Given all the hand-wringing going on about pocket neighborhoods and the disruption that's feared they may cause in further gentrifying Durham urban areas, the Atlantic Monthly's story "How Tasteless Suburbs Become Beloved Urban Neighborhoods" is a must-read.
In it, Daniel Hertz makes a compelling argument in reminding us that, for instance:
- The 1,600 sq. ft. bungalows now praised as right-sized housing versus the "McMansions" feared to replace them, actually themselves dwarfed the housing stock that came before;
- These housing units, arriving during the conspicuous-consumption era of the 1920s, were in fact far out of reach from the average resident in a community;
- Zoning laws passed at the same time were pitched as a way to preserve these newly-created single-family home neighborhoods, keeping out multi-family and other arrivals that might impact the property values of the new homeowners in these neighborhoods.
Most importantly, though, Hertz nails a point I've been fretting about in the recent debates on Durham change: the same people who are most worried about the Durham-character-and-neighborhood impact caused by the addition of thousands of units of new apartments, pocket neighborhoods, condo developments, and increases in density, are the same people by and large who are worried about the rate of price increases and low-affordability in Durham neighborhoods.
Yet restricting housing stock, well-meaning as it might seem, is a guaranteed fast-track to low affordability. (Hi, the Dystopia of Chapel Hill!)
While this is a basic supply-and-demand truism that I think works regardless of whether the new housing stock is median-priced or (increasingly luxe-priced) market rate, there is of course the concern over the price point of new development. But if that's a concern, there's the corollary effect that adding housing stock offers the ability to, as current and most potential City Council members advocate for, incentivize or encourage the development of affordable housing stock along with market rate stock. Without development, you strongly forestall that possibility.
What’s frequently left out of immaculate-conception stories is that the bungalow era was also the fastest period of urbanization in American history: Between 1900 and 1930, Seattle’s population grew more than fourfold, from 80,000 to over 360,000—a rate of growth approached or exceeded by many other American cities at the time. In the process, millions of rural Americans and immigrants were given the opportunity to live in newly industrializing cities where wages and quality of life were dramatically higher. Today, most of our cities have shut the door on that kind of growth. (Seattle’s growth rate today, while much higher than many other central cities, pales in comparison to the bungalow era many yearn to return to.) As a result, our doors are no longer open to as many people, from this country and others, who would like to make better lives by moving to places where job openings and quality of life are high.
Finally, the bungalow era suggests that building new market-rate housing that’s affordable to working-class and low-income people in urban areas is hard, especially if that housing takes the form of single-family homes. And it’s worse today: While the bungalow builders had the advantage of lots of open land relatively close to center cities, today, that “frontier” has closed. And we’re well aware of the costs—environmental, social, and financial—of continuing to push all of our growth out further and further onto the fringe.
Rather, the deeply affordable and decent homes of the bungalow era were largely in multifamily buildings. It’s curious that, though more than four in 10 of the homes built in the 1920s were in apartment buildings, that kind of construction—and those kinds of people—are entirely absent from romantic musings about the time. But they were a crucial source of urban accommodations for people of modest incomes. As the Sightline Institute has pointed out, rooming houses and other small, multifamily homes made up a huge proportion of the affordable housing stock in cities around the country in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, a combination of regulations and market conditions has virtually eliminated that stock in most places. In order to return to something the 1910s and 20s got right, bringing back modestly-sized homes in multifamily buildings is a good place to start.
We made a similar argument here a few weeks ago about the importance of the light-rail project to allow denser multi-family housing stock to be added along the line -- greater use of transit means fewer cars on the roads; more apartments and condos mean fewer chem-lawns and greenfield disruptions; more folks living and working in Chapel Hill and Durham hopefully means fewer Fuquay-Varina and Burlington commuters, a terribly unsustainable idea.
But this same logic applies in spades to downtown development and densification, too.
I roll my eyes at every freakin' salt water pool and doggy day care and theater-room that seems to crop up in each of these developments, too. Yet I also recognize that housing folks here means fewer suburban apartments, townhouses and single-family homes to be built for those individuals instead.
We can have a more affordable city. We can also have a denser city.
And it's going to be hard to have one without the other.