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Considering the Varieties of Housing

Nov 22, 2020

Diana Lind's new book Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing, Lind explores the varieties of housing beyond the traditional single-family home. Lind describes typologies and communities that are seeking alternatives to the American norm, from multi-generational living, in-law suites, and co-living to microapartments, tiny houses, and new rural communities. Brave New Home offers a diagnosis of the current crisis in American housing and a radical re-imagining of the possibilities of housing – a vital issue for California, which is struggling to build millions of new units for a woefully under-housed population.

Based in Philadelphia, Lind was editor in chief, and later executive director, of Next City, a leading urbanist website and nonprofit. She currently leads the Arts + Business Council for Greater Philadelphia, where her work fosters an exchange between the creative and business communities. CP&DR's Josh Stephens spoke with Lind about how Brave New Home can help planners anticipate, and promote, innovative approaches to housing. A version of this interview is available on the CP&DR podcast.

Your title Brave New Home is of course derived from Aldous Huxley and before him Shakespeare. Are we living in a utopia, a dystopia or something in between?

It has been closer to a nightmare for a lot of people if you haven't been able to reap the financial upside of home ownership, if you aren't interested in the isolation of living in a home, separated from a larger community and having to drive many places, if you're disappointed in the high price of housing or the environmental effects of much of the housing that's built today. The single-family home is really to blame for a lot of these types of issues.

The book really looks at the history of how we got here. The United States wasn't always a country of single-family homes. It looks at some of the history and then goes forward to think about what might be closer a utopia — a country that has housing options that are more closely aligned with the types of demographics and the needs and wants of people today.

A lot of your book covers the history of housing in the United States. As you were doing research, what did you dig up that surprised you?

One of the things that really surprised me was how differently people lived prior to the 20th century in this country. I knew we didn't always live in these houses with picket fences and whatnot. We lived in cities like Philadelphia, which still has its colonial core and lot of row homes and so on. But I didn't realize that something like an estimated one-third of families in cities hosted boarders from time to time. That was just a regular thing, sort of akin to Airbnb today. People really did move into cities and live in boarding houses.

Before that there were inns and taverns. There were apartment hotels, and things like gender-segregated housing apartment buildings filled with young professional women who found community together. There were many more utopian experiments that I had ever even known about. Community access to different types of people was really the way that we lived prior to the 1920s.

There have been critiques of the suburbs for a long time. What moment are we in now in terms of thinking about solutions and responses to suburban sprawl?

There are a lot of opportunities to look at zoning reforms more broadly. Obviously that's been a big part of the discussion around housing in California. It hasn't quite hit the East Coast. Throughout the country there's so many opportunities to make suburbia better simply by allowing more housing options for the type of housing that people want these days, which I think is not the type of housing that is necessarily suited to that family of four.

Tons of families have moved in with each other, not separate families necessarily, but multiple generations of the same family have moved back in together during COVID. And I think what would make that a better long-term solution is housing that is more purpose-designed. We used to have that in the form of an array of different types of duplexes. And certainly in the types of larger properties where you would have more than one physical building. So I think that there's hope there. We need more housing options to accommodate a different future.

In the second half of the book, you feature housing options that we might call innovative or unusual. What are some of your favorite unusual approaches and what is your pitch to planners to encourage them to figure out how to actually get them in the code?

Multigenerational housing is a huge area that has been overlooked from the policy level. Twenty percent of families live multi-generationally these days, which is at the same level as it was in the 1950s. For a while, there was a huge dip in families living multi-generationally. Recently, there's been a huge increase in people living with members of their extended family. You could imagine how there might be a way urban planners can think about how we address the demographics that we have today and build communities that make sense for people today.

It's not just about making a house that has hallways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. It's more about how you can have a house that is flexible. Maybe some people want an accessory dwelling unit for a caretaker on their property. Or maybe they want to have two apartments, one where the grandparents live on the first floor and the family lives above them.

Another solution that I really was interested in is co-living. I think it's an interesting trend that I don't see slowing down as a result of COVID. With co-living, people have a private bedroom and also have shared spaces. So in the past, sharing space with people was the catch. In co-living, the whole point is having an intentional community with shared spaces where you can have yoga classes or wine tastings or whatever. The thing that's kind of cool here, and that I think would also be a pitch to say, urban planners or people thinking about how to build community, is this has also destigmatized shared housing in New York City. They did a shared housing prototype sort of RFP. And they're building a couple of examples of shared housing that can be used for low income residents. And it's much more efficient.

I give one example of United Dwelling, which is a company that will build essentially an accessory dwelling unit in your two-car garage and then split the proceeds with you of the rent that you're able to get from that accessory dwelling unit. They're able to do that at scale and at cost because there are so many single-family homes with two-car garages that have a very similar setup — for example, throughout California — that it makes their business model work. How can you use this sort of sprawl to your advantage? How can you use that large backyard to your advantage by building an accessory dwelling unit?

You refer to California quite a bit. From your vista in Philadelphia, what is your perception of California and its role in the national housing picture?

California is obviously at the forefront of these discussions. The debates around housing are so much more intense, it seems, in California than they are here, both because there's such a great need for affordable housing there and also because it’s where suburbia has the strongest hold and the single-family home has the strongest hold. I think that it's a really interesting place to be testing out ideas and doing this kind of work. I wrote in depth about LA Más and their work trying to build accessory dwelling units that would be not only affordable to build, but also available to Section 8 tenants, which is a huge part of the issue. People are very excited about reforming zoning to allow for accessory dwelling units. But if it's only going to be turned into Airbnb apartments, how's that going to actually end up creating affordable housing?

You've referred to COVID in the book, which must have involved some pretty intense edits. What influence do you think COVID is going to have on housing or is it too soon to tell?

The book was due right before COVID hit, and we were able to get a few edits before publication. When the first edits went in, I was talking about the death toll in New York City. It was very unclear at that point how this whole thing was going to play out. I think now looking at how COVID is playing out, there's been a period of time in which everyone has been obsessing over people leaving cities and moving to the suburbs. And I think that there's certainly some of that happening, but that would have happened anyway because millennials are moving to the suburbs to have children.

And that's just sort of a cyclical thing that happens. I do think people are going to be generally more savvy about the type of housing that they're living in. I envision much more of a focus on where you can walk to and bike to easily — this kind of “15-minute city” idea — where people are going to be drawn to places where there's a community of stores and services that they can access nearby. I think that will end up driving things more than necessarily people just blindly going into new suburban neighborhoods.

The other current question of course relates to the George Floyd killing and Black Lives Matter, which is much more prominent now than it probably was when you started writing the book. What would you have done differently if you had written this book post-George Floyd?

I've thought about that quite a bit. I think that I try to apply a certain amount of a racial lens, particularly to the history of single-family housing. But in terms of thinking through the solutions, I would have focused a lot more on what solutions would be working to address racial inequality and economic inequality than simply how to encourage people to live their best lives or feel most comfortable at home.

We've had a lot of books about housing in the past few years. Where does Brave New Home fit in?

I wanted to write a book that felt like something that you could share with someone who doesn’t understand YIMBYism, who doesn’t understand NIMBYism, who doesn’t understand a lot of the various different trends in housing right now. This would be a book that an average person with not a ton of background in this area could read and still enjoy.

There've been so many books that have been written to appeal to a very technical audience of housing policy advocates, government officials, and urban policy wonks. And then there are books that are pretty much coffee table books and not much in the middle. And it's something that I also talk a little bit about in the conclusion of the book, the role that media can play in shaping people's preferences for housing and their understanding of the consequences of their choices in housing. I'm hoping this will be a book that appeals to a general reader and helps them understand both how we came to be the country that we are today and how our society is actually built. And that also they'll understand some of the current battles of housing and zoning in their own neighborhoods.

Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing
Diana Lind
Bold Type Books 
272 Pages 
$16.99
October 13, 2020

Conducted in October, this interview has been edited and condensed.

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