A debate is stirring nationally around single-family housing. Last year in California, which is experiencing a severe housing shortage, efforts were made—and thwarted by homeowners—to change zoning to allow more dense development, part of an attempt to decrease housing costs by increasing the housing supply. The Minneapolis City Council passed similar legislation.
An often-vitriolic discourse has emerged online about the best ways to reduce the cost of housing in cities, with the solutions falling mainly into two camps. The first is the YIMBY (yes in my backyard) camp, which argues that the housing crisis can be mitigated by upzoning and increasing housing supply, and that affordability will come in the form of either “filtering” (essentially trickle-down housing economics, where increased supply means decreased demand and therefore lower rent) or by incentivizing developers to allocate a certain percentage of new units as being explicitly affordable at different income levels. The other camp has been dubbed “PHIMBY” (public housing in my backyard), a catch-all term for changing affordability through social housing, rent control, community land trusts, and other similar measures. Meanwhile, the enemy of both are the NIMBYs—the not in my backyard coalition—who oppose new development at all costs on the grounds that it will alter “neighborhood character,” decrease availability of parking, or lower property values.
Most of this debate revolves around not the houses themselves, but zoning and land use. That makes sense. The houses cannot be extricated from the land upon which they sit and the policies that govern its use. And perhaps it’s no surprise that the vitriol toward single-family housing tends to center in urban areas where housing is scarce, and where other housing types are visible. But the debate also raises larger questions about single-family homes: What is their value in this current political moment? And is it immoral for us to keep building them?
The term “single-family home” comes from planning, and it denotes either a land-use policy (such as single-family residential zoning) or a specific housing typology consisting of homes built for the occupancy of one family or household. It’s a category that encompasses an enormous variety of home types: The Coonley House by Frank Lloyd Wright is as much a single-family home as an abandoned rowhouse in the city of Baltimore. A California Craftsman bungalow in housing-scarce San Francisco is just as much a single-family house as a four-square built across the street from Love Canal. Even if we look solely at large houses for the wealthy, we find vastly different attitudes from the public and the architectural establishment alike toward the architecturally rich neighborhood of Oak Park, Illinois, than we do toward the McMansion Hell of a gated community in New Jersey.
Single-family houses are imbued with generations of material culture and are considered to be important to a place’s identity, whether they are built by famous architects or by the nameless builders, owners, or developers who built Philadelphia’s rowhouses or the pattern-book homes of Buffalo, New York, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Some single-family houses have history, but little economic value; some have economic value but little history. Either way, in many places, single-family homes are part of what makes the area unique and beloved by those who visit and live there. However, the single-family home isn’t as culturally ubiquitous as it once was, as younger people gravitate toward denser, more urban living situations and non-nuclear family structures. Younger people drive less, hold off from marriage or child-rearing until later in life, and suffer from an inability to afford soaring home prices around the country—all of which makes the single-family home with the white picket fence an even more distant reality.
Single-family homes have long been equated with homeownership, despite the fact that a large number of them are used as rentals. By conflating single-family houses with the problems of homeownership as a means of investment and wealth accumulation (or, conversely, seeing the single-family house as one of the only forms of generational stability and a safeguard against rising housing costs), we gloss over the problems of our system of wealth accumulation as a whole.
While the subsidization of the suburbs and the practices of slum clearance under urban renewal were racist policies at all scales, single-family homes themselves are not necessarily to blame, either for those policies or for the pressing present-day issues of gentrification and climate change. The single-family house is both an agent of gentrification (through flipping and real estate speculation) and a site of neighborhood resistance for those who own their homes but are still at risk of being economically displaced. That many existing single-family homes could be densified by adding accessory dwelling units or by breaking them up into apartments makes it impossible to see single-family homes as either purely good or purely bad—or to ignore their potential to address some of the problems we face.
Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.