Housing: Do We Really Have a Choice?

One of the biggest myths of the homebuilding industry is that it offers choice to its buyers.  When it comes to the big builders like D.R. Horton, Pulte, Lennar, and the like, choice means picking carpet and countertop colors.  It means choosing between floor plans with names like The Cypress or The Carissa.  Do you want the dark grey roof or the dark brown one?  A white garage door or an off-white one?

Builders assume that would-be homeowners aspire to single-family homeownership, and that most every buyer wants the 50-foot-wide lot with the grassy skirt and the large garage fronting the cul-de-sac.  And developers understand that gated garden-style apartments are but a stepping stone on the way to those sprinkler-soaked lawns and greyed wood privacy fences lined side-by-side.  Thus, the only way to profitably build these sprawling homes and disorienting complexes is to find large tracts of green space far from any downtown or major activity center.

The truth is that very few builders offer any real choice.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of working with one of these guys, did they let you change the façade to match the look of that historic Craftsman bungalow you always dreamed about?  Did they let you tuck the garage to the rear of the home, so that you’d pull up to a front porch instead?  Would they have added solar panels to the roof if you wanted them to?  My guess is, probably not.

There is so much variety in housing throughout the world that it’s a real shame Americans have standardized it to sterility.  One of the beauties of walking through neighborhoods like Old Town Alexandria or San Antonio’s King William District is that every home is different.  Large two-story Colonials stand next to modernist cubes and small pre-war apartment buildings, each in strange harmony with one another.  In European cities it’s not uncommon to see single-family row homes adjacent to apartment buildings, hotels, shopping, or even museums.

Stateside, we do have a few examples of creativity—if not relics—in the realm of housing.  There are communities of clustered cottages, like Greenwood Avenue Cottages in Seattle or Terrace Gardens in Waco.  While most of these residents get to enjoy the privacy afforded by detached units, small as they may be, they share communal green space with vegetable gardens as well as areas for grilling and eating that allow them to live much larger than their 400 to 800 square feet would suggest.  In older neighborhoods you’d probably also find small apartments hidden above garages or in the backyards of larger homes.

Image(An aerial photo of Terrace Gardens in Waco, Texas.  Source: Google Maps)

Here in Austin, where regulations have been more favorable to less traditional housing development, it’s not uncommon to see new duplexes built back-to-back on formerly single-family lots.  Even new accessory dwelling units (those garage apartments or backyard cottages I mentioned) are permitted in some of our core neighborhoods.

Sadly, though, these fringe development types remain much more expensive to build than what’s currently coming off assembly lines in the far suburbs.  Not only that, much of this nontraditional housing is illegal to build or to borrow money for, causing us to settle for “communities” that feel about as generic as store-brand cola.  This reality has forced some to think outside the proverbial (and sometimes literal) box, bolstering niche submarkets like small lot subdivisions (as in Los Angeles) and microhousing—complete homes that could fit within the footprint of a single standard bedroom.

Thankfully, though, demographic shifts are beginning to force the big guys to look at adapting their standards.  Much in the way Target’s urban format stores have forced the hand of Walmart in downtowns, builders like D.R. Horton and Lennar are also shifting slightly, adding smaller townhomes and houses with in-law apartments to its core product lineup.

The good news is there’s so much more room for innovation.

What does housing choice look like to you?  In what ways to do you think our top homebuilders could better adapt to the varied housing needs of our current and future population, both in central cities and close-in suburbs?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments section or on Twitter at @crlazaro.

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7 responses to “Housing: Do We Really Have a Choice?”

  1. Steven Yarak (@slyarak) says :

    After a backlash by ANC types, the “back-to-back” duplexes are no longer legal. Now the demising wall has to be perpendicular to the street, but can be either vertical or horizontal. Lots of side-by-side projects (vertical demising wall) going up in Cherrywood. Haven’t seen any stacked (horizontal demising wall) units yet.

  2. Steven Yarak (@slyarak) says :

    Actually, that’s not true. The first units at GNDC’s “net-zero subdivision” are stacked duplexes. They’re probably under a PUD though…

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