In Detroit, the single-family home is king.
The city’s development exploded in the first half of the 20th century, alongside population growth, the proliferation of the automobile and mortgage programs that made buying a home much more accessible (for white people). That’s why the ubiquitous housing type — typically accompanied by a yard and driveway or garage — accounts for 40% of all parcels in the city.
We’re facing the consequences of those trends now, argues writer and urban policy expert Diana Lind, in her new book “Brave New Home.” Cities across the country today are left with car-centric infrastructure, mass foreclosures, an outdated zoning code and other legacies of the single-family housing boom. She writes that it’s time to think about alternative housing types and plan our cities for a more sustainable future.
Seeing as Detroit’s housing is at more odds with the future she advocates for than arguably any other American city, we thought it would be interesting to talk to her about whether the suggestions in her book should or could be adopted here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Detour: There has been much consternation in Detroit about the loss of homeownership, particularly among Black Detroiters, due largely to tax and mortgage foreclosure. A few years ago, homeownership dipped below 50% for the first time in decades. What lessons do you take away from this century’s housing crisis? Should homeownership no longer be touted as a way to build wealth?
Lind: There are a lot of problems with the idea of homeownership as the primary wealth creation mechanism in this country.
For starters, it’s very racially divided across the entire country. There’s no city in the United States where the homeownership gap between whites and Blacks is less than double digits. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that housing prices have gone up tremendously within the last generation, so if you weren’t part of the homeownership class already, you’re at an additional disadvantage.
We also have to look at how homeownership is connected to access to schools, safety from climate change, and so many other societal issues. The home is most people’s primary investment. Naturally, they’re going to be very protective of it, which leads them to do things that their better selves wouldn’t, like being against affordable housing because they think it drives down prices.
I don’t think that homeownership is bad, just that we’ve spent 100 years perfecting the 30-year mortgage and a national convention that homeownership is a great way to build wealth, while spending comparatively little time exploring other options.
Some of your arguments for moving away from single-family homes are about NIMBYism and the need to build more, denser housing to combat rising rents and home prices. But those aren’t problems in Detroit (where vacant land is plentiful) in the same way they are in cities like San Francisco or D.C. Do you think the general strategies you outline are still applicable everywhere?
Some of the book is focused on why we should move away from single-family living for economic and environmental reasons. But a lot of it is focused on why we should think beyond it for social reasons. That applies to any community, including a place like Detroit, where there may be a new generation of young people who are very excited about living in the city, aren’t comfortable owning a home and all the attendant baggage, want to have a sense of community, and so may be interested in co-living (a type of housing that has a number of communal spaces).
I also write about multigenerational housing, which is much more prevalent in communities of color. Of course you could have multiple generations in one single-family home, but many families want some degree of privacy. An inlaw suite, or accessory dwelling unit (ADU), might be another way of living together. Duplexes, which are great for people trying to build wealth, offer something similar — you can live in one unit and rent out the other or have another family member live there.
In a city like Detroit, where people might have trouble accessing housing, tiny homes are another option. It’s a very affordable housing type and could be a good way for the city or funders to think about supporting the formerly homeless, school teachers and others who are housing insecure.
In general, I try to show that we have a very limited view of what type of housing people want in this country, which results in a mismatch of the needs of contemporary Americans and the type of housing being supplied.
I imagine people might bristle at being encouraged to live in these smaller alternatives. How do builders, planners and government officials overcome that stigma?
Language and positioning matters, and recognizing that these housing types can work for people at different ends of the economic spectrum.
We’ve already seen that co-living is making its name catering to the “work hard/play hard” segment — essentially wealthy young people. Now those developers are being engaged by cities to help build shared living for lower-income households. If you said, “we’re gonna build a bunch of single-room occupancy units,” people wouldn’t be enthused. But “co-living” changes how people perceive it. Same with rebranding mobile homes to tiny homes — I think people would feel much more welcoming of a tiny home village rather than a trailer park.
As far as convincing people that smaller spaces are equally good ways to live in the world, it’s a question of how you spend your money. Do you want private space or shared space? Do you want experiences or more square-footage? And as people become less interested in acquiring furniture and all the trappings of a home, they’ll stop saying that shared living and smaller living are declasse or totally undesirable.
Also, this is a very large country with over 300 million people. If just 1 million want to live in a different way, that’s a huge market. All these housing types don’t have to be for everyone: we just need to enable a subset of people to live in a way that suits their lifestyle.
What are some simple ways to update zoning codes to make cities more amenable to alternative housing options?
As a general rule, having less restrictive zoning that doesn’t make a ton of assumptions about how people can and should live in residential neighborhoods is the most important thing. There’s a lot of unnecessary friction for people building ADUs in backyards with zoning that requires a separate parking space and its own driveway or has to be a certain distance from the main housing, for example. While it may be legal to build something other than a single-family home, if there are a ton of additional restrictions, people are disincentivized to make it work.
That leads into the idea of the 15-minute city, where you build neighborhoods with access to what you need within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. It’s standard in urban planning today, but in Detroit, there are existing corridors or nodes where you could envision increasing density of housing to make them places more accessible for people to walk and bike.
There is some fear in Detroit around the concept of “rightsizing” where, because there’s been so much abandonment and the city is too geographically big, planners find ways to encourage movement to more centrally located neighborhoods. How should cities encourage more sustainable neighborhoods without stoking fears about abandoning investment in other parts of town?
It’s tricky. The idea comes from recognizing that if the fire department has to cover a huge swath of land and have adequate response times, wouldn’t it be a more efficient use of taxpayer funds if the city were condensed? But it’s also been the case that planners are often not very sensitive to neighborhood history by requiring them to “prove their worth” to be kept in the city.
I’m sensitive to both sides. If you’re running a city, you want to be able to service the city well. That’s a legitimate concern with a declining tax base. If someone knew how to stoke revitalization of those neighborhoods quickly and easily, that person would probably get all the MacArthur prizes.