Parallel trends: bigger houses, tinier apartments

size of new houses

It’s lately become very fashionable to contrast the concurrent trend towards ever-larger new houses and ever-smaller new apartments. Recently, Richard Florida,* Kaid Benfield, and even the Streetsblog podcast have all mentioned this peculiar contradiction.

But scratch a little bit at the surface and you’ll find that it’s an artifact of the Great Recession, not an existential conundrum. Consider that the Census’ Survey of Construction, the source of said statistic, only measures a universe consisting of new single family (usually for-sale) houses. However, these share of total new housing construction that is in single-family houses continues to fall. Just from 2011 to 2013, multi-family houses went from 29% to 33% of all new housing completions. Meanwhile, their size hasn’t budged: it’s consistently been around 1,100 square feet (+/- 50) since 1999.

The chart above also comes from Census data, and tells a more complete story. The average size of new houses built in the USA, both single- and multi-family, declined from 2011 to 2012, then ticked up to a record in 2013. It hasn’t been on an upward march forever. Another reason why this data point isn’t quite as important as it might seem at first glance: many fewer Americans are in new houses, period.

houses creeping back up

Construction may be up slightly, but it’s still well below its peak. Completions fell 70% from the 2004-2006 rate, and now we’re back up to 60% below that (completely unsustainable) rate. From builders I’ve heard at ULI panels and the like, new move-up product is still selling in the suburbs, but first-time buyers are staying in rentals longer, largely due to tighter financing. Hence, fewer small homes are getting built, as younger households stay in existing stock for much longer, and the average home size is increasing. (Oh, and remember: we’re talking about fewer smaller single-family houses. The number of multi-family houses, small and medium-sized, is increasing.)

Thus, the real story is that the for-sale single-family starter home, as a product type, is dying off. For example, when my brother recently purchased his first new house (at 35, considerably older than the typical new buyer at, say, Levittown), he didn’t get a starter home. He went directly from an existing multi-family unit to a move-up sized house.

* Making the additional methodological error of taking the definition of “central cities” seriously.

LocationAffordability’s denominator problem

Location Affordability: numerator problem

HUD’s LocationAffordability.info, which maps CNT’s H+T Index ([housing + transportation costs]/income), shows a sharp affordability divide slicing across Maryland’s suburban heartland, from the northwest to the southeast. This particular example emerged while I was researching yesterday’s Streetsblog USA post about the Citizens Budget Commission’s report citing DC, SF, and NYC as being rather affordable from an H+T perspective — but using some slightly odd figures.

Here, I’ve highlighted Crofton, Maryland, just inside Anne Arundel County, with apparently more affordable Bowie just inside Prince George’s County next door. Curiously, though, costs are $700 higher in Bowie, but it’s still deemed “more affordable.” How? Prince George’s is within metropolitan Washington, where median households have incomes $10,000 higher than in metropolitan Baltimore, which includes Anne Arundel.

The added irony: median household incomes in Anne Arundel (again, metro Baltimore) are quite high: $14,000 higher than in Prince George’s. Similarly, Howard County (Clarksville, Columbia) is Maryland’s wealthiest, with median household incomes $12,000 higher than in neighboring Montgomery (Olney, Gaithersburg). Although Anne Arundel and Howard derive much of their income from their legions of Washington commuters, they do border Baltimore County and the Maryland state legislature has designated them as part of metro Baltimore. Thus, for the H+T Index’s purpose, they’re comparatively deprived.

The H+T Index is a useful tool, but it does rely on a lot of moving data points. In this case, it’s a bit strange that the numerator (H+T costs) are defined by a very small geography (census tracts in the map, cities in the CBC report), but the denominator (income) is related to entire metro areas. While it’s true that labor markets are metropolitan in scale, it’s also true that incomes vary locally just as much as housing and transportation costs do.

Building type survey: stacked flats in Norfolk

A quick trip to Norfolk last weekend turned up at least one pleasant surprise: a tradition of Chicago-esque stacked flats apartment buildings, here in the rowhouse-heavy Mid-Atlantic. Many were around the Ghent neighborhood, primarily along higher-traffic (probably former streetcar route) streets like Colonial Ave. and Hampton Blvd.

The neighborhood’s lots are a fairly generous 30′ wide, so a double lot can easily fit narrow courtyards between three-story stacked flats:

Ghent, Norfolk

More common, though, were double-lot six-flats — with deep neoclassical porches, reflecting the fact that they are, after all, in the South:

Ghent, Norfolk

Just as surprising was this liner apartment building, apparently built in 2006 at the corner of Colonial and Princess Anne to mask a 1970s-era serrated senior housing high-rise. The porch detailing is a bit clumsily done — the building is too wide and shallow to match to the six-flats’ columns across the street — but the building holds a busy corner much better than whatever parking lot or open lawn that preceded it. Similar proposals have been controversial even in New York City, so it’s heartening to see a fairly good example.

Ghent, Norfolk

The Chicago six-flat is a particular adaptation to several factors: fairly wide (25′-28′) lots, readily available brick, and a fire code that both largely banned party walls and required two exit stairs. They’re readily identifiable from a front stair off to the side, leaving space for a spacious “front room,” and exposed “back porches.” True to form, the Norfolk houses also had exposed rear exit stairs, even in the absence of alleys.

Alas, the city’s pattern books don’t have much to say about the type.

Why inclusionary zoning has a cash-out provision

Daniel Kay Hertz has a recent post about how Chicago’s inclusionary zoning (IZ) policy is insufficient at creating enough units to meet Chicago’s affordable housing needs.

Montgomery Ward Complex

Some of the loft condominiums within the former Montgomery Ward Catalog House, where one penthouse unit sold last October for $2.95 million, were set aside as public housing replacement units.

When I was working for the Chicago Rehab Network 11 years ago, I wrote up the broad outlines of what was eventually adopted as Chicago’s IZ policy. I certainly concur that it is not going to solve the affordability crisis in Chicago anytime soon, but I still think it’s a reasonable approach to providing workforce-level affordable housing within the context of how Chicago builds housing — and once it was implemented, IZ multiplied the number of affordable units that Chicago’s Department of Housing could take credit for (primarily through LIHTC).

During the process of drafting this policy, we anticipated and understood that IZ would absolutely not be a cure-all, regardless of how future politicians would try and take credit for it. Furthermore, as Alex Block points out in a comment to the post, IZ absolutely does attempt to do two, contradictory things: (1) integrate gentrifying neighborhoods by creating new, permanently affordable units and (2) creating as many units as possible.

Since CRN is a coalition of CDCs, almost all of whom work exclusively in poor neighborhoods, the CDCs stood to benefit more from approach #2, and so the law probably errs in that favor. Even CRN’s members who worked in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods, though, would rather have served two families in Oakland than one in the South Loop, and the cash-out provision allows them to do so. I certainly don’t blame them, even if the net result does to a small extent perpetuate socioeconomic segregation.

As part of the process of creating this legislation, we conferred with developers of both low-rise and high-rise units, who shared their pro formas with us, and with very extensive research done by groups like MPC and BPI, mostly relying on established policies in primarily low-rise places like Montgomery County, Md. and Burlington, Vt. We saw very few examples of successful policies that worked in a high-rise context. And since a large share of the development in Chicago, then as now, was in downtown high-rises, we needed to find some way to get buy-in from high-rises.

In short, affordable units within high-rises turn out to be very difficult to create and administer. High-rises are costly to build per square foot, and there isn’t much latitude to trim the costs through things like unit sizes and finishes. Most crucially, high-rises are subject to numerous cost thresholds, beyond which the primary incentive of IZ (“free land” in the form of higher density) can become worthless — e.g., a 7-story building is actually far less profitable than a 6-story building. And once a high-rise is completed, it’s difficult to balance the operating costs of luxury amenities (concierge, pool, etc.) across market and affordable units, which has recently been in the news with the “poor door” controversy. (This is somewhat less of a problem in MoCo, since the Washington area’s very high AMI allows for luxury studio apartments to be counted as “moderately priced dwelling units.”)

So, given these difficulties — and given the CDCs’ thirst to capitalize a housing trust fund that could significantly expand their efforts at helping low-income families in neighborhoods (rather than moderate-income singles downtown), we went with the “cash-out” provision that pretty much exempts downtown high-rises.

As for exempting small developments, that’s solely related to the fact that the requirement kicks in based on the number of units, and it’s impossible to deliver a fraction of a housing unit.

Two perspectives on the future of urbanism(s)

Kentlands just hosted its 25th anniversary celebration, a milestone that now firmly places it among the various New American Towns that dot the lower Potomac valley. In this time, what has New Urbanism accomplished, and where does the future lie? Two perspectives, both from the vanishing world of print-only publications, are excerpted below.

mid-rises

New mid-rises in Toronto.

1. Spacing Magazine‘s 10th anniversary issue (which we [few] American subscribers get pretty late in the game) has a great article by Dylan Reid about “the future of urbanism,” or rather the challenges ahead:

This rise of urbanism is good. It is creating cities that are healthier, more efficient, and more sustainable fiscally and environmentally — and they are more enjoyable to live in. The fact that an ever-increasing number of people actually want to live in dense downtown neighborhoods is an astonishing transformation from two decades ago, and essential to urbanism’s success…

Urbanism’s problems don’t discredit it (although some would like them to); rather they mean that the movement needs to test, challenge, and extend itself rather than rest on its laurels…

Urbanists also need humility. The familiar urbanist solutions work in the older parts of the city and, perhaps, in concentrated blank slates like brownfields, but they won’t work out-of-the-box in the suburbs.

Reid then posits and elaborates upon ten challenges, first as statements and then as questions that elude easy answers, which I’ll quote here [with my clarifications]:

  1. How do we adapt and extend the benefits of urbanism to the suburbs in a way that will be welcomed?
  2. Can we figure out how to build avenues and greenfield neighborhoods that are vibrant?
  3. How do we ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the advantages of urbanism?
  4. How can we ensure that extending rail transit and walkability doesn’t simply push low-income households further away?
  5. How do we maintain viable spaces for creativity, or create new ones, in the face of gentrification?
  6. How do we keep small waterways without undermining the density and connections that make a city efficient and sustainable?
  7. How do we make sustainable local food available and affordable to everyone in the city?
  8. How do we maintain the role of manufacturing and food processing in our urban economy and start to integrate them into sustainable urbanism?
  9. How will we find the money and political will needed to fund the next waves of transit investment?
  10. How can we increase the number of year-round cyclists?

The list is heavy on questions of affordability, inclusion, displacement, and gentrification. While at first these might seem to be concerns primarily for fast-growing cities, they do speak to the need for urbanism to address a broader range of people, which would improve its prospects in slower growing cities as well.

Toronto is also exemplary in its embrace of mid-rise development along mostly auto-oriented strips — reinventing the highway strip into streetcar/BRT strips — but the implementation so far has been subpar.

Lively, affordable strip malls full of independent shops are being replaced by dull condo buildings with chain stores, because the new condo retail is too expensive and often too spacious for independents, and condo boards resist all but the safest tenants… Transit is tangled in politics and not getting built. The new buildings still feel isolated rather than part of a continuing streetscape.

2. Over in the more highfalutin’ Harvard Design Review, Alex Krieger asks a similar question:

One set of ideas about good urbanism may not be sufficient. We know from experience, and from the many prefixes that we attach to the word, that across an urban region there are multiple urbanisms, hardly all conjuring up the same well-scaled, well-defined finite “urb” guarding its enduring spatial character…

What is more interesting, and found in many mature areas of urbanization, is the juxtaposition of different patterns of settlement in close proximity. Competing urbanisms may actually be a good thing for an urban region…

My intent in applauding a range of urban environments found in a metro region is to question the ferocity behind the ideological battles under way among today’s various guardians of a particular urbanism. Isn’t a proliferation of ideas about urbanization a good thing? [….]

Conversely, and equally disrespectfully, many dismiss New Urbanism as if its proponents offer no insights about cities. This too is foolish. The New Urbanism movement has raised public awareness about the social and environmental limitations of extensive suburbanization; convinced many subdivision developers to think differently about their generic layouts; pointed to outdated zoning codes that privilege single-use districts; altered the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s view on what public housing should look like and how it should be best arranged; and highlighted the “un-usefulness” of the engineering profession’s concern for optimizing the movement of cars above all. These are not inconsequential achievements for a movement that progressive architects dismiss for the sin of promoting traditional architectural imagery. Newly minted Landscape Urbanists can also be dismissive when implying that those who wish to learn from traditional urban patterns are simply Luddites…

Jacobs explains, cities are environments of not one but multiple complex problems. While not always apparent, each aspect of urban complexity is somehow interconnected to others. Planning for human settlement, therefore, requires the seeking out of both direct and subtle interdependencies prior to posing conclusions or plans… Perhaps too few of us get to page 448 in Death and Life. If we side with Jacobs (and who claims not to), then we need today’s urban polemicists to continue to offer their insight, if fewer of their universal truths — to keep jousting intellectually and, more important, to endeavor to seek out the interdependencies among their positions.

Going forward, let’s all strive to understand the multiple complexities that comprise our cities.

Central DC: home to both bikes & young adults

Two recent geographic visualizations that describe my little corner of the District (and world):

First, MIT’s Media Lab, via their YouAreHere site, generated this map of the fastest mode of transport from my neighborhood to the rest of the city:

youarehere: SW Waterfront

Indeed, this more or less describes my travel decisions: I’ll bike anywhere in the L’Enfant City (where most attractions are) or along the rivers, take transit if going along the Green Line or to Silver Spring, and don’t really bother with the edges of town (including Upper NW).

The highest “percent of the city that can be reached fastest” by bike that I found was 62.7% of the city, from Stanton Park — but for most of the L’Enfant City and Mid-City, bicycling is the fastest way to get to about half the city. For transit, it’s 27.6% from Metro Center. Yet from most of the edges of the city (whether Ward 2, 3, or 8), cars are sadly still too convenient; 80%+ of the city is most quickly reached by driving.

A sad testament to the relative lack of speed of transit in Chicago: even from downtown, only 2% of the city is most quickly reached by transit.

Second, there’s this interesting “cross-section” visualization from Luke Juday at UVa’s Demographics Research Group, which underlines the increasing self-segregation of young people within the urban core:

No, the percentage of 20-somethings in the urban core didn’t appreciably increase. However, since the region’s population is now older, the core’s percentage went from 50% higher than the metro average to 100% higher, as 20-somethings have deserted the suburbs and piled into the urban core. The only area that gained 20-somethings is the near east side of town, which is a theme that the post’s other graphs explore.

And yes, the latter phenomenon just might have something to do with the transportation characteristics outlined in the former.

Industrial change created a peaking problem for Chicago transit

[An entire month without blogging -- let's fix that. This post started with a Twitter conversation about the unusually low peaks in how Montreal schedules its Metro trains, perhaps because it's not as 9-5 as other cities. A note about the charts: it turns out that I can't embed Datawrapper charts on WordPress.com, so the ones below are screen caps. Just click on the chart to go the original chart and see the source data.]

Along the lines of “the best transportation plan is a land use plan,” sometimes land use changes can impose huge costs upon the transportation system. As an example, let’s examine how industrial change in central Chicago triggered vast, and costly, shifts in how the CTA arranges its services.

Chicago skyline in 1970

Chicago

Chicago skyline in 2010 (slightly narrower view)

Popular perception understandably saw downtown Chicago as a boomtown: Enough skyscrapers were built to house all of downtown Philadelphia’s offices, plus all of Glenview or Moline’s residents. Within the high-rises, private-sector office jobs (in business services and finance) grew by 53%. Yet the total number of jobs in Chicago’s Central Area (source) grew surprisingly little in the 1980s and 1990s — by just 10.4%.

The growing skyline masked a sharp decline in nearby industrial jobs. Together, the manufacturing, transportation/utilities, and wholesale sectors lost 42% of their center-city workforce. This bifurcating job market, common to many deindustrializing American cities but occurring on an leviathan scale in Chicago, exacerbated the city’s social divides, plunging some neighborhoods into despair and richly rewarding areas just blocks away.

This tremendous economic shift remade the paths of Chicagoans’ daily travel, and to a large extent demanded a reconstruction of the city’s transit system. Despite the Loop’s triumphant skyline, everyday Chicago was for many years a collection of factory towns stitched together along streetcar seams. The factories lined up along the various rail or river routes leading into the city, and the high-level services they required were provided downtown, but their workers came from all over. Terry Clark writes in the essay “The New Chicago School”: “immigrants naturally lived in neighborhoods where they could talk, eat, relax, and worship with persons of similar national background. They would commute even to distant factory jobs to preserve this neighborhood-cultural-ethnic heritage.”

Since so much employment was at three-shift, all-day factories, service levels were remarkably consistent throughout the city and the day; that combined with the city’s grid to create the gridded bus network we all know well. The comprehensive transit system even worked overnight: The 1957 route map lists 69 surface routes and nine elevated lines running all night. Yes, the “L” system did its work of shoveling people into the congested Loop, but even there it only carried 25% of all transit passengers — even to downtown, 75% arrived via the surface lines.

Just like manufacturing, transit is also a capital-intensive enterprise, and having steady ridership all day/all night makes sure that the equipment (and labor) is optimally used. There’s no need to buy streetcars and pay drivers just to shuttle one giant crowd in at 8 AM — and then keep the fleet parked until they leave at 5 PM. Also, it’s all-day transit, not peak service, that enables urban life: as Jarrett Walker writes, “Low-car or no-car lifestyles, in turn, mean that transit has to be available for many of life’s purposes, not just the peak commute.”

The deep spiral of deindustrialization that I mentioned above also changed where and how Chicagoans commuted. Instead of dispersing themselves across the city at all hours of the day — a flow that became better suited to driving anyways — people began piling onto Loop-bound trains for 9-to-5.

Commuter trains always ran highly “peaked” service, with many more vehicles during rush hour, but these services’ peaks have dramatically grown. The commuter line from Hyde Park to the Loop used to run a 2:1 ratio of peak : midday trains in 1939; now that’s a 7:1 ratio.

Bus ridership, particularly crosstown, dropped off — setting off a vicious cycle of cuts (chronicled by Joshua Mason and Graham Garfield) that reduced crosstown bus service to a shadow of the former streetcar empire. Today’s route map counts a mere 17 all-night surface routes; three-fourths of the corridors that used to have nighttime transit now don’t.

Yet parking buses overnight is relatively easy to do, even though idle capacity is expensive in the long run. What’s been much more difficult, and costly, is adding new capacity to accommodate the ever-larger rush hour crowds, particularly for the growing (Loop-centric) rail system and commuter express buses. Already, CTA spent $530 million on the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project, which increased train lengths by one-third, and more recently spent over $1 billion on a train order that increased its fleet by 17%. Many of its other planned capital projects, like rebuilding the North Side Main and untangling Clark Junction, will also sink huge sums into upgrading the system to accommodate rush hour crowds.

A small countervailing trend has more recently emerged, though. The city as an entertainment destination — as a site of 24-hour consumption, rather than production — has pushed the system to slightly extend evening hours. That said, the efforts will always pale in comparison to the overnight network that once existed, serving not the few who partied all night, but rather the many who worked all night.