Whole Community Approaches to Accommodation

by Amelia Buckley

Homelessness has been on the rise in many major cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco, where homelessness rose in the last year by 12 and 17 percent respectively.  But even for those who have a home, it’s often not that easy. In 2017, over half of all households in Los Angeles County were considered “cost-burdened” which means that over 30% of income must go to cover housing costs – either rent or mortgage and this can be even worse the lower down the income scale one goes.  This trend has continued or gotten worse, and many other metropolitan areas in the US are also to facing similar rates of cost burdened and housing insecure residents.  A primary driver in homelessness and other less severe forms of housing insecurity is the lack of adequate housing stock close to employment centers. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area alone, 20,000 rent-controlled properties have been taken off the market since 2001.  Despite California Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent budget, allocating $2 billion to build 3.5 million new housing units by 2025, actually building all that housing seems a daunting task.  The Los Angeles area would need to create more than half a million affordable housing units to even come close to meeting current demand.  Not to mention future growth.  

As affordable housing options have dwindled over the past few decades, changing economic trends and job markets have pushed more people towards urban areas for employment. This means people are forced to spend high rates on small rooms, often shared with many roommates. Others are driven out of the urban housing market altogether and forced to accept long and environmentally taxing commutes.

The space we live in plays a critical role in our lives. Our home is not just a place of shelter, but also reflects our sense of self.  It is ideally a space of comfort, security, community, and belonging. To quote Maya Angelou, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” 

Housing shortages across California and in much of the United States are forcing us to re-evaluate our living spaces for the sake of environmental and social well being. Embedded in the need for affordable housing is a budding cultural acknowledgment that we can find joy in smaller homes, even if we can afford larger ones.  

White Picket Suburbia

House with a White Picket FenceSuburban sprawl increased dramatically in the post WW2 era and with it came the need to “keep up with the Jones.’” In 1973, when the Census Bureau first began tracking home sizes, the median size of a newly built house was just over 1,500 square feet.  That figure reached nearly 2,500 square feet in 2015.  Over the same time period, the average family size has shrunk, so the square foot per person in the average American home has nearly doubled in the last 40 years – from 507SF in 1973 to 971SF in 2015.  

Despite the extra space, recent research by Clément Bellet found that satisfaction with one’s home does not increase proportionately with property size. The study found that respondents felt temporary satisfaction when their house size increased in relation to their neighbors’ but this quickly fades as it replaced with the urge for further expansion and consumption. 

This cycle of eventual disappointment is urging many Americans to rethink their relationship with space and seek satisfaction in their homes with the “less is more” mentality.

Building In, Up and Small

The popularized drive to own larger and larger homes may be facing its demise as lack of affordable housing, longer commutes, and environmental degradation encourage or force individuals and families to seek out more efficient and responsible housing options.  Altering the structural makeup of housing in communities requires re-evaluating zoning laws established since the 1950s which no longer reflect the housing needs of our modern populations. For instance, 75 percent of residential land in America is zoned for single-family homes and efforts to build smaller, innovative living spaces often meet challenges when it comes to getting building plans approved. In the past, single-family housing was created for the middle class, but especially in urban areas like Los Angeles or San Francisco, it is now basically reserved for the wealthiest buyers. 

Progressive cities are revolutionizing their zoning laws to offer more flexibility in terms of creating affordable and space efficient housing. For example, this week, Oregon passed a bill to eliminate single-family zoning in cities with populations of over 10,000.  If a city like San Jose were to remove the designation of ”single family units” for just 10% of the single-family homes in the city, it would have room for 15,000 new units.

Environmental systems designer Art Ludwig points to a new trend in micro-real estate is Accessory Dwelling Units which cater to the needs of renters who crave smaller, adaptable living spaces. He says, “ADU’s are commonly called ‘granny flats,’ because they are an affordable way for a middle-class family to house a grandparent, mother-in-law or a recent college graduate – while keeping some boundaries intact.” Some innovative companies are exploring this micro-real estate market by seeking to develop these ADUs in partnership with home-owners who might be land rich, but cash poor.  By working with homeowners with unfinished spaces on their lots – a basement or garage for example – and leasing the rights to the potential unit, these contractors are investing in the construction, renting and property management.  Their customers are those who need housing – and often they cater to people with section 8 vouchers or other rent relief – so they know the rent will be paid. The owners of the unit have a long-term lease on a portion of their property, and a property manager to handle the rental relationships.  If managed well, it’s a win-win-win for everyone.

Future generations will continue to push the demand for smaller properties as people look for spaces that are not only affordable but also closer to work and more versatile. Push back against the implementation of smaller, more affordable housing often comes from communities who fear their neighborhoods will be too crowded or resale values will plummet, but recent research from MIT’s Center for Real Estate found that high-density rental developments, in fact, do not depress property values. 

Material Changes

Changing the structure of housing means changing more than room size. Consequences of climate change mean our communities need structural and material transitions as well. Climate consequences such as fire, flooding, and severe weather means traditional building methods are no longer adequate for our homes and workspaces.  Art Ludwig, an environmental systems designer who’s been thinking about this issue for the last few years explains how this has affected California for example, “The threat of firestorms is just exploding. In reviewing data from CalFire, it’s just a logarithmic curve where it went from dozens of homes lost per year in the ’50s and ’60s to hundreds and then thousands, and then tens of thousands in 2018. So, 22,000 homes lost in one year. And I think that with climate changing, that we’ve arrived at a situation where for the first time since World War II, we’re facing fire being able to overwhelm modern firefighting resources, even in urban built-up areas.”

Ludwig is exploring monolithic adobe as a building material that works brilliantly for the California and Southwest climate. These structures, comprised of adobe cast around steel-mesh frames, are fire and earthquake resistant, affordable, and environmentally friendly. These buildings can also be constructed with extensive greywater systems for water conservation and reduce heating and cooling costs due to the insulative nature of adobe. Ludwig describes the beauty of adobe cottages, “These are structures that essentially heat and cool themselves in our climate. And then if you have the solar tubes, they also light themselves. So, you have affordability savings right there with low utilities. And then, it’s also very soundproof. And then, it also stabilizes the temperature.”  Depending on the local conditions, building materials might be different, but Ludwig is an advocate for building smart, taking a systems approach and moving away from cookie-cutter building practices that use “tinder and toxins” to construct our dwellings. 

Implementing innovative building materials, in conjunction with community-oriented city planning, has the potential to create new neighborhoods which achieve social well-being and environmental cohesion. This “systems approach” to building means creating areas which encompass residents’ needs, environmental technologies, and community atmosphere. In addition to amending building codes and materials, advocates for holistic, “whole-community” approaches to construction say neighborhoods built to facilitate interconnected communities with access to effective public transportation are critical to creating greener communities. These communities, such as Sidewalk Lab’s IDEA district in Toronto offer housing, services, public transportation in their development project. While the idea has received backlash from some concerned about gentrification at the hand of tech giants, the concept of comprehensive, environmentally friendly community structuring is the future of neighborhood design, especially in urban areas.

Schematic for Affordable Monolithic Adobe Community

Trading “bigger is better” for “less in more”

Affordable housing is marketed as the poster child for the construction of small living spaces, but many individuals and families are choosing smaller homes out of choice, rather than necessity. The shift towards minimalism mentality is encouraging people to find satisfaction with what they have, rather than the next thing they want to buy, including extra bedrooms. Smaller living spaces are not only more affordable, but also easier to clean, easier to resell, more environmentally friendly, and encourage family bonding and community spirit. 

The rising popularity of “tiny homes,” liveable converted vans, and other space-saving trends demonstrate a cultural shift in people’s desire to do more with less. These smaller spaces can be creatively tailored to meet people’s individual housing needs and many owners in states such as Colorado, which has one of the highest rates of tiny house construction, report feeling a sense of liberation in the face of minimalism. 

The future of housing is not only smaller, more affordable homes, but also more versatile, efficient, environmentally friendly, and community-oriented living spaces. The traditional white picket fence no longer reflects the housing needs of the majority of our population. This transition is needed to meet the needs of the growing population of Americans struggle to put a roof over their heads, but also to meet the desires of those who recognize the possibility of fulfillment in having a modest home that meets their needs as well as environmental and social needs. Integrating environmentally friendly building practices and materials with community restructuring are critical for building communities which are resistant to climate fluctuations and changing economic dynamics. Building greener communities means not only preventing and protecting our homes from the effects of climate change but also creating communities which are oriented around social well being as a whole and accessible to a diverse range of populations.