Affording the American Dream

Dense Affordable Single Family Housing

Nowadays, there seems to be a garden apartment orthodoxy (in what might be called the new urbanist style) that separates architects from the consumers of affordable housing. Most affordable housing is just downright awful and not worthy of discussion. But some attempts to be better than that. Unfortunately, even in the best cases, developers and taste makers want trendy apartment buildings while most of the public prefers a single family dwelling. This results in solutions that favor developers over residents and architecture instead of community. In an apartment building, the developer keeps ownership and accrues wealth if the project is a success. With single family dwellings that wealth can and should be flowing to the residents. Architects tend to side with the developers for two reasons.
A. The developers are paying them.
B. A groovy apartment building is a more lucrative project and is much more likely to win accolades than is a group of inexpensive single family dwellings.

Our purpose here is to challenge that orthodoxy, to suggest that there are valuable choices being ignored that foster both community and architecture, and that benefit both the direct beneficiaries and the taxpayers who are subsidizing this housing.

We believe first of all in diversity. So, yes, there is a place for apartments and row housing. There are people who want and need to rent. But there is also a place for inexpensive single family dwellings. There are low income families and individuals who will make greater contributions to our communities if they are property owners. Single family dwellings can and should be a central element in the provision of affordable housing. In the USA at least, home ownership, at some point, becomes an essential part of full-fledged citizenship. That sense of ownership fosters the development of healthy communities.

There is a place for mass transit. But, outside of our largest central cities, automobile ownership and use is an essential aspect of living in North America, no matter the income level. Even in low income families, this often means 3-5 cars per residence. Because everybody has to work and everybody has to drive to work, everybody has a car (or a pick up truck). A significant portion of affordable housing must acknowledge this.

In the 1950’s single family housing (think Levittown) was being built in subdivisions with a density of approximately five units per acre. Today’s typical winding street subdivision generates a typical density of about 3 units per acre. In the north especially, these lower densities result in especially burdensome infrastructure costs. More deeply buried utility lines and greater snow plowing requirements are two of the infrastructure costs that increase dramatically as one moves north.

With some thought though, sustainable, affordable, practical fee simple single family housing can be built at approximately 10 dwelling units per acre. Streets should be very narrow, just wide enough for two sidewalks, two lanes of very slow traffic, two lanes of parking and lots of stickball. It happens that these streets are also just wide enough for fire and emergency vehicles and smaller scale snow removal equipment. Side loading trash trucks are also essential for these small streets to work in today’s world. In northern climates, when topography allows, these streets should run primarily north to south. That means the sun can warm the pavement even in the darkest days of winter. It also means the houses can be laid out to have outdoor spaces in the sun on both sides of the street. Lots are just wide enough for two parallel parking spaces on the street and a driveway. The higher density and smaller streets both support more pedestrian activity. The higher density also increases the likelihood that commercial services will be available within walking distance.

Fences and walls must clearly define the boundaries between automobile and human activity without unnecessarily isolating the street from the homes. The car is accommodated, but it is not allowed to take over. Where cars are allowed to take over, the properties are misused and property values and citizen self-respect falls. Fences and walls allow for precise boundaries. That makes it possible for comfortable human activity and automobile storage to coexist happily on a smaller piece of land.

Houses are built against two property lines, becoming walls for the neighbors’ outdoor spaces. Light can pass through glass block in these property line walls but they are otherwise strong fire, sound and visual barriers. Instead of having two useless five foot wide side yards and a small front yard and a small back yard, we provide one large yard. This yard is private and thoroughly integrated into the interior of the house. This yard is set up to take the maximum advantage of any available sun and to pass that sun into the interior of the house.

It is also important that the wealth created by affordable housing programs accrue to its residents instead of going to developers. This gives residents the incentive to maintain and improve their homes. It also turns them into tax payers instead of tax consumers. The government, federal, provincial, state or local, through its housing agency, should be the developer. There is no need for developer profit here. Homeownership should occur under a cooperative regime. Down payments can be minimal or non-existent. Capital gains that occur at resale should be shared by the individual and the cooperative. The cooperative’s share can then be used to create more affordable housing.

Affordable housing programs that do not foster home ownership and at least tolerate automobile ownership (unless mass transit is available and generally used by everyone) tend to segregate their residents from the rest of the community. Once we begin to create affordable housing that fosters good citizenship and results in increased property values, we will have a much easier time creating mixed housing developments – the ultimate goal if we are to have a healthy society. Affordable housing programs must be about bringing us together, not keeping us apart.

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