Res ipsa locavore
RTP's Bob Geolas on the Park Center: "We're not trying to create a faux retro place."

On bungalows' history, urban density, and neighborhood change

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.

As Hertz notes:

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.


Will Wilson

One issue not talked about is water supply. We're not totally reliant on just Lake Michie and Little River reservoir since tying into Jordan Lake, but as the triangle grows, how many people can the reservoirs support? We're reliant on surface water. What would the drought from a decade ago look like with our present population? Maybe someone out there knows...

Michael Bacon

One of my frustrations with affordable housing arguments is indeed that some advocates of affordability are effectively demanding that we produce either detached, single-family houses for everyone or three bedroom, two bath apartments. I would love it if we could get to the point of provisioning those, but right now if you've got $600/month to spend on rent, you're either not living in the central city area, you've got a roommate, or you're living in very substandard housing.

Some studios and one-bedrooms with kitchenettes would really be welcome right now.


my frustration with affordable housing arguments right now is the insistence that it has to be inside the loop or it doesn't count. Much of the affordable handwringing is not 'I want people to be able to afford what I have" but rather 'I can't believe I can't afford that, ergo it's bad'

All of these luxury condos and apartments will not stay that way forever because as the supply of these much needed apartments increases the price will fall in the older/first built units. It's one of the reasons I didn't want to see micro apartments (so twee) near transit - I've seen what those are 20 yrs later - badly maintained SROs.

Khalid Hawthorne

Thanks for pointing out the affordable housing vs. density dichotomy Kevin. Great points all.

I have leaning away from trying to legislate income-based units. A more healthy exercise is ensuring units available in certain sizes based on family size. For example $500-750 Studio/ 1BR or $700-800 2BR.

Downtown/ 9th Street where new apartments are advertising for $1200-1600+ 1BR or $1800-2400+ would be nice to have some moderate income units in these areas.

In a different market these would mostly likely be $300/400k condos and it is my belief that we will see some of these convert to condos over time. (I can't see myself spending over $1000 for rent but that is just my personal belief) There will probably be rent concessions made as well (one to three months free rolled in to the lease to "lower" the rental rate.

This was big in the late 90's when a lot of apartments were built on the edge of town and closer to RTP. These rents are testing the upper fringes of the market here. I don't have hard numbers but the "luxuries" being added to these properties CAN'T be that much more than any apartment that I have resided. The land and parking garage costs are worth a bump I guess but I think there is plenty of profit built in to these developments...

Damian Smith

1) Dr. Wilson brings a up a brings a up a good point about water supply.These reservoirs are already facing problems due to runoff. In the most recent droughts our lake reservoirs levels dropped substantially.op even further, if efforts aren't put in place to reduce our per capita usage. The projected 1.0-1.2 million residents are going to put a significant strain on our water and natural resources, even if we dramatically improve our water and natural resource conservation efforts in the region. However simply increasing density isn't enough, serious consideration to the type of urban landscape created is important. An urban landscape focus on resilience and affordability Densifaction of existing urban areas could potential reduce some strain on our natural resources in part by avoiding the conversion of forested areas to low density single family suburban neighbourhoods and office parks. However without other improvements to mass transportation infrastructure those benefits will certainly be lost.

2) As resident just outside the downtown loop,even affordable substandard housing is becoming hard to find. I know because I live in one the few houses found near downtown renting for less than $800/months. Most rental rates are substantially higher for some fairly terrible conditions. Not all the affordable housing needs to be inside the loop, but at least 20 percent should be and the overall housing picture should contain a variety housing types.One my other frustrations is the focus often feels focused on rental rate, which is a major factor in affordability. But even if the rent is affordable it doesn't mean your utilities are. Quickly, poorly constructed housing can expensive to heat and cool. Being able to keep a roof over your head is important, but spending the winter freezing because you can't afford the electric or gas bill isn't the way people should have to live. Any new units built should be high quality, energy efficient units so the residents aren't spending all of their money on rent an utilities.


Does a single commenter on this blog actually live in multifamily housing?
If not, why are you all advocating OTHER people live there?

Bull City Rising

@T: I read into your comment that you're of the mind (or think others are) that multifamily is inferior or less desirable than single-family?

Personally, I lived in apartments in Boston and Durham before buying my first house or current house; and, my wife and I have talked seriously about selling our SFH and buying a condo to cut down on the maintenance/time requirements around home-ownership.

Realistically, the idea of SFH's for all isn't necessarily realistic. How do we accomplish that in a world where we can't develop near our reservoirs and don't want people commuting an hour-plus from homes to work? (Not that they can't if they want a truly rural life, but the idea of suburbs in the hinterlands is not terribly sustainable....)

Will Wilson

"Dr. Wilson"? At this blog? ;)

Khalid Hawthorne

Great point Damian...another benefit of multi-family units is that there is a transfer of heat between units AND they are more efficient.

By the way...some of us prefer multi-family housing T... to each his own. I personally love my electric bill which is less than a third of my parent's house...not having to worry about grass or major unexpected repair bills...and many other benefits.


Re: "another benefit of multi-family units is that there is a transfer of heat between units AND they are more efficient"

Khalid: this is an often claimed and incorrect argument. Single Family homes are actually the most efficient housing per sf, based on Department of Energy data (p70 of the pdf, p 2-5 by number).

Multifamily units use less energy because they are smaller, not because they are more efficient.


Forgot to post the link!


Very interesting piece. Thanks for some historical context.

I share Natalie's fears about what happens to all these "luxury" apartments in 15 years. Tomorrow's Duke Manor--dingy, dated units, densely packed and no longer desirable places to live, dropping rents--recipe for disaster.--especially for the existing neighborhoods where these very dense projects are going up. I favor requiring integration of affordable units into all development--apartments, SFH subdivisions, pocket neighborhoods, all of it.

Will Wilson

Aaron: A counter to that citation:
Reid Ewing & Fang Rong (2008) The impact of urban form on U.S. residential energy use, Housing
Policy Debate, 19:1, 1-30
Their survey shows a 54% energy consumption for detached housing.
I can email it to

Will Wilson

..should read "54% increase in energy consumption". Part of the issue is that doubling the size of a dwelling doesn't double energy consumption. Going from 1000 sq ft to 2000 sq ft only increases heating/cooling by 20%ish (according to Ewing & Rong)..


I believe that readers here may be interested in a couple of links shared below. Affordable housing is a big issue in many cities, we are not alone. One article speaks to the problem that many are already spending 50% income on housing and 11% additional people are expected to join that number. The other is from ULI, several case studies of likely interest for affordability and sustainability. An analysis by Enterprise Community Partners and the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, finds that the number of households spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent is expected to rise at least 11 percent from 11.8 million to 13.1 million by 2025. At a time when rents are rising, incomes are stagnating and homeownership rates are declining, the number of renters facing affordability challenges has increased significantly:

Overall, this white paper projects a fairly bleak picture of severe renter burdens across the US for the coming decade. Given these findings, it is critical for policymakers at all levels of government to prioritize the preservation and development of affordable rental housing. - See more at:

FW: annette13888 sent you a video: "ULI Case Studies: The Rose - Minneapolis, Minnesota"

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