Opinion: On Housing Affordability

The 1950's model of housing affordability, epitomized by the Levittown development in New York, is badly outmoded. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The increasing homeless population in all urban centers shows that achieving housing equity will require an innovative approach to residential distribution along with a variety of housing types.
With a residential shortage, the mismatch between the existing housing stock and the demand of new dwelling types exacerbates the problem of affordability. The disconnect between regional availability of homes and zoning legislation also presents an impediment to long-term feasible solutions for our most vulnerable citizens.
Strong social changes have reshaped the types of families that live in cities. The Pew Research Center analysis of the 2010 and 2017 American Community Survey (IPUMS) show that, since 1850, the size of families has declined, reaching the lowest number in history in 2018 — 2.63 people per household. Data also shows that since the Great Depression the number of households where there is an “extra adult” in the household has reached 20%. Social research tells us that, not only families are smaller, needing smaller homes, but also that the available houses are too large to be affordable for working families.
Our current housing profile that emphasizes a monoculture of single-family homes does not serve a society where the family types and financial demands have changed significantly in the last 40 years. In Washington D.C., homes in low density areas are, on average, more than 70 years old, and the size and shape of the lots they occupy reflect that. As they are valued for their historic significance and the character they provide to the neighborhood, the layout could incorporate smaller units. The same condition of older homes in low density areas exists throughout the country.
Like never before in history, we have access to materials, technologies, and capacity to build housing units that are more sustainable than those produced in the past. A strong demand for urban services, reduced rates of car ownership, and an aversion to long distance commutes makes our current urban grid a desirable environment to increase housing numbers.
Due to historic restrictions of zoning regulations and existing infrastructure, cities have concrete limits to  growing outward or upward. In order to accommodate current housing needs, cities need to grow inward. By repurposing the urban grid, existing block and lot layout municipalities can welcome new citizens into innovative housing types.
Duplexes, triplexes, and additional dwelling unitsknown as granny flats — offer viable alternatives to increasing the housing stock without affecting the perception of density nor the character of the neighborhood. These smaller units allow for existing homes to gain value and accommodate underserved populations currently living in the periphery of the city.
An additional dwelling unit is a second housing unit, smaller than the main house, built within the same property on an existing predeveloped lot with a single-family home. They can be located in the basement, on top of a garage, in place of a garage, or attached to the existing house.
Cities that have allowed additional dwelling units to exist along single family homes, have attracted a wide range of residents in the income spectrum. For example, elderly residents use additional dwelling units to lease and supplement their fixed income. They also benefit from the physical closeness of a support network that can provide functional assistance, such as shoveling snow or caring for a yard.
By sharing their lot with renters, families can access neighborhoods otherwise unaffordable to them by including the rent provided by the second unit. By introducing gentle density in low density neighborhoods, homeowners and renters of different income levels can share public services, transit, and schooling within walking distance. Research shows that homeowners that include an additional dwelling unit in their property can maintain housing stability during a financial crisis.
In Maryland, with the introduction of the Modest Home Choices Act of 2020, Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) would allow middle housing to be constructed on lots currently zoned for single homes. The bill has the potential to amend the state code, allowing certain census tracts to permit construction of triplexes on residential-zoned lots that currently support only detached single-family homes.
Additional dwelling units are part of a long-term housing strategy that can benefit homeowners and renters and strengthen the tax base of municipalities. Due to their small size, the cost of building additional dwelling units is significantly less than the cost of building a house in its own lot. Because of their urban location, occupants of additional dwelling units tend to be less likely to own cars and are active participants in the benefits of a shared economy — which includes sharing lots.
Homelessness at the scale we are facing is a multi-layered problem that needs to be addressed from a social, economic, and design perspective. Architects, policymakers, and investors have the capacity to provide solutions by giving shape, funds, and regulations to a new housing typology that understands the diversity of our families and the complexities of the cities where we live.


The writer is an architect in Takoma Park.