What If…One Zoning Change Could Save Suburbia?

We have created a system in which Americans have no choice but to invest in a product that doesn’t meet their needs.

Like many Americans, I grew up in a suburban home. You know the type: three to five bedrooms, 2.5 baths, 2 car garage, nice lawn. All of our neighbors lived in similar houses, and practically all of my friends grew up in neighborhoods similar to mine. Growing up in this suburban environment of sameness, it never occurred to me that some families might actually have different needs than mine or my friends’—that the definition of “family” or “household”  might be more varied than the housing stock I was so accustomed to as a middle-class American kid.

That outlook changed dramatically for me when I figured out that I was gay at the age of 23.  All of a sudden, I self-identified as “the other,” that large plurality that wasn’t really considered in the current typology of the suburban home. I also happened to be developing my graduate thesis at the same time, and so ended up devoting the better part of a year to studying both this discrepancy and how strategic manipulations to the existing system might give access to home ownership to a greater percentage of our fellow citizens—to my fellow “others.”

This article outlines one of those potential strategic manipulations.

The current problem:

Stated most simply, our suburban housing market lacks the diversity of property sizes and types necessary to meet the economic and familial realities of contemporary America. The numbers supporting this assertion are clear: in the 2010 census, 26.7% of American households consisted of only one person, and the average household size had declined to 2.9 persons. Contrary to these demographics, the average size of the American home has steadily risen over the past 50 years. This same census report states that the median size of the American home is 2,169 square feet. This is approximately three times the 750 square feet of the original Levittown single-family house of the 1950’s.

We have created a system in which Americans who wish to build equity and own a home have no choice but to invest in a product that doesn’t meet their needs—a home that is much larger than their requirements and more expensive than they can comfortably afford. If we wish to promote the ideal of responsible homeownership, shouldn’t we align the types and scale of houses we build with the needs of the population that will buy them? Shouldn’t we create and support a market that consists of small starter homes, large family houses, and a variety of residences that support a broad diversity of lifestyles, family sizes, living situations, and incomes?

Of course we should, but instead we have created a homogenous market. The foreclosure crisis from 2008-2011 clearly evidenced the consequences of these actions. The real question is this: what have we learned from this past housing crisis, and how might we work within the existing structures of the suburban condition to dramatically increase access to responsible homeownership?

Diagram of sideyard site / partial lot sales

What if…?

The idea is quite straight-forward: to create a more diversified housing market, municipalities should allow homeowners to sell the “setback” areas of their property through the amendment of local zoning laws (“setbacks” generally refer to a required measureable distance between a building and its property line—these are the underutilized spaces at the sides or rear of the typical suburban lot).  In doing so, a smaller scale of residential real estate comes into the market, allowing the development of a smaller typology of home and opening the doors of homeownership to a much larger portion of our population.

For existing homeowners, this option could help to  offset the costs of their own home and other debts. For new buyers, this proposal would both increase the supply and diversity of housing types on the market.  For municipalities, this proposal has the potential to double the density of strategically-selected neighborhoods, helping them to better locate population centers around public transportation, shopping, and other critical urban planning assets.

I believe that homeownership is the foundation of the American Dream.  A home is more than an investment – more than a contractual obligation: it is one of the clearest representations of civic responsibility to one’s community.  It is literally a vested interest. Changing the side-yard and rear-yard setbacks and minimum site-size regulations in existing first-ring suburbs is a strategic first step to re-forming suburbia in our own, diverse, 21st-century American image.

Andrew Burdick is an architect and design activist. He is an Associate Partner at Ennead Architects and the Director of Ennead Lab, the firm’s research and design advocacy initiative. This series—titled What If…?—focuses on design opportunities and their potential impact. If you enjoyed this article, then check out the series’ inaugural post, What If…Veterans Could Solve the Farming Crisis?

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