My mental model of the world was pretty typical for an American child brought up in a single-family home. It’s easy to see why—US residential development is dominated by suburbs, and home ownership is touted as the ultimate symbol of prosperity. Other types of dwellings tend to be for young people starting out in life or low income households unable to afford a place of their own. The popular image of the American Dream includes a white picket fence and a car, not an apartment and a subway pass.
This is in stark contrast with most other countries. The French word for suburb is banlieue, and it has come to connote poverty and social isolation, because that is where immigrants and the poor tend to live. They’ve been known as “red suburbs” because of their tendency to vote Communist. Meanwhile, the wealthy live in the city center. In South Africa, the inner city is reserved for the privileged white class, while black citizens have a hour-long journey to work.* Kenneth Jackson wrote of Amsterdam that “affluence characterizes the old center … but the working class has increasingly been forced outward to the suburbs”. He continues:
“In Brazil the exclusion of slum dwellers from the urban cores is so deeply rooted in the culture that the Portuguese word to describe them is marginais, and the word used to describe their arrival is invasaõ.”
Homeownership rates are lower in most of the world too, even for developed countries of comparable prosperity. Two-thirds of American families own a home. Meanwhile, the rate in Sweden, a wealthy nation, is just one third, and that rate has remained stable in the period of unprecedented prosperity the country has seen since 1945. The US rate is also double that of Germany, Switzerland, France, Great Britain, and Norway.
As a kid, I assumed that Americans’ tendency to live in suburbs was the result of individual choices. I thought people simply preferred suburban living, and that was why it was predominant. As I got older, I figured it was the result of a frontier mindset, lots of available land relative to Europe, and our economic strength in the postwar period.
There is truth to these explanations—some do truly love that lifestyle, and America’s wealth did enable it to develop in ways that other societies could not. Geography, timing, and prosperity all played a role in the rise of suburbia, but we have forgotten an even more important factor that shaped patterns of American development since the Great Depression.
What we don’t see is that decades of explicit public policy powered the expansion of suburbia. Our communities would look very different today had it not done so. While every level of government favored sprawl in many different ways, four policies had an outsized effect:
- housing finance,
- special tax treatment,
- subsidization of an car-oriented lifestyle, and
- zoning laws
Today, we take these policies for granted as a normal part of American life. Even fiscal conservatives don’t think twice about paying for roads, and few people can name the original mandate of the Federal Housing Administration. Questioning the mortgage interest deduction is political suicide, and we take for granted the right for homeowners to regulate the land use of their neighbors. Car ownership is a rite of passage for teenagers, and a lawn and a picket fence have become synonymous with the American Dream.
But none of these conclusions were inevitable. Government intervention influenced our expectations about home ownership, tax treatment, car infrastructure, and even what our neighborhoods should look like. In the course of the next few posts, we’ll dive into each of these four topics to understand how American communities came to be what they are today.
- Paving Suburbia: How federal projects reshaped your community around the automobile (coming soon!)
- Zoning Suburbia: How single-use zoning is responsible for your 45-minute commute (coming soon!)
This article was originally published on Medium.
* We also see this pattern in some places in the US. City centers are gentrifying in places like San Francisco, DC, and New York City, pushing lower-income groups outside of the urban core.
Stephen Nestel saysSeptember 5, 2017 at 12:57 pm
How do you account for the overwhelming preference for ” a single family home with a little backyard” in survey after survey? As we mature in life our preferences change. When I was young, I wanted to be close to buzz of the city. Now I want nature in the suburbs. Shouldn’t good planning contemplate market preferences?
ThereOnceWasAManFromNantucket saysSeptember 6, 2017 at 2:41 pm
The statics given on homeownership in the developed world are wrong. This cuts at the heart of the argument. These statistics are easily verifiable: please research.
This Wikipedia article (sorry) has links to global stats (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_home_ownership_rate) and this article from the OECD has additional information (http://www.oecd.org/eco/growth/evolution%20of%20homeownership%20rates.pdf).
Other rich nations have achieved similar levels of homeownership using different means. The cause and effect is very complicated.
Adam Hengels saysSeptember 10, 2017 at 10:38 pm
Of course, who wouldn’t prefer a single family home? My preference would be to have a 5 acre lot next to Central Park. I’d prefer a new Corvette over the used car I currently own. I’d prefer lobster over the sandwich I had for lunch. But merely having a preference does not mean society is responsible for subsidizing that preference.
Market Urbanism calls for exactly what you ask for, market preference. If a single family home with a little back yard is important to you, go for it. But I wouldn’t ask others to subsidize your choice, or forcibly prevent you (or others) from subdividing your property…
Stephen Nestel saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 9:40 am
The preference of single family homes existed before all of the so called unfair subsidies. Your absurd example is not the dream of most families. If i can be presumptive, i’d guess that most urbanists are childless singles and couples who dont deal with the complexities of child rearing. Perspective changes with lifestyle. Urbanism is class warfare disguised as environmentalism.
Adam Hengels saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 2:21 pm
I agreed to the universal preference to single family homes, and you still ignore the argument. Yet, you believe society should subsidize your “dream.” Not agreeing to subsidize your dream is class warfare? Give me a break. Sounds like you are on the front lines trying to continue to fleece my family and children who have value location higher than separating myself from my neighbors.
Stephen Nestel saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 2:39 pm
What the heck are you talking about “subsidizing my dream”? As opposed to other countless gifts to developers, non profits and other groups? The problem with your analysis is that you don’t prefer markets but your prefer urbanism and using government incentives as opposed to legitimate market incentives and democracy that exists today. If you destroy the trust of zoning integrity and let the so called “free market” run rampant, you eliminate the incentive for communities to work cooperatively. Zoning is imperfect but it is the only way to keep non conforming uses from degrading the community. My community has existed for 60 years. Urbanists are fighting an ideological class war. All we want is to peacefully coexist. They want to destroy us.
Adam Hengels saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 10:16 pm
bizarre circular arguments… You claim I don’t prefer markets, but then assert I want markets to run rampant. Which is it? You claim, without evidence, that I want government incentives, despite publishing an entire website calling for an end to government incentives and intervention in land use markets, and your comment is posted on article that calls out many such subsidies. You claim I’m a class warrior, then claim that my preferences are inferior to yours (degrade your community) and should not be tolerated. You ask to peacefully coexist, but would use the force of the state to prevent me from building something you don’t like on my own property.
Yes, let’s coexist. You keep your single family home, I’m fine with that. But, I don’t want to continue to be forced to subsidize your lifestyle choice. And I’ll fight for your right to build something different on your property if you so choose.
Stephen Nestel saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 10:26 pm
Slow down Adam. You are remarkably inconsistent in your logic. I have pointed out some of them. I too have inconsistentcies which i freely admit. I have been following your blog because on the surface, it seems that we have room for agreement. I hold libertarianish views and believe markets often produce the best outcomes but not always in the case of “externalities”. You seem to want and urbanist fututre and use government incentives to produce your preferred outcomes. We agree that government has warped the free market but disagree how to correct.
Adam Hengels saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 11:00 pm
“You are remarkably inconsistent in your logic. I have pointed out some of them.” Huh? Where?
“You seem to want and urbanist fututre and use government incentives to produce your preferred outcomes”
I challenge you to find one such instance in all of my writing. If you are just going to make stuff up, I assume you are just trolling and aren’t going to argue in good faith…
Stephen Nestel saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 11:04 pm
Well, you are right of course. Mexico has a high rate of home ownership. Would you trade your citizenship?
Stephen Nestel saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 11:20 pm
Just yesterday you tweeted bemoaning the decline of minority taxicab medallion values because of uber. That is a clear case of the market at work yet you suggest race and market exploitation was the cause. I find that a disingenuine analysis for someone who believes in markets.
Adam Hengels saysSeptember 11, 2017 at 11:41 pm
What? Now you are definitely just making stuff up out of thin air. I regret indulging a troll…
Stephen Nestel saysSeptember 12, 2017 at 12:06 am
Just challenging your flawed logic with repectful dialog. You can retreat or articulate your ideas if sound. Sorry if you did not tweet about taxicabs. I thought it was you.
Stephen Nestel saysSeptember 12, 2017 at 12:21 am
assume you are the same as “market urbanism” on twitter. No?
Jaqen H'ghar saysSeptember 23, 2017 at 1:28 pm
On some level neighborhood character is part of what you are paying for though. A single family home on a 1 acre lot surrounded by similar homes is going to be worth more than the same house surrounded by skyscrapers, everything else being equal.
You can be strongly pro development while at the same time acknowledging that zoning is necessary to ensure that the development does not overwhelm the surrounding infrastructure and that the value of the supportable development is maximized.