Right Sizing

Some of the things we like least about cities are imposed by regulation. Regulations determine setbacks that prevent the vistas tourists go to Europe to see. Requiring parking to go with new units helps create sprawl. Access rules make it impossible to have those kinds of little bistros people love in Vienna or Paris. To solve these problems, maybe we have to allow people to have a little more choice.

I was reading an article about Americans moving in with boarders, adding rental units and just generally creating more dense and shared housing. And another one talking about allowing smaller houses and apartments.

These are good ideas. Sometimes we mandate more than people can afford or even want. This happened in housing. In the 1970s, we urban renewed a lot of affordable housing out of existence. Some people can only afford or only want a small room. Some people don't mind and might even want to share a house. Many people would want to have rental income.

In my grandfather's time, immigrants often bought duplexes. The rent they made from the unit on top or below paid the mortgage. Sometimes they remodeled their basements to make a rental unit. In Milwaukee, where I grew up, we called them Polish flats. It was not meant as an ethnic joke, but rather a description of what people like my grandparents did to achieve their dream of home ownership by supplementing their income. Today what they did would be illegal. They would just stay poor and complain that immigrants like them never got a fair shake. Maybe they would get subsidized housing.

To show how things have changed, the house that my grandparents owned and where they brought up seven kids with tenants in the basement flat is now occupied by a gay couple. They have fixed the place up really nice, but they complained that it is a little small and doesn't have a garage.

I am not advocating going back the crowded conditions of the 1920s, but maybe a little. today we "enjoy" too much space, at least more space than many people want or need. I would not prevent anybody from buying a big house. I would just also allow them to subdivide, within reason.

Chrissy and I have a townhouse in a great location. We had three kids at home when we bought it. Today two are out and the last one will go soon. We have a ground level "family room" that has its own bathroom and a separate entrance, i.e. essentially a studio apartment. Why not rent that out and put it to use? It would be a win-win. Somebody else could get an apartment in a nice location and we could get some extra income.

Lots of old people are living in houses way bigger than they need. They don't want to move, but the cost of maintaining the extra space is more than they can afford. Might it not be better to take in boarders than to move to an old folks apartment?

Again, I am not saying that everyone will want to do this, but why has it largely disappeared as an option? Families are smaller than they were fifty years ago, but houses are bigger. Does that make sense? And they are a lot bigger. In 1950 the median house had around 100 square feet. By 1973, they had 1525 square feet. It was 2169 in 2010. These figure, BTW, are median, not average, so it is not simply that the number is being pulled up by a few really giant places.

It is a little dumb. We require people to have more space than they can afford or want and then we have to subsidize housing for the poor. Why not make housing really affordable by making it really cheaper? That might mean smaller and more shared, maybe without a garage.

IMO - we sometimes have too much and that makes us less happy. When you have a big house, you tend to stay in it. A smaller place forces you out more often. Places with rich street life tend to have smaller apartments. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, I will point out that when I was growing up, we had little crime in our neighborhood. One reason, IMO, was lack of air conditioning. We all had to sit out on the porches in the evening because it was too hot inside. We knew all the neighbors. Today, you can hunker down inside and never come out. It is not a good thing.

Posted by Christine & John at July 19, 2012 9:35 PM
Comment #348911


“In 1950 the median house had around 100 square feet.”

I don’t mean to be the contrarian here, but…

The house my wife and I live in was bought by her mother in 1951. At the time she bought it, the house was on the fringes of Phoenix. It is in what is still a good neighborhood but the house is by no means a palace. It is 1150 sq ft and she paid $7,500 for it.

We have lived in a larger house (1700 sq ft) but both of us agree that anything much larger that that is a waste of space.

BTW, your example of 100 sq ft is only 10x10.


Posted by: Rocky Marks at July 20, 2012 8:04 AM
Comment #348912

Rocky I am sure he meant 1000 square feet, as 1000 square feet was the median in the 1950’s.

Posted by: j2t2 at July 20, 2012 8:25 AM
Comment #348923

I wonder how long it will be before the Federal Government determines that living in houses larger than we need, “Lots of old people are living in houses way bigger than they need”, as C&J have pointed out, and is contributing to Global Warming. Perhaps older people will be forced into housing projects in order to save energy.

Posted by: Frank at July 20, 2012 10:18 AM
Comment #348957

Rocky & J2t2

Yes, 1000.


I don’t say anybody should be forced to do anything. Rather the force should be withdrawn that is constrains the choices of how somebody can use his/her own property.

Posted by: C&J at July 20, 2012 6:29 PM
Comment #348973

Good post. This McMansion craze is, well, crazy. Far more space than any family needs or actually uses. Far more expense than any family can truly afford.

A few years ago, I visited a traveling exhibit of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed prefabricated house that he designed for mass production at a moderate price. It was small by today’s standards but spacious in the main living areas with ceiling to floor windows and highly functional with built in sitting and storage areas. Stylish but functional. It can be done.

Posted by: Rich at July 20, 2012 7:59 PM
Comment #349031

When my son graduated from college; his first house was a post WWII pre-fab house built by Sears and Roebucks. The original design was a 24’x 24’ house, bolted together. The house he bought had been built on to. But I had never seen anything like this before. It was a basic square house, 7’ ceilings, and 4 rooms.

Posted by: Frank at July 21, 2012 12:45 PM
Comment #349036

Good Article C&J. We definitely need to liberalize our policies regarding housing.

BTW, I would like to note Frank’s initial reaction to your article. I think it is pretty clear that contemporary conservatism has little to do with shrinking the size of government. Instead, conservatism meerly wishes to concentrate the powers of government amongst a certain group of elites rather than leaving the powers diffused amongst the populace.

In this case, conservatives wish to impose a low population desnsity upon us because it conforms to their utopian ideals. They are afraid of leaving things up to the marketplace, lest people make choices that take away their power. Increased dependence on fossil fuels and decreased support for public infrastructure are two important results of this policy.

Posted by: Warped Reality at July 21, 2012 3:47 PM
Comment #349054

Warped Reality, I was being facetious in my initial comment. I certainly do not believe people should be placed into housing projects.

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