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Kissing the nuclear family goodbye

Not quite a lifetime ago (in the 1950s), men wore hats, ladies wore girdles and schoolkids were periodically commanded to crouch under their desks, in the hope that those submissive postures would shield them from a nuclear blast. Gas was cheap, cars were big, and zoning laws newly enacted to impose order on the headlong rush to turn farms into suburbs decreed that mom, dad, junior and sis should dwell in single-family homes forever and ever, amen.

For most people, that America is a paling memory or, to Generations X and Y, like, ancient history. The nation now sports sizable populations of once-exotic hues and cultures; the United States leads the industrialized world in the percentage of households with children headed by a single parent (36%); those once-supple youth under the desks are now having a hard time getting up the stairs. And the economic engine long the envy of the world sits idle (or rusting) in the front yard.

Yet despite all those seismic shifts in who we are and how we live, the dead hand of single-family zoning retains its grip on the living by telling us where we may live, what shape our households must be, and how we may allocate the most precious asset we have—our homes.

It would be funny if it weren’t so hurtful.

Under zoning codes less rigid and exclusionary, a single mother (80% of single-parent households are headed by women) with unused space in her home might create an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, which she might rent out to make ends meet or, perhaps, swap some portion of that rent to a student willing to help her with child care. Similarly, a boomer whose retirement savings were ravaged by the housing crash or the princely 0.1% presently being paid by a savings account, could develop a predictable income stream by renting a second unit. And many families faced with the ruinous costs of caring for an elderly parent could create an in-law unit to care for that parent at home—at roughly one-third the cost of a nursing home, according to a 2010 American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) study.

Moreover, considering that unpaid caregiving by family members is roughly $375 billion annually—almost four times the total spent by Medicaid (AARP, again)—federal and state governments should be doing everything in their power to encourage and support citizens shouldering that burden, including tax breaks and statewide revamps of zoning codes similar to California’s 2003 Assembly Bill 1866, which allows homeowners to create second units “by right.”  Model municipal and state legislation already exists: All we lack is the political will to make it happen. That seems to be changing, though not quickly enough.

Consider, if you will, what the effects on healthcare costs and the national deficit might be if families could no longer afford that unpaid caregiving?

Then there is the NIMBY crowd, the defenders of nuclear-family zoning who grouse about government intrusion or invoke the hordes of riffraff (renters) who would destroy property values if in-law units were allowed. OK, let’s start by eliminating that government program that allows you to deduct the interest you pay on your mortgage from your federal taxes. Still there? And those fears about property values can be easily dispelled by a common-sense provision often adopted by those cities that have liberalized their zoning codes: Require homeowners with second units to live on the property. Landlords living on the premises will choose tenants as carefully and maintain their property as assiduously as any other homeowner.

If I’m being tough on those who prefer single-family zoning, it’s because the stakes are high and the hour is late. Many families in dire straits have compelling personal reasons to create second units, and they may do so whether they’re allowed to or not. At the very least, local governments should get out of the way as long as those homeowners exercise their property rights in a way that’s respectful of their neighbors and promotes the common good.

Which brings us to a final point: By creating modestly sized in-law units, such private citizens are increasing the stock of affordable housing at a time when cash-strapped local governments are unable to. They may also be contributing to the smart growth of their community by modestly increasing urban infill and, in effect, reducing the per-capita costs of city infrastructures.

Encouraging in-law units won’t cure all ills, nor will zoning reforms. But both acknowledge our present realities and steer us toward a more hopeful future.

Michael_LitchfieldMichael Litchfield, a founding editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine, has been renovating houses or writing about them for almost 40 years.  His 10th book, In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House Into Two Homes, was published in March 2011 by Taunton Press.

Information graphics by Paste in Place.

RDC 2011: Leading the way to prosperity

As Massachusetts and the country at-large work to find their place in a post-recession world, we can’t forget what precipitated the Great Recession—housing and the uneven residential landscape. The recession’s origins are well known: predatory lending, veiled sub-prime debt bundles, inflated home values and lax regulatory oversight. But what about A/E/C professionals? What roles do we play? RDC 2011 addresses the responsibilities of our industry, emphasizing the problems and opportunities revealed during these often painful past few years.

For the first time, workshops are packaged into three tracks: Energy, Housing and Renovation. They were chosen for their role in leading us back to prosperity, representing vital needs that both public and private clients are fulfilling. After the economic shake-out, these still stand.

A/E/C professionals take great ownership in Energy—its sources, delivery and efficiency in the places we live, work and play. The path to net-zero energy has been blazed for architects and engineers (workshop A3), who know how to accommodate a field of solar panels as well as they know how to design a super tight exterior envelope (A4). We must become better advocates. Regulations increasingly aid this effort, if not flatly requiring that the steps be taken (A1; A6). Technology allows energy tracking in all stages of design, development and occupancy, and offers a clear and tangible communication line with clients and other decision-makers (A8).

Housing is a universally discussed subject in the A/E/C industry. Multifamily and affordable projects have rarely been the path toward critical acclaim, but they are desperately needed. How do we bring good design to projects with tight budgets and a lack of community support (B4)? Government is a critical player, acting as both the state’s largest landlord (B1) and design client (B2), as well as administering the zoning regulations that make projects possible (B3; B7). NIMBY opposition has always been a significant obstacle. RDC 2011shows that architects can create healthy communities meeting and exceeding budgetary and community expectations through good design (B5; B8).

Renovation and alterations to existing building stock is a classic New England challenge. The historic colonials, Victorians and brick warehouses which trademark our landscapes create a distinct sense of place, and A/E/C professionals are their stewards (C7). Designers ply their renovation trade through historic preservation (C3) and rehabilitation, modern retrofits (C1; C8) and residential additions. By blending 21st-century insulation techniques with old brick facades (C2), energy-efficient windows with hand-carved architectural moldings (C5), architects let history live. Design challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and the aging of our buildings is one to be embraced with pride and two hands.

As we in New England emerge from our recessionary slumber, we need to know and embrace the unique challenges we face. Massachusetts didn’t create the speculative, ghostly developments we see in states like Arizona, Florida and Idaho. In fact, Massachusetts has the opposite problem. Housing supply has been lagging demand for decades, if not centuries. Neighborhood and government bottlenecks, aging and dated towns and buildings, and keeping pace with ever-changing technologies are among our challenges. RDC serves up some of the best and brightest our industry has to offer, delivering content to lead the way to prosperity.

Residential Design and Construction is April 28–29 at the Seaport World Trade Center, Boston.

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