In the coming months, we’ll be running a series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries. Each week, our writers will focus on a trend that is meaningful to them, sharing anecdotes, opinions, and real-world illustrations of urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Affordable Housing.
There is a bit of a joke in Vancouver, where I come from, about how long any conversation can last without turning to the subject of real estate. If a group of friends can manage to enjoy a few drinks without someone complaining that they’ll never be able to afford to own a house or condo in the city, it’s almost grounds for a celebratory “cheers.”
Such real-estate-focused conversations are understandable, given that low wages paired with sky-high land values have made Vancouver one of the least affordable cities in the world. But grumbling about affordability (or the lack thereof) is hardly exclusive to my hometown. It seems to echo through every major developed Western city where middle-class professionals almost always feel thwarted by the market.
Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder how much of this grumbling should be pinned to our own notions of what affordability means, rather than to the actual numbers themselves. How much of our “affordability crisis” is caused by, well, ourselves?
Lest it be unclear, I am referring to a very specific demographic here, one that I inhabit myself: middle-class, often young, and often single professionals dealing with market housing in the developed world. This is not a discussion around the low-income or subsidized housing that most cities need desperately, but rather around the behavior and desires of a middle bracket. What impact do today’s social norms or expectations have on the way this group affects the housing market and the discussion around urban affordability and lifestyle?
Consider, for instance, the phenomenon of solo living. Today’s cities are home to more people living on their own than ever before. The United States is experiencing the highest rates of “singletonism” in history: in cities such as Seattle, Atlanta, Washington DC, and others, 40 percent of people now live by themselves. In major metropolises such as Manhattan, London, and Paris, that number sits around 50 percent, and in cities within the strongest welfare states, such as Stockholm, it reaches a whopping 60 percent.
But it was not always that way—living alone is a very recent goal of youth. Until the 1960s, children often stayed at home with their parents until they got married and went off to start a family. With fewer people marrying, however, and marriages taking place later and later in life, solo living is now seen as a milestone of independence for many. “In university, we prefer to have roommates for a little while, but pretty quickly [we] discover that there’s a distinction in having a place of your own. It certainly beats living with your parents, but it also beats having roommates because it gives you privacy and autonomy and a kind of source of pride, or accomplishment, or status,” Eric Klinenberg, sociologist and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, told me in a recent interview. “Now that people don’t marry until they’re into their late twenties or thirties or beyond . . . they’re able to assert control over their lives and feel like they’ve accomplished something.”
And while this is a choice that comes with a high price tag, we nonetheless aspire to it, sometimes at all costs. “It’s a luxury good. Living alone is expensive,” Klinenberg said. “There are always cheaper options available. You can always find a roommate on Craigslist, or live with family. So it’s not just that people want to do it—they’re actually paying more than they would in other housing arrangements.”
In turn, this phenomenon is having a real effect on the housing market. Until the 1960s, when American families began fleeing city cores for the suburbs, apartments designed for single inhabitants were scarce. Today, developers around the world are racing to develop condo models that make single living more and more obtainable. But with unshared appliances and square footage, there is only so much one can do. Single city dwellers simply take up more space and resources.
“There are certainly a lot of single people who are buying apartments that families might otherwise live in, and there are all kinds of pressures on the market from single people buying up and renting housing stock that families might otherwise live in,” Klinenberg said. “If you have cities where a third of all households are one-person households, or half of all households are one-person households, that’s going to affect the market.”
Living alone isn’t the only goal that affects our notions of an affordable city. Our concept of ownership, for instance, comes into play as well, especially in North American cities where home or condo ownership is seen as a nearly essential step in adulthood. High ownership levels put pressure on the rental market, and many of us simply aren’t fit to own yet many of us expect, or at least aspire to do so.
In a way, all of this harks back to the shifting notions of luxury and necessity that I explored during the Comfort Crash Course last year, and how they changed when the concept of comfort came into being. Things we once considered luxuries have now become either necessities or comforts, with the latter now acting as a category that occupies the space between the two extremes. Perhaps some of our current concepts around standard of living, and what we “should” be able to afford or have, simply have gone a little too far.
Not everyone agrees with the idea of individual standard of living shaping the market. I recently called up Alexander von Hoffman—a historian and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who focuses on the history of low-income housing policy and regulatory barriers to housing development in the United States—for a good-natured debate. He argued that solo-livers are the “victims, not the perpetrators” when it comes to affordability, pinning the problem to the regulatory and market forces that enable unaffordability to persist, rather than anyone’s lifestyle expectations. “In North American cities, and probably in parts of the rest of the world as well, there used to be a wider range of housing types available, and also housing tenure. To put it very simply, if we take a place like New York, where it’s extreme, there were apartments for rent at all different price levels,” Von Hoffman said. He pointed to the conversion of apartments to condos and the disappearance of rooming and boarding houses (which I wrote about earlier this month), among other housing types nearly non-existent today, often as a result of tightened regulations. “I think that’s the general rule—where there is less regulation, there is a wider range of housing types and costs. Today, there just are fewer choices for people who are looking for places to live.”
So, does the responsibility for affordability lie solely on the shoulders of those writing the regulations? Is it their responsibility to guide the market toward the needs of the population? If so, at what point do we decide which “needs” are indeed needs, and which are simply comforts or luxuries? How do we define this? Do we, the consumers, simply need to be more honest about our ever-shifting perceptions of success and lifestyle expectations, and how they are impacting the market and ourselves? Or maybe our complaints about affordability are just: our cities are simply too expensive and someone (else) needs to do something about it. After talking to Klineberg and Von Hoffman, I still don’t have firm answers myself, but I feel these remain important questions to explore. Share your own thoughts with us in the comment section below.
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Image: screen shot from “One-Sqm House,” a video by architect Van Bo Le Mentzel about his one-person house.