Are Americans Ready to Let Go of Single Family Homes?

    25 January 2020

    For years, many Americans have thought of owning their own home as part of the American dream.

    But the idea of whether that includes dividing a single family home into two will soon be tested in some communities. Also up for debate are other housing ideas in dense areas — usually cities and the suburban neighborhoods around them.

    The state of Virginia may help to reduce housing costs by changing zoning rules. These are the rules that govern what kind of housing can be built and where. Virginia may approve changes to permit denser housing, and possibly less costly homes, in areas now zoned for single-family homes.

    In Virginia, builder Carrington Homes offers an accessory dwelling unit, a second living unit (left), as an option for their new homes. (Photo from builder's website)
    In Virginia, builder Carrington Homes offers an accessory dwelling unit, a second living unit (left), as an option for their new homes. (Photo from builder's website)

    Ibraheem Samirah is a Virginia state lawmaker. He represents an area just outside Washington, DC. He proposed a bill to let homeowners divide a single family house into two homes.

    "After the local approval process is completed, then they can create their two families' owned property as they see fit," Samirah said.

    His proposal would not ban single family homes. But it would let owners set up two homes, like townhouses and cottages, on land now zoned for a single family home.

    This is similar to what is happening on the West Coast of the United States. Oregon was the first state in the country to ban restrictive single-family zoning last July.

    Planning experts and local officials say there are costs to developing land outside cites. These include harmful effects on the environment, increased demand for public services, isolating people, and keeping poor people and racial minorities from some communities.

    A 2019 Harvard University housing report found a "relative lack of smaller, more affordable new homes." The same report showed that about half of all renter households nationwide spend almost one-third of the money they earn on housing.

    Moving away from single-family zoning will not be easy.

    "At some level, that development pattern is really uniquely American," says Robert Parker. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Engagement at the University of Oregon.

    "People who have lived, and grew up, in low-density suburban developments have a strong preference for that," he adds.

    The average size of American houses is getting much bigger. Sizes have more than doubled since the 1950s. The National Association of Homebuilders says that in 2019, the average size of a new single family home was 240 square meters.

    Americans clearly like their space. That could be changing with millennials — people born from the early 1980s through the middle of the 1990s. They have their own ideas about what the ideal, or best, home looks like, Parker says. He points to a Portland, Oregon study.

    He says 80 percent of those questioned said they desire to live in a separate single-family home. So, it really becomes a matter of size and what amenities it has, he adds.

    A lot of those younger households are looking for smaller homes in walkable neighborhoods, he says. "And, increasingly, the development community is beginning to recognize that and thinking about ways they can build those environments."

    Ibraheem Samirah, the Virginia state lawmaker, expects some people will worry their neighborhoods could become less desirable.

    But he says changing the rules will give people a chance to make money from renting out parts of their home. And for older Americans on a fixed income, bringing in more money may help them stay in place.

    Samirah adds that the suburban way of life is going to be there for generations.

    I'm Anne Ball.

    Dora Mekouar wrote this story for VOA. Anne Ball adapted the story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    fit – adj. suitable for a specific purpose

    cottage – n. a small house

    isolate – v. to be away or separate from others

    renter – n. someone who pays money to live in a home owned by someone else

    uniquely – adv. very special or unusual

    amenities – n. plural. Something that makes life easier or more pleasant

    income – n . money that is earned from work, investments or business, or given by someone