A few weeks back, I announced my intention to write on how I suppose residential communities might be organized in the next 100 years. Two things prompted me to fuss around with this. First, an abstraction: What is the impact of tens of thousands of foreclosures and even more “short sale” workouts, with their accompanying credit reporting, going to have on the slice of the public for whom money will remain “an object?” While banks have to lend money to someone – at least hypothetically so – will credit be extended to dwellers with abysmal credit scores affected by losing their equity and their residences? Like in the good old days, where 5% down payment seemed an excessive consumer contribution?
Second, a concretion: Why can’t renters understand the value of my rental house? I can’t get anyone to offer what the current fair rental value of the house is. Don’t tell me I love the house more than I should – I’m already intent on demolishing it in a few years! But there are dozens of folks who approach the rental of my place (to whom I have not disclosed my “demo” plan) like transients; I sense in our discussions that most of them think they won’t be there for even one year. If they see no benefit in my crib, other than as a place to reside for a little while until their fortunes improve, then why should I have any confidence they won’t just abandon it sometime during the lease term, defying me to pursue them for the remaining rent owed? I’m paranoid about my wee cottage, maybe, but I get this vibe that the attitude toward residences as the “homestead” or “where I’m taking my stand” is eroding in large numbers.
Are single-family, detached subdivisions as lately executed sustainable, as a community concept? Are they desirable? Are they affordable, should economic conditions return to some semblance of normalcy? I wonder. I don’t think defaulting borrowers are going to be permitted to borrow, at low interest rates, big bags of money secured by personal residences for a bunch of years, and perhaps even beyond the turning point where the inventory of available housing shrinks substantially. Not unless “credit scoring” is wiped clean by some lender-industry-wide agreement or governmental edict, or there’s a whopping amount of the buyer’s equity-skin in the game. Well, maybe if there’s some new form of government-backed, guaranty program that ensures the Treasury’s printing presses are hopping.
My hunch is that the concept of “affordable housing” over the next few decades will not be as traditionally defined, in terms of the poverty level index. So what will Mother, Father and the kids be living in 15 years from now? I suspect the face of attached housing may remain about the same; apartments will continue to serve basic roof-top needs, although perhaps less well the mental and physical health needs, of a big segment of the urban populations. It’s the face of single family, detached housing that I think will be altered, perhaps radically so; and here’s how.
First, I think corporate ownership of private (opposed to state/federal) land will grow relative to the volume of individual (family) land ownership. In short, I think big lots with big houses will become the near-exclusive province of the well-to-do, meaning the top 5% of households in the American population. Affordability is one reason, but aggregation in the most highly-urbanized areas will be a second driver of this change. It isn’t popular, maybe it’s even apostasy, to say that suburbia is “toast,” but unless extensive, fixed rail, urban transit systems become the norm in American cities, suburbia likely to get browner as the urban core gets greener.
I’m not predicting the death of conurbation altogether; I just think it’s going to hug transit corridors, while development sprawl radiating outward from transit nodes will lose traction. In the desert southwest, potable water source shrinkage will hasten this inevitable outcome. Urban lands in this scenario become too precious, hence unaffordable, to the great majority of individual American households. When the individual ownership of fee title land is stripped out of new communities, enormous liberation results in the potential for alternate communities. It will change the anthropology of those neighborhoods, too.
One new paradigm is a movement of “purposeful” communities known generically as co-housing. A cohousing community is a type of intentional neighborhood composed of private homes with full kitchens, supplemented by extensive common facilities. A cohousing community is planned, owned and managed by its residents, by groups of people who want more interaction with their neighbors. Common facilities vary but often include a central kitchen and dining room where residents can take turns cooking for a larger segment of the community. Other facilities may include a laundry, pool, child care facilities, offices, internet access facilities, guest rooms, game room, TV room, workshop or gym. Through spatial design and shared social and management activities, cohousing facilitates multi-level interactions among neighbors, for the attendant social and practical benefits. There are also economic and environmental benefits to sharing resources, space and items. But the underlying land of the neighborhood isn’t something that requires parceling out among the dwelling occupants. A corporation, either controlled by the original developer or the association controlled by the dwellers, can own the land.
Second, mobility becomes a by-product of liberating dwellers from the burden of land ownership. The wave of foreclosures and short sales arose from the fact that property values and loan balances were “upside down,” right? But if land value were the main cost component peaking and troughing, and the improvements costs appreciated or depreciated comparatively modestly (assuming enduring construction materials), then two propositions arise. One is that the likelihood of devastating economic circumstances driven by a housing inventory glut and sinking prices diminishes significantly. Another is that future buyers may serially nest in myriad neighborhoods, using the identical dwelling. What kinds of communities enable that phenomenon?