of both worlds situation.  You combine the crowding and diminished privacy of the city, with the need to drive everywhere.  But more and more it seems that large motor vehicle use will eventually be on an as-needed basis, with walking, bicycles and/or e-bikes used for more things.  Like excess square footage, multiple vehicles are a cost that less well off later born generations could do without, without having a lower quality of life, in the right setting.  It’s just a matter of creating the kind of space-efficient housing and vehicle-efficient communities that were common in 1950 but seldom built since.

If you want the kind of neighborhood people are paying huge money for in places such as Brooklyn, Boston and San Francisco, motor vehicle parking has to be located on the street, or in paid facilities nearby, not on the lot.  Or, in another variation, the proposed three-story, 24-foot-wide houses could alternate with 12-foot wide garages, which could also be used for businesses. Thus ameliorating the problem young adults are having in Silicon Valley.  “How can you create a start-up in a garage when the garage costs millions of dollars?”

Where might our three-story mixed-use factory-built buildings be installed?  My guess is in is in places that are a lot like Levittown – places with small, aging, wood-frame houses that were built for the middle and working classes in the decades immediately after widespread auto ownership.

Some of these neighborhoods are within central cities.  In most American cities, outside the Northeast, most of the housing stock consists of, small quickly and cheaply built wood-frame houses.  I find examples of this type of housing all over the Midwest, the South, and parts of the Far West, in north and south Memphis, in south Fort Worth, in east Tulsa, in south Detroit and Hamtramck, in west Indianapolis, in west and south Buffalo.  During the 2000s housing bubble and bust, these were the foreclosure belts, with widespread housing deterioration and abandonment.

In many cities, the housing for the better off was large, masonry, elaborate detached houses.  Like the brownstones, those buildings could be renovated, and in some cases turned into high quality multifamily housing.

Housing for the working class was small, detached wood-frame houses.  In some cases, it is now abandoned.  What could replace it?  That is the question cities such as Detroit will have to answer if re-development is to spread beyond apartment buildings downtown.  Factory build three-story rowhouses – with more density than the city of Detroit had when it was first developed – is what I propose as an answer, and an alternative to paving over more and more natural land as more and more previously urban land becomes wasteland.

Some older cities are starting to get flexible.  Just in the last few years, Buffalo has eliminated parking requirements.

And Minneapolis has eliminated residential zoning limited to single family homes – every homeowner in the city can add a second unit to their houses if they want to.

As for the suburbs, on Long Island, Levittown is 30 miles and 1 hour or more by car out from Times Square.  In virtually all other U.S. metro areas, however, such suburbs can be just over the city line of a city that is much smaller, a mere bike ride from downtown.

Here is one example – Colonie Village outside Albany NY, a six mile, 40 minute bike ride (or bus ride) from downtown.,-73.8317431,3a,75y,151.05h,83.9t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sMeR7eYPBFGhEJ9Q2r5p6Uw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

According to Zillow, a typical house for the area is described this way.

A single family home that contains 950 sq ft and was built in 1950. It contains 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. This home last sold for $65,500 in December 1995. The Zestimate for this house is $160,782, which has decreased by $3,469 in the last 30 days. The Rent Zestimate for this home is $1,500/mo.   Lot 6,534 square feet

These sort of homes built at that time are reaching the point where substantial reinvestment is required.  They are about as old as many brownstones were in 1960.  They were built for a blue-collar working class that, unfortunately, no longer exists. Neighborhoods with this type of housing, therefore, cannot stand still.  They will even move forward and attract reinvestment, or decline, deteriorate, and perhaps become abandoned, like so many neighborhoods in cities such as Detroit and Cleveland.

In rich suburbs, far more substantial and elaborate houses than this are torn down and replaced with larger, newer versions. Or at least that was the trend in the 1990s and 2000s, when a generation put maximum square footage above everything – location, convenience, operating costs, quality of construction. But that housing is not holding its value, and people are less inclined to build more of it.

In South Barrington, a 22,000-square-foot house on Star Lane first hit the market in 2015, asking $10 million. The asking price is now $3.75 million. In Barrington Hills, a five-bedroom house with a 14-car garage on five acres on Plum Tree Road has been on and off the market several times since first going up for sale in April 2006. It’s now priced at a little under $1.2 million. In Barrington Hills, a 1920s home on five acres on Merri Oaks Road, whose seller wrote a country song from the perspective of the house, is priced at about $1.2 million, or less than half the 2015 asking price.

Unlike an earlier generation which embraced super-sized houses and acreage as they matured, “people aren’t looking to upsize now,” said Kim Alden, a Baird & Warner agent who specializes in the area. “They want to downsize,” in part because as local counties’ high property taxes continue to go up, “the more house, the more land, the bigger the tax bill,” she said.

Even buyers who do opt to shop for a large-lot house in the far northwest suburbs say “‘I don’t want my parents’ house and I don’t want my grandparents’ house,'” Alden said. “They want it to look modern and fresh and be turnkey,” ready to move right in.

In large metro areas with expensive housing, sometimes the existing housing is renovated to be larger.  That is the case for North Wantagh, the later-build Levitt development on Long Island where my wife grew up after her family left Brooklyn.  A return trip a couple of years ago found cars parked jam packed on both sides of the street on the weekend – in the 1970s all the vehicles had fit in the driveways – and quite a few houses that have been enlarged.,-73.5252525,3a,75y,312.51h,81.19t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sw45eJMMjOHzmZMZpvD4feQ!2e0!!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

So what about Colonie Village?  I became familiar it when hotels started to get expensive in Schenectady, and I got tired of paying up while visiting my father in law.  I found that a quick bus ride down State Street/Central Avenue were a series of much cheaper motels built at about the same time as surrounding houses, with plenty of shopping, places to eat and services within a short walk.  It would really be a really nice old time pre-automobile small town if it had more people – at about 7,800, it has somewhat fewer than Windsor Terrace, my Brooklyn neighborhood — and if there wasn’t the equivalent of a major highway running down the middle of it that is terrifying to cross.

In 2017, according to American Community Survey data, Colonie had 1,101 children ages 0 to 14.  And 1,721 aging residents ages 55 to 69 – near-term sellers.  To whom?  The people in other, similar neighborhoods elsewhere are even older, with houses that are even harder to sell.

The Ghost of Mamie Eisenhower

By today’s standards these homes are often considered substandard. In fact, in many communities homes like these are now illegal to build because they’re so cheap and unimpressive that they might attract “the wrong element.” This subdivision has been in decline for years. The manufacturing jobs that once supported these families dried up long ago. The next generation who managed to get university degrees and work their way up the economic food chain moved to more exclusive locations farther away from the old city center. The population of this tract has contracted by 17% since the 2000 census. Today the largest segment of the remaining population in this neighborhood earns $10,000 or less per year. Many are elderly pensioners or people on public assistance. Some of these homes languish on the market and eventually sell for as little as $25,000. Homes in better condition consistently sell for $50,000 to $60,000 – largely because banks won’t write mortgages for less.

One way for the aging sellers of communities like these to sell their properties for more is by changing the regulations so that the buyers would be allowed to do more with their property.  That, I believe, is what will eventually induce at least some of them to allow a bottom-up evolution.

Imagine two 40-foot wide lots on a place like Colonie Village, each with a 950-square-foot home in need of repair. These could be replaced with three 24-foot wide, three-story factory-built buildings like the ones described, along with an eight foot wide side yard to allow access for bicycles and e-bikes parked in the rear.  That could be housing for perhaps six households, including a handicapped accessible senior unit or two, plus a place of business or two, perhaps a daycare or education establishment or a small store.  If the existing lots sold for $150,000 each, the cost of the site would be just $29.45 per newly built square foot.  Even as a bubble deflates, development sites in Brooklyn cost vastly more than that.

Similar redevelopment could happen here and there in a given locality, even as other existing homes are renovated as is or expanded.  In the end there would be a new community with more daytime activity, more walking and biking, more sociability.

The key to its stability would be individual ownership of individual small buildings, and the quality of the facade. The nuisance level of a small business and behavior of rental tenants is far less likely to be obnoxious to the neighbors if that business and those tenants are only there because an owner doesn’t mind being next to them.  As for the façade, designs that look like low income housing and materials that deteriorate quickly if not maintained will devalue the surrounding neighborhood regardless of what goes on inside the buildings, while a long lasting and appealing face will make the entire neighborhood more appealing.

Of course, those taking out a mortgage to put a new three-story building in an aging, working-class community would be taking a risk.  Given what has happened in many of these communities, it may be that what was said of Brooklyn’s brownstones in 1969 could be said of them today.

“There is more courage going into a neighborhood of small, aging, post-war, VA-financed wood-frame salt boxes,” says a real estate man, “than going west in a covered wagon.”

These communities, however, have two of the things that Brooklyn’s brownstones had going for them in 1969 – price, and location.  If they could be redeveloped into “missing middle” mixed-use neighborhoods, they could provide the same sort of advancement in the quality of life that they did when they were built the first time.

Quoting Granola Shotgun once again

As prices for venerable properties rise and availability tightens the little tract homes may seem a lot more viable. This is especially true as Millennials begin to have children and start looking for affordable property close to civilization, but with a little patch of garden. Zoning regulations and building codes make it almost impossible to alter existing homes in the older neighborhood. But the small homes and large lots of the suburban subdivision are significantly easier to add on to and modify. These homes can turn away from the depressing sprawl along the highway and turn back toward Main Street. Given enough time and incremental investment this could be one of the more desirable places to live in the years to come.

The public sector problems would remain. All the costs left behind by the suburban generations – the retroactively enriched and underfunded pensions, the debts, the deteriorated infrastructure and deteriorating and self-serving school systems.  But adaptations could be made if the busy bodies of a particularly locality become desperate enough to allow them.  I believe it at least some places – perhaps not in the snobby, feudal Northeast corridor but elsewhere — a confluence of trends and technology could allow it to happen.

The economic crisis later-born Americans are faced with is three-fold.  There are the governmental disadvantages they are inheriting. In addition, on one hand, most of those with similar educational and occupational backgrounds are paid, on average, 20 percent less that similarly situated people at the same ages decades ago.   On the other hand, the drumbeat of advertising and influencers keeps adding to the amount that must be spent in order to have a comfortable middle class life worthy of self-respect.  Those seeking to deny the first aspect of the crisis sometimes point out that the lionized lifestyle of the 1950s and 1960s, in the small salt-box houses and with just one car per family, and one week of vacation by car in a nearby campground, is still available, and cheap.

Add to that poorly informed and sentimental ideas about what those old Rust Belt factory jobs actually paid — you can have a 1957 standard of living, if you really want it, quite cheap — and you get a holistic critique of U.S. economic policy that is wholly bunk.

Except you can’t.  The buildings built in 1957 are now over 60 years old, and deteriorating.  The public services are far worse than in 1957 and the taxes are higher, because all the money is going to debts and public employee pensions.  And places built since 1980 are zoned and located to be expensive, with only large houses on large lots allowed, and a drive in an SUV required to do anything, even take a walk.

With all the disadvantages they are inheriting millennials should allow themselves to be influenced and bullied into a lifetime of time and money poverty as a result of overpaying for Generation Greed’s houses.  They need to recreate that 1957 standard of living – plus the benefits of radically improved information technology and health care – for themselves somewhere else.