Small House, Bad Economy?


Digging through the backed-up pile of magazines and professional journals this weekend, I came across something that's a few months old, but as near as I can tell little noted elsewhere, from the June issue of Governing magazine. The article by Alan Ehrenhalt, called "The Bungalow Bind," is built on the research of a pair of urban planning professors at the University of Virginia, William Lucy and David Phillips. They've done research indicating strong links between economic stagnation and the years during which most houses in an area were built–the most interesting result being that

Some suburbs were getting richer, and some were getting poorer. But the ones losing ground the fastest had a common characteristic: middle age. They were composed largely of homes built after World War II but before 1980.

By the time they had finished their research, Lucy and Phillips had studied a total of 2,586 suburban communities in every region of the United States. All they needed to know was the decade in which most of the houses were built, and they could pretty much predict what had been happening to income.

After considering, and rejecting, a bunch of other possible explanations, detailed in the full article, Lucy and Phillips concluded:

The real issue was something remarkably simple and easy to measure: the size of the houses themselves.

In 1950, the average size of a new home built in America was a little more than 1,100 square feet. In some of the suburbs sprouting up on farmland just beyond the big cities, it was even smaller. The first houses in Levittown, on Long Island, all built in 1950, had an average size of less than 800 square feet.

Those numbers changed relatively slowly over the next couple of decades. Throughout the 1970s, the average size for new homes was still just 1,375 feet. But then it began to take off. In the 1990s, it passed the 2,000-square-foot milestone. By 2002, it was up to 2,114.

The American middle class simply wants more space. And the suburban landscape is burdened with a huge supply of undersized, middle-aged houses that don't match the lifestyle choices of families in the 21st century. As Lucy and Phillips say in their new book, Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs, "the more extensive these small-house areas, the more at risk these neighborhoods were to deterioration."

Urban planners, take note: people want room to live. Full article.