Most families who rent see it as a stepping stone to homeownership. My parents certainly did. Until moving into our first home just before my tenth birthday, we couldn’t paint the walls, tear out the pink tiles in the bathroom, or run indoors without a broomstick tapping from the neighbors below. But unlike most kids my age, I was excited for the move. I wasn’t worried about changing schools or leaving friends behind—I quite welcomed the change. I looked forward to having my own bedroom, having a yard, and seeing the pride on my parents’ faces knowing the place was ours.
In fact, I was the weird kid who engrossed himself in the search for our first house. I was there, circling open house listings in the newspaper every Sunday, writing down directions to the homes we were visiting, and co-piloting the drive from house to house. I was the 9-year-old who understood what CAC and EIK stood for (central air conditioning and eat-in kitchen).
Yet, as I reflect on both halves of my childhood I am struck by how great a place our apartment actually was. Compared to our house, we had far better access to parks and green space, we were directly across the street from my elementary school, and a Metrobus stop was just outside the lobby of our building. The property was even a 10-minute walk from the grocery store, a pharmacy, a small movie theater, and a handful of restaurants. That five-story, 55-unit property built in 1958 was a mere bike ride away from Washington, DC (though I was too young to ever do that on my own).
(Above: The building, where I lived until age 9, is conveniently located next to a hike-and-bike trail, a creek, an elementary school, and large community park with playgrounds and ball fields)
Our house, located just a few miles east of our former apartment, provided that third bedroom we thought we needed, but it lacked the same connectivity to the surrounding neighborhood. Our street lacked sidewalks, and the nearest grocery store had bowed to a larger, more distant supermarket. We had two gas stations welcoming residents and visitors to our neighborhood. And to top it off, the first visit to my elementary school had my family wondering if it had been abandoned. It looked that bad.
Zoning regulations and financing structures don’t really allow for construction of apartments like the one I lived in. In fact, we really only see one of two types of multifamily properties being built today: at one end of the spectrum there are urban apartment buildings, built tall with retail at the street level and parking tucked within or below the building. Green space, if there is any, is found in a central courtyard or on a rooftop with amenities catering to young professionals. At the other end of the spectrum are suburban garden-style complexes—small groupings of apartments scattered in all directions, looking almost as though they’d been dropped from the sky. The “community centers” at these complexes are often little more than leasing offices built to far greater luxury than the units themselves. Throw in a pool, a couple treadmills, and some fancy hotel lobby furniture, and there you have a recipe sure to win new residents.
(Above: I lived in this garden-style apartment complex for two years, which is a typical multifamily housing type being built in suburbs across America)
Somewhere along the way we have decided that multifamily living isn’t really for families at all. We have come to accept that each child should have a private yard, a private bedroom, and a chauffeured ride by mom or dad to school each day. Playing in the public realm has all but disappeared, and the results are maddening.
The building where I lived is part of what is now known as “the missing middle,” a spectrum of housing types that we just don’t see being built in the U.S. anymore: small courtyard apartment buildings (à la Melrose Place), walk-up apartments, semi-detached houses, live/work units, and Bungalow Courts. This doesn’t even include auxiliary units, like mother-in-law suites, garage apartments, and backyard cottages (formally known as accessory dwelling units). Nor does it include other alternative housing types, such as micro units or single-room occupancy (SRO) housing, both forbidden in most areas.
The point is that we are quick to assume multifamily housing is a product for the childless—singles, couples, college students, and empty nesters. But, as more families with young ones want to enjoy the convenience of living in or near downtown, it is crucial that we build for them in a meaningful way—without succumbing to the sprawl-minded agenda that every family needs their own yard. Because I know firsthand that they don’t.