Monday, August 30, 2010

Family-size apartments

You know, I've been told that some architects are divorced from reality, but I never knew how much until I read this Washington Post column by University of Maryland professor Roger K. Lewis, helpfully linked by Planetizen. Lewis discusses apartment living, which he rightly identifies as a key aspect of sustainable "smart growth," but argues that "few apartments built today are sufficiently commodious for traditional families."

Really? Most of the new construction here in Queens contains large numbers of two-bedroom apartments. If "cities and city-like environments are destined to be largely child-free," nobody's told the parents who live in the new apartment buildings in Long Island City. The same can be said for new construction in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Hoboken, New Jersey.

Okay, I can hear half of you saying, but that's New York. The rest of the country does things differently. Well, Lewis did talk about "cities and city-like environments"; are Chicago, Boston and San Francisco really that different? Or is Lewis just writing a local column about the D.C. area? Whatever the reason, you would think a big expert like him would know that we're providing housing for families here, and try to figure out what we're doing differently.

I understand that newspaper columns have length limits, but it would have been nice if Lewis had found the space to give us some statistics, or even a single example of what he's talking about. Instead we have to swim through a jumble of impressionistic generalities and conflated expectations.

What's with this business about "traditional families," anyway? Does Lewis mean traditional Catholic families with six children, or the Ozzie-and-Harriet 2.5-child families, who only became traditional in the 1950s? And if he's going to talk about traditions, why not mention that millions of families have been living in city apartments for over a hundred years? Yes, maybe sometimes they had two or three kids in a two-bedroom apartment, but they made it work, just like my next-door neighbors are doing. The closest Lewis gets is to state that "Architects know how to design apartment environments suitable for families with children." Why not, you know, go to some still-thriving, hundred-year-old apartment neighborhoods and find out what works for families?

There's a bunch of weird logic going on here, too:
Even if big enough, apartments in desirable locations typically are unaffordable. ... Housing demand and the products offered by builders continue to be determined by socioeconomic and geographic pressures, not by design aspirations. Real-world behavior and reliable statistics confirm that middle-class families with kids want single-family homes in suburbs and exurbs with presumably better public schools and with more house and land for the money. Unsubsidized apartments built today are almost exclusively designed for and marketed to people without school-age children.

Well, it's not entirely true that these apartments are unaffordable. Lewis makes no mention of the transit bonus that was reported in his own paper a few months back. Basically, you can afford to spend a lot more on housing if you don't have to drive everywhere. But let's assume that even with the housing bonus, some of these neighborhoods are expensive.

Lewis makes no effort to square this idea of middle-class families wanting single-family homes with the statement that family-friendly apartments are unaffordable. If nobody wants these family-sized apartments, why are they so expensive? Or, if they're so lucrative, why don't people build more of them? I've heard this one before, and it's pretty clear that Lewis is just parroting a bunch of received wisdom here.

There are two ways out of that paradox. The first is that middle-class families may want housing that's (a) large (b) cheap (c) served by good schools (d) single-family (e) a "desirable location", but they don't necessarily want the entire package, and they may very well be willing to sacrifice one or two to get the others - or for some of the valuable features of urban living, like greater convenience, walkability or interesting neighborhoods. Walkability is the biggest - giving the kids the freedom to walk to their friends' apartments, or to the playground. We're not just raising kids in the city to save the planet.

The second is that there's something distorting the market, keeping the supply of family-size apartments lower than demand and the supply of houses higher, and that something is well-documented: the zoning codes that control housing in most of the country. New York works because our zoning allows mixed-use apartment buildings.

Another market distortion comes in the form of transportation funding. Even though commuting by transit may be cheaper, in many parts of the country it's less convenient than driving. Most governments spend many times more subsidizing sprawl-feeding highways than they do on city-nurturing transit. Here again is something that New York does better than the rest of the country.

Lewis spends a lot of time talking about schools, and in that area as well, governments tend to spend a lot more per child on suburban schools than on urban ones.

Lewis ends with a call for "financial incentives" for building family-friendly apartments. "Counties would have to subsidize development by directly or indirectly reducing the per-unit cost of land, and by providing tax breaks for developers and occupants." This is a kludge. Reduce the subsidies for sprawl, and you won't need counter-subsidies for urban living.

This column seems to be on the right side of things - encouraging relatively dense apartment living - but is muddled, ill-informed and seems to bizarrely point the finger at "smart growth advocates" for encouraging apartment living without doing something about the subsidies. If I ever become a professor emeritus, do I get to put out half-baked pontifications like this without doing any research?


Anonymous said...

Has the professor ever seen a NYCHA building? Plenty of families with children there.

James said...

A huge problem for families looking to live in an urban apartment rather than a detached single family home in the suburbs in the issue of noise, both exterior and interior. City building codes should require the use of double paned window glass and sound insulation between floors as this would be a huge step forward for urban livability. You get real tired of having dinner interrupted by car alarms outside or by neighbors blasting their subwoofers when you're just trying to sit down for a meal. Why is the issue of noise pollution in multifamily housing so rarely discussed? This particular issue is one that effects the mid-rise walkups of NYC's outer boroughs far more than anywhere Manhattan below 96th St, as the larger residential towers usually have concrete between floors and double paned glass is standard with high-end residential units.

The only real issue I can see with doing this would be that it would raise construction costs a marginal amount in a city where the middle class faces a lot of financial constraints in housing choice as it is.

Cap'n Transit said...

James, do you have any evidence that this is a "huge problem"? I live with my family in an urban apartment, and it's in a building where people have generally agreed not to make too much noise. Yes, sometimes I hear my upstairs neighbors arguing, or my downstairs neighbors playing video games, or the opera singer practicing somewhere in the building. But it's not enough to be a "huge problem."

When I lived in the Bronx, yes, we had the neighbors upstairs and their Saturday night salsa parties that went on until all hours. But the community standards seem to be different there, and as far as I could tell nobody minded it.

James said...

No, I have no evidence, only the aforementioned anecdotes based on my experience living in apartments in NYC and elsewhere. I stand by my assertion that many, many middle class families don't want to put up with this BS and that this makes up a portion of the attractiveness of detached suburban homes vs urban apartment living.

Again, fix the building codes and this can be a non-issue in the long term as new building stock is brought on line.

Carol Ott said...

In Baltimore it's hard to find a decent-sized two-bedroom apartment that is affordable...or going the other way, is affordable but not located in a terrible neighborhood. And some peoples' idea of what makes a "bedroom" is a little when you factor that in, it's hard to find something worth renting at a reasonable price.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your comment, Carol. Ah yes... the "terrible neighborhood." Now I'll take your word for it that the neighborhood is actually terrible in some way (I'm guessing high crime, but maybe also bad schools, noise, trash, graffiti), as opposed to just containing too many of the wrong ethnic group. But it's another strike against Lewis's argument if these large apartments exist. Why act as though nobody wants to live in those apartments, instead of looking at why those neighborhoods are so terrible?