What is urban sprawling and is it a cause for concern? Single-family houses serve as a boon or a bane for “the American Dream”?
A majority of Americans aspire to live in a single-family house, ideally with a beautiful yard and away from densely populated locales. It is this inherent desire of people that has led to an exponential rise in urban sprawling over the last few decades.
People move away from cities to neighboring suburbs, effectively reducing rural, cultivable land. But is it as good as you think? Let’s take a closer look at the Single-Family House and weigh the costs and benefits that come with it.
Uncertain Future For The Single-family House American Icon
History of the Single-Family House
After the Second World War, it took over two decades for the housing industry to begin to prosper. In the 1990s, William John Pulte became the USA’s most successful homebuilder. Pulte was one of the visionaries who spearheaded the emergence of single-family houses. Even today, the Pulte Group is one of the top-ranked home construction companies in the USA.
Before the advent of the single-family house, housing comprised of converted trolleys and Quonset huts. It was observed that by 1947, close to six million families had people sleeping on couches and on fire escapes, effectively living doubled up.
It is undeniable that single-family houses came as a blessing and provided a much-deserved relief for many middle-class families in the USA. Up until the financial markets collapsed a decade ago, the benefits of single-family houses were not overshadowed by their costs.
In the last decade, however, there have been some not-so-subtle signs that point toward the highly uncertain future of this particular housing type.
The Significance of the Single-Family House
Today, most of the millennial citizens still want to move to a single-family house in the long run. According to a survey, young Americans aged 18 to 35 say that they are ready to live in a small space in multi-tenant apartments for a couple of years but ultimately plan to move into a single-family house.
People realize that they might need to move to one of the “popular” (industrialized) cities for better career prospects and are flexible enough to put up in a studio apartment, close to neighbors in a densely populated area. But a single-family house still attracts nine out of ten young Americans as a long-term housing option, specifically for raising kids.
One of the most critical questions in everybody’s life is where to settle. The most significant benefits derived from staying in a single-family house can be felt in convenience, privacy, and space.
Imagine a beautiful home at the edge of the city, away from the daily hustle-bustle of offices and commercial hubs – sounds serene and almost perfect, right? But there are significant downsides to it, which may be oblivious to many.
It is safe to say that up until the early 2000s, single-family houses held immense significance all over America. People are still looking to move into single-family houses all over the USA and also in Canada..
Problems Posed by Single-Family Houses
The most important factor to consider is the downside of rising single-family houses in the USA. It is a complicated affair, so let’s break it down step by step:
Can you afford it?
The most vital question to be answered is related to the affordability of a single-family house. And by affordability, we are not just concerned with whether you have the funds to purchase it. Is it viable to shell out those funds? Do you get enough for how much you end up paying? So, when it comes to single-family houses, you need to look at affordability and feasibility together.
To give you a perspective of the rising inflation and how it has affected the real estate industry, 44% of new single-family houses were priced at not more than $200,000. Last year, there were only 13% of new single-family homes priced at $200,000 or less. As you add amenities to your home, the cost goes further up.
To cut a long story short, if you want to buy a single-family house, you will most likely be spending a lot of money. Is it worth it? The area of your lot size and ultimately your home depends on how densely populated your surrounding is. There are considerable differences in the median house and lot sizes among prominent US metropolitan areas.
As per data from the American Housing Survey (AHS), the national median lot size per unit is 0.26 acres. Let’s highlight a few inconsistencies:
- Birmingham and Nashville have median lot sizes of 0.75 acres.
- Hartford has a median lot size of 0.66 acres.
- Richmond, Atlanta, and Charlotte have a median lot size of 0.50 acres.
- San Francisco has a median lot size of 0.13 acres.
- San Jose and Las Vegas have a median lot size of 0.15 acres.
- Houston has a median lot size of 0.18 acres.
- Phoenix, New Orleans, San Diego, Miami, Sacramento, Denver, and New York have median lot sizes lower than 0.20 acres.
Based on where you buy the single-family house, the space you get can differ significantly.
There have been some significant adverse effects that have diminished the attractiveness of the single-family house.
The millennial generation has a median age of 28, and the median age of first-time home buyers is 30. According to a survey by Mayflower Movers, two in five young millennial Americans moved to a city with zero intention of settling there; instead moved out after a while to look for better, suburban housing.
In the last decade, it has been observed that millennial citizens are moving away from densely populated big metro cities. Demographer Bill Frey has stated that New York has faced the highest net annual outmigration of post-college citizens (aged 25 to 35) from 2013 to 2017. Los Angeles, San Diego, and California are the other big cities that face significant outmigration of young Americans.
Smaller cities like Houston, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Charlotte, Nashville, and Phoenix have attracted millennial masses. The effect of this drastic shift can be seen in the sharp decline of the number of middle-class families settling in the big metro cities. As a result, the “superstar” cities have an abundance of wealthy businesses and low-income families, extremes with no middle ground to maintain a healthy balance.
One of the best examples of the potential threats of an overabundance of single-family houses was observed in Houston. Houston is the USA’s largest city with no municipal zoning and has had the nation’s highest population growth in eight out of the past nine years. The majority of Houston is covered with houses and has been paved, which compromised the land’s capacity to absorb floodwater and storm drains.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit the USA, and it was an eye-opener for advocates of urban sprawling and single-family houses. Houston’s families saw their homes submerged in floodwaters. The aftermath of Harvey could be quantified in the loss of lives and billions of dollars worth of damage. But the most critical reckoning of the disastrous cyclone was the absolute lack of safety caused by urban sprawling.
The biggest irony of it all is that even after Hurricane Harvey showed the word that excessive construction of single-family houses and uncontrolled urban sprawling can be devastating, Houston is not changing the way it should. The city and county now require more homes to have flood insurance, making them more expensive. Mandatory house elevations have also been raised as a countermeasure.
Recent Scenarios in the USA
In 2022, construction of about 900,000 houses was commenced. According to the Home Builders Association, the demand for homes ranged between 1.2 and 1.3 million. Real estate prices have been rising with every passing year, and the environmental hazards caused by sprawling are rising too.
One of the essential drawbacks of more and more people staying in single-family houses is the exponential increase in vehicular air pollution. More people stay miles away from their workplace and drive daily, increasing harmful emissions.
California’s state Senate Bill 827, sponsored by Scott Wiener, a senator from San Francisco, highlights the precarious condition of the single-family house. The bill proposes measures to override local zoning, allowing builders to erect bigger multi-family housing structures near mass transit stops and stations.
The bill was met with strong opposition by people who believe that the single-family house is the perfect choice for middle-class families. However, single-family house prices are exceeding the budgets of most middle-class families in California. So, there is an imminent need to shift to multi-family housing and discourage sprawl.
The adverse effects that have come to light in recent years in the USA can be summarized as:
- Increase in public expenditure to pay for changes in infrastructure and connectivity.
- Rising health issues due to greater vehicular air pollution.
- Increased traffic, owing to the higher number of cars on the road.
- Disastrous environmental issues were observed in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
- Possible adverse effects on social lives due to increased privacy and secluded housing.
The Bigger Picture
There are a few believers in the ideology that the single-family house symbolizes the perfect “American Dream.” Joel Kotkin, Tory Gattis, Wendell Cox, and Anne Snyder form the team that leads the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (COU), a Houston-based think tank that focuses on the benefits of urban crawling.
There are others who believe that the single-family house does more harm than good. Urban sprawling is dangerous in a time of climate change, expensive in terms of rising inequality, and detrimental to the sustainable development of the US economy. In recent years, the drawbacks have outweighed the benefits.
The single-family house is not a wrong concept, and it is not something that can never be optimized. Looking at the bigger picture though, it is not the best alternative at present. Unbalanced growth in urban crawling has had disastrous effects on the environment. There are many housing options – some perfect, some average. But there is only one Earth, and till it’s safe, urban crawling needs to be put in check.