The prevalence of single-family homes in growing cities in the United States has become a hot topic. A recent article in the New York Times, “Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot” gave a spatial dimension to this – showing maps of the single-family zoning in various cities.
Cities – especially New York City – have limited amounts of land. Building single family detached homes means creating a few large, expensive houses instead of many smaller, less expensive houses, even if these are what is in demand. This adds to our housing shortage and ends up reflected in increasing homelessness, overcrowding and rent burdening. And the problem continues to get worse. The percentage of households spending more than 30% of their income on housing has increased from 30% in 2000 to 46% in 2015 in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Looking at the New York Times maps, it could be worse – New York has just 15% of residential land zoned single family detached housing, compared to 36% in Washington, DC, 75% in Los Angeles and 81% in Seattle – all cities with their own housing crunches. But there’s no reason the pockets of the five boroughs that are still zoned for detached single family use – which includes many neighborhoods like Midwood and Forest Hills with good public transit access – shouldn’t be allowed to develop multifamily housing like surrounding areas.
And we also need to take a hard look at nearby suburban counties – places with quick rail commutes to midtown, as well as significant jobs centers of their own.
Zooming in on four close-by counties – Bergen, Fairfield, Nassau, and Westchester – 56% of all housing near rail stations in these counties is classified as detached single-family houses. In Nassau County, nearly three-quarters of its housing within walkable distance to a train station is detached single-family. And throughout the 31-county region, there are 1.2 million single-family detached homes that are well served by public transit.
One of the most efficient methods of providing more homes would be to simply allow two smaller homes where zoning requires one large one. Changing zoning in these areas to allow as-of-right Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADUs) or two-family conversions would help accomplish this. This is also a way of making sure new housing is more affordable, lessen the burden of housing costs on low- and moderate-income homeowners, and also allow seniors an easier way to have live-in caregivers.
New York is quickly falling behind, with Minneapolis recently voting to end single-family zoning, statewide legislation under serious consideration in Oregon and California, and cities like Fayetteville, Arkansas and Boise, Idaho, now allowing as-of-right Accessory Dwelling Units. New York City and our entire region is long overdue to follow suit.