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Bring back the townhouse: Can Millennials and Boomers change the region’s housing mix?

Town houses in lower Wallingford Credit: Kelley Knickerbocker

Part 2 in our series on changes in Seattle’s built environment explores the value of townhouses, or attached single-family housing, and why we need to build many more of them in the region. Read Part 1 here.

Over the last decade, even prior to the Recession, we saw a massive change in preferences about where and how to live. The shift has been driven largely by Millennials (born between 1981 and 1997), who prefer cities and are willing, if not eager, to live in rental apartments.

Demographer Arthur C. Nelson at the University of Utah has closely monitored the changing behavior and housing preferences of both Millennials and Baby Boomers. In his 2013 book, Reshaping Metropolitan America, Nelson noted a distinct bent within those groups towards walkable urban neighborhoods with homes located close to shops, services and entertainment. Looking at similar data through the lens of economics, Christopher Leinberger with the Brookings Institute has come to essentially the same conclusion: When it comes to housing, Millennials want something different. Something that better suits the times.

The Millennial cohort exists in a world of widely scattered and ever-changing job opportunities. In response, Millennials opt for more compact and mobile lifestyles than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Rather than entertaining at home, they socialize on streets, in cafes and coffee houses. They value the kinds of density, diversity and sociability more common in the inner, older parts of cities. They’d rather walk, bike or take public transit than drive. Finally, the student loan debt for many college graduates makes it almost impossible to scrape together a down payment on a home.

Is it any wonder then that we have seen a dramatic increase in the quantity of rental apartments? And not just in the central city neighborhoods of the Puget Sound region, but in virtually every major metropolitan area in the U.S. On the coasts and in the American heartland as well. Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City and Kansas City have all seen a resurgence of interest in denser urban places.

The Census Bureau has recently documented another trend. As reported in the Huffington Post, women in their twenties and thirties are putting off having children. Many are deciding not to have children at all. Indeed, today’s birthrates are at such an all-time low that they barely achieve what demographers call “replacement” level.

Whether Millennials choose to have children or not, as they age (into their late thirties) they will likely begin to look at housing options beyond small apartments. Given their preference for city living, the pressure on housing will become immense — with costs rising dramatically. Seattle is already seeing the leading edge of this trend with its median housing price rising almost 20 percent in a single year — to $535,000.

Unfortunately, the supply of detached homes is essentially fixed. In classic textbook economic terms, when supply is constrained and demand is great, the price goes up. In the past we would alleviate such a shortage by expanding outward, replacing farmlands and forestlands with housing developments. But that option has come to an end, thanks to both public policy and personal preferences.

Here’s the rub. For the most part, Seattle and other cities — through zoning laws — have thrown regulatory walls around single family neighborhoods, defending them at all costs. With the high pricetag of home ownership, the only other choice available to new or younger households is multi-story rental apartments. (Condominiums, for a variety of reasons, have not been financed and built for a number of years.) But the continuing high demand is putting apartments out of reach too.

We have essentially created a bifurcated housing market: People must either choose an expensive apartment or an even more expensive house.

But there’s one option missing from this picture. The Seattle Times recently identified the gap: attached housing. The article notes that although the construction of townhouses and row houses has increased considerably, it is far below the quantity seen in other cities. Indeed, a 2011 report on housing from the Seattle Planning Commission drew this conclusion: “Townhouse(s) and other building types can be an affordable alternative to single-family homes. However, this type of housing is limited in part because Seattle has a miniscule amount of available multifamily zoning for these types of housing development.” Read it again: miniscule.

Part of the problem is buried in this statement itself. Seattle still equates attached forms of single-family homes with multiple family housing. But townhouses and row houses have more in common with standalone homes than with stacked flats. They are, simply put, houses with shared outer walls. They tend to attract owner-occupants and, as other cities have found, they can be ideal for young households with children. Yet in Seattle, they have been maligned as somehow second class. This simply has to stop.

Most other cities have incorporated attached single-family homes into their mix of housing choices in far greater absolute numbers and percentages than Seattle. Ironically, Seattle used to have a zoning district specifically intended to encourage row houses. It was stripped from the books in the late 70’s after protests by a handful of neighborhood protectionists.

That was then; this is now.

Opening up more areas for townhouses and row houses will require a major rethinking of policies, codes, design standards and review procedures. Neighborhoods will likely squawk. But we will need to move ahead anyway, and we will need to think big — not just opening the door to allow a few thousand units, but tens of thousands.

We can even frame this as a moral issue not unlike the philosophy that underpins Federal Fair Housing legislation. Whether by intent or neglect, we are simply not providing a sufficiently diverse array of housing in the marketplace. Our laws are, in effect, denying access to less costly housing choices. We must take on the job of changing them, and soon.

Millennials aren’t the only ones who will benefit from such a change. Boomers, who are starting to hit their retirement or semi-retirement years, are eschewing isolated over-55 communities in favor of authentic, active urban neighborhoods. They don’t want to spend their retirement taking care of big homes and big lots. They’d rather grow old in walkable places that offer easy access to arts, entertainment and recreation.

Together, Boomers and Millennials are already infusing urban neighborhoods with new energy. The need to broaden our housing choices is clear. Its time to get on with it.

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