Friday, November 2, 2007

Why isn't an apartment a "home"?

  Today, let’s move up the economic ladder from the homeless and talk about the problem of affordable “homes” in Los Angeles.  In the news this week was the heart-warming story of modest-income families moving into new houses built by Habitat for Humanity and its most famous hammer swinger, Jimmy Carter.  This is good news for the handful of lucky new homeowners, but it won’t, of course, solve the broader phenomenon that the median price of a single-family house in Los Angeles is more than $500,000.  And with the mortgage crunch, families with modest incomes and shaky credit history find it difficult to obtain mortgage loans.

Lahollywoodboulevard   What troubles me in particular, however, is the commonly expressed perception that ONLY a single-family house is a “home;” small apartments aren’t worthy of such a designation.  Both the L.A. Times and NPR suggested this in their reporting on Los Angeles this week.  Earth to the United States:  In almost all nations of the world, nearly all families, from poor to rich, live in apartments, not in single-family houses.  From Paris to Buenos Aires to Osaka, it is accepted that the advantages of living in a big city come with the drawback of having to live in an apartment.  But not in the United States, and especially not in sprawling cities such as Los Angeles, where the American Dream is dying hard.  But with nearly 18 million people (more than the entire state of Pennsylvania, and more arriving all the time) in the fixed space of the L.A. area, the old luxuries simply can’t be expected anymore. 

  Our land use laws need to be loosened to allow (and maybe even encourage) more construction of apartments (how about on land currently occupied by foreclosed single-family houses?) to house the millions of new urban Americans.

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The obstacle, of course, is entrenched opposition to multi-family housing from SF homeowners. If the tax code taxed the imputed (rental) income from SF owner-occupiers, there would be no real advantage to homeownership, compared to other forms of investment. More people would rent, and thus less opposition to new housing, which renters would correctly expect to lower rents.

Posted by: AC | Nov 2, 2007 6:31:31 PM

You raise two separate major (and some minor) issues without distinguishing them. First, why not apartments?

If you look at middle class living in any major city from the late 1800's through the 1950's/60's, middle class families lived in "flats" and apartments. Many were fairly large and laid out with seperate living, formal dining, bathing, kitchen, and maid's quarters. The bedrooms and baths were small by today's standards, but all the features were there.

And this could be accomplished with serious density without incredibly imposing buildings. I lived in a 6-unit apartment building (no parking) in Springfield, Mass, as a child. Each unit was well over 1000 sq. feet, had 3 brs, a bath a dining room and a living room. The entire building sat on a lot that was probably 75x150. So, 6 units in a 1/4 acre, or 25 units/net acre and probably 18-20 units per gross acre. Big difference; parking on the streets and a small lot - only 1 car/unit.

The "garden apartments" of the 50/60's (and most of today's) aren't generous in storage, functional living space, etc. They seem to be designed for transients.

So on issue is designing apartments to really support families and family living - and not just be adding some amenities to a complex.

The other issue is ownership and wealth creation. Since the 50's, the ownership of land and houses has been the primary generator of "wealth" in this country. That wealth is now needed (and used) to provide college educations and retirement income, given the failure of the federal government to provide reasonable grant/loan packages to the middle (homeowning) class, and the collapse of guaranteed-income types of pension funds (not to mention retiree medical care).

So there's a legitimate perception that the only way to stablilize families, both in their living conditions and financial conditions, is to promote ownership of a single family home.

We need to undo a whole slew of tax and land planning policies to make any alternative work. Oh, and deal with the fact that for years to come, new immigrants and low income people will be living in the existing multi-family development as a matter of necessity -- not good public policy marketing if you want to change long-term values and choices.

Posted by: Robert Lincoln | Nov 4, 2007 6:25:46 AM