The Single-Family House: An American Icon Faces Uncertain Future

This article by Rick Hampson first appeared at USA Today.

House, sweet house

If Whitman was the poet of the single-family house, its polemicist is Joel Kotkin, a former East Coast newspaperman who now lives and teaches college in suburban Southern California. Three years ago, he founded a Houston-based think tank, the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, to extol the low-regulation, low-tax school of real estate development.

He says the future of American cities can be summed up in five letters: T-e-x-a-s. Last year Houston and Dallas were No. 1 and 2 nationally in single-family building permits, with about 35,000 each; the next closest metro was Atlanta, at 25,000.

Nationally, single-family home construction, eclipsed by multi-family starts after the housing market crash a decade ago, regained primacy two years ago. Single-family home builders’ confidence hasn’t been as consistently high since 2005. Home ownership has stabilized around 64%.

Kotkin says that although people love its space, privacy and convenience, the house is under attack as “an environmental hazard’’ by those who’d take us back, he says sarcastically, to ‘’the good old days when we were herded together in tenements.’’ He calls renters unable to afford a house “the new serf class.’’

Kotkin and his COU colleagues disdain many of the building and land-use rules that, according to the National Association of Home Builders, add $80,000 to the average house price. And he hates measures such as “urban containment boundaries,’’ like one that seeks to limit sprawl outside Portland, Ore.

He likes sprawl, which he says signifies a healthy housing market. Construction of houses on empty, relatively cheap land at the edge of a metro area — “greenfield’’ development of forests, prairie, desert and farmland — keeps down prices throughout the rest of the metro market.

Read the rest of the article at USA Today.