Beyond Foreclosure

The Future of Suburban Housing

Suburban development, South San Jose, CA, 2006. [Photo by Sean O’Flaherty via Wikimedia Commons]

These are places we Americans know well: suburban and exurban neighborhoods, where gently curving streets are lined with single-family houses with driveways, multi-car garages, front lawns. We have been constructing these houses for decades, from coast to coast; and for decades the extensive car-dependent neighborhoods and cities they have produced have been roundly critiqued for their negative impact on natural landscapes and ecological systems, on cultural life and social relations, on energy use and personal health. For at least a generation urban design practitioners and theorists have focused on the redevelopment of suburbia; one of the most prominent recent studies is Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson’s Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, which features case studies for up-zoning corridors, converting strip malls, reusing big box stores, etc. 1 The big-picture ideas and national movements are by now well known — transit-oriented development, New Urbanism, Smart Growth, and so on. And yet the suburban reformers, focusing almost always on the scale of systems, have rarely paid sustained attention to suburbia’s essential component, its irreducible unit — the freestanding single-family house.

From the modest Cape Cods of Levittown to the center-hall colonials of New England, from the bungalows of the South and Midwest to the Spanish-inflected ranches of California, these houses at once embody and perpetuate longstanding national ideas and assumptions about home ownership, land use, family life and the relationship of the individual house to its neighbors and to the community as a whole. Viewed collectively, suburban housing constitutes the most ubiquitous construction type in the United States in the last half century. At the peak of the housing boom that ended in 2006, single-family houses made up more than three-quarters of housing construction permits and housing starts; and by then the average size had ballooned to more than 2,200 square feet, and the average price topped $250,000. 2 The sustained growth in sales of ever-larger suburban homes is truly remarkable, especially given changing family structures and population demographics and the marked mobility of American life. In fact, since the postwar years, average household size has notably decreased (from 3.8 people in 1940 to 2.59 in 2000), and the population remains strikingly peripatetic (in 2009 and 2010, 12.5 percent of Americans relocated). 3 The disconnection between the rising diversity of housing needs and the monotony of housing production speaks to the tenacity of the postwar American dream — the enduring allure of the detached house with front lawn and backyard patio — as well as to the profitability of catering to these aspirations.

Suburban development, Colorado Spring, CO, 2008. [Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons]

Outdated Dreams

That is, until recently. The accelerating decline of suburban neighborhoods from Florida to California suggests that the contradictions of the system are finally catching up with it. The Great Recession is challenging not only the economics of homebuilding but also the essence of the suburban dream. Residential construction has slowed dramatically, and yet there remains a massive oversupply of single-family houses, especially on large lots. 4 This raises a difficult question: What to do with that oversupply, with the millions of houses now in foreclosure, many deteriorating or abandoned? 5 It is possible — and no doubt to many real estate developers desirable — that once the economy revives we will simply return to home-building-as-usual. But right now we have an opportunity to rethink suburban housing: to make it responsive not to dated demographics and wishful economics but rather to the actual needs of a diversifying and dynamic population — not only to the so-called traditional households but also to the growing ranks of those who prefer to rent rather than buy, who either can’t afford or don’t want a 2,000-square-foot-plus detached house, who are retired and living on fixed incomes and maybe driving less, who want granny or nanny flats, who want to pay less for utilities and reduce their carbon footprint, and so on.

Rethinking suburban design is an enormous challenge because many suburban neighborhoods have been designed, developed and managed precisely to avoid change and limit uncertainty. Indeed, many subdivisions exude a palpable sense of stasis, even immutability, which owes not to residential construction technologies, which are relatively adaptable, but rather to the economic expectations and regulatory structures that inform their inhabitation. 6 By now these are familiar: we know that many houses function not simply as family residences but also as investment vehicles; they’re not just homes but commodities. Lightweight wood-frame designs are replicated across the country, regardless of location and climate, because they are cheap and efficient to build; often the houses are purchased to be quickly flipped, not dwelt in comfortably or solidly for years. It was indiscriminate production of this housing type that inflated the bubble and drove the economy to near collapse; yet the very policies that enabled the proliferation of these neighborhoods now render them unproductively inflexible. Large-scale social, cultural and economic changes — in family structure, household income and mobility, gas prices, home heating and cooling costs — have registered hardly at all in the built environment of suburbia.

Top: Salton City, CA, 2008. [Photo by Jeroen Elfferich] Real Estate Office, Oceanside, CA, 2010. [Photo by Joe Wolf]

All of which is to say that entire neighborhoods are frozen in a state of functional deficiency by restrictive municipal zoning and especially by what are known in real estate law as the “covenants, conditions, and restrictions” that govern new residential developments. Builder-developers establish CC&Rs to reassure prospective homebuyers that their investments will be safe. Once the neighborhood is occupied, the developer establishes a homeowner association, which then administers and enforces the CC&Rs; as millions of Americans know well, it’s not uncommon for HOAs to restrict the choice of exterior paint colors, prohibit boats or RVs from parking in driveways, ban outdoor clotheslines, limit structural modifications, forbid modes of occupation (like rentals or granny flats), etc. In recent decades the number of common-interest developments governed by HOAs has increased exponentially, from fewer than 500 in 1964 to more than 300,000 today, encompassing an estimated 24.8 million housing units and 62 million residents (20 percent of the population). CC&Rs provide the legal basis by which homeowner associations can levy fines and place liens on homes in violation. Thus property owners are guaranteed that the neighbors won’t, for example, double the size of their house or rent out spare bedrooms or build an outhouse on the front lawn. It’s a classic compact: you submit to restrictions on your own rights in exchange for stability and to protect your investment. 7

But the foreclosure crisis has made it painfully clear that such culturally accepted and legally sanctioned resistance to change might be as much a liability as a benefit. We’re at a pivotal moment, when thousands of neighborhoods will need to adapt in order to accommodate current realities and correct deficiencies in the housing market. Successful environments are in fact always adapting. Can we imagine a city in which a parking lot could never be used for anything but parking, or where individual properties could not be bundled for redevelopment? Agility of use and occupation are essential to ongoing vitality. Yet somehow we’ve come to expect our suburbs to remain frozen in time — dream time — and as a result we’ve consigned them to premature obsolescence. One of the sad and critical ironies of today’s housing market is that more and more Americans are threatened with homelessness even as the housing market struggles with excess inventory, in large part because regulations prevent the kind of modifications that would better meet contemporary needs.

Across the country ailing subdivisions are being abandoned and left to ruin. These are not atmospheric or appealing ruins — the heavy-timbered warehouses or spacious former factories that lend themselves to loft-style living or entrepreneurial start-ups — but instead cheaply built shells of wood-frame construction, quick to decay and often remote from urban centers or amenities. In a widely discussed article in the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic, provocatively titled “The Next Slum,” real estate analyst and Brookings Institution fellow Christopher Leinberger summarizes the conditions that make change so difficult:

Suburbia’s many small parcels of land, held by different owners with different motivations, make the purchase of whole neighborhoods almost unheard-of. Condemnation of single-family housing for “higher and better use” is politically difficult, and in most states it has become almost legally impossible in recent years. In any case, the infrastructure supporting large-lot suburban residential areas — roads, sewer and water lines — cannot support the dense development that urbanization would require, and is not easy to upgrade. Once large-lot, suburban residential landscapes are built, they are hard to unbuild.

Leinberger concludes that the current trend of middle and upper classes repopulating city centers, and the developer-driven focus on creating suburban “lifestyle centers” and mixed-use neighborhoods will produce “more of a balance between walkable and drivable communities”; but he acknowledges that this resurgent urbanism will inevitably “leave some places diminished.”

New Opportunities

I believe that as designers we cannot accept as inevitable the decline of suburban neighborhoods, even if these neighborhoods exist, as Leinberger puts it, “on the fringes, in towns far away from the central city, not served by rail transit, and lacking any real core.” To do so will be to overlook important opportunities, and maybe also obligations. These neighborhoods embody major investments of energy and material resources; the housing surplus constitutes a vast store of underused — or “underperforming,” as developers would say — shelter, of habitable spaces already served by basic infrastructure. For the design professions these converging conditions pose an exciting challenge. Can architects, landscape architects and urban designers collaborate with developers, builders, economists, engineers, ecologists, homeowners and homebuyers, all focusing on the collective goal of reimagining the suburban single-family residence and reversing the decline of so many suburbs? And in the process can we effectively address the deeper issues of housing affordability and suburban sprawl?

Suburban housing with instrument workshop in back. [Photos by Aron Chang]

We might start by studying longstanding patterns and practices of housing adaptation in Southern California — a part of the country with no shortage of upscale real estate but with a dearth of affordable options. 8 In Los Angeles it’s not unusual to find recent immigrants, young people, the elderly, poor families and sometimes even professional-class single people doubling up with relatives, or occupying illegal units such as converted garages, or sometimes even living in suburban houses converted into single-room-occupancy dwellings. City officials have estimated that in the late 1990s there were 50,000 to 100,000 people housed in illegally converted garages throughout Los Angeles County, with even more in other forms of substandard housing. 9 Informal units also serve as businesses, e.g., chiropractors’ offices, seamstresses’ workshops, musicians’ instrument shops and schools, etc.

In other words, informal or illegal housing is hardly a new phenomenon; in fact, for many years, it has compensated for crucial gaps in the formal housing economy. 10 In Los Angeles and other cities, illegal units are too numerous for authorities to crack down on effectively; and their elimination would displace thousands of families. 11 But they are also too numerous to ignore; no city can plan effectively without a realistic population census. In fact, informal housing is problematic for various reasons. Tenants pay no property taxes or utility fees and have no legal recourse in disputes with landlords; lack of a formal address complicates job and driver license applications; units not built to code may lack good ventilation and safe emergency egress; overcrowding can diminish shared amenities such as street parking; illegal tapping of sewerage and electricity can strain infrastructure; and so on.

Suburban housing with informal apartment. [Photos by Aron Chang]

To reduce or eliminate extralegal housing will require that we repeal federal subsidies that incentivize current patterns of suburban development, as well as overhaul the zoning and regulatory structures that dictate minimum lot sizes, density, setbacks and modes of occupancy. But surely the need to do so is compelling, for extralegal units do more than underscore the actual and unmet needs of the housing market and the limitations of current policy; they function as vital examples of how higher densities, alternate modes of tenancy and ownership, and a responsive and diverse mix of uses not only can help individual residents but also reinvigorate whole neighborhoods. Indeed, they offer promising new models to innovative developers.

Informal housing suggests new and expanded roles for building and urban designers in enabling the transformation of single-use residential monocultures into lively, dynamic, mixed-use and mixed-income districts. The challenge for designers will be to redirect their traditional practices to participate in the kind of small-scale and incremental change that usually occurs without the resources of municipalities or redevelopment agencies or third-party developers. For years now homeowners have been making decisions to convert garages or set up second units; the cumulative effects of these individual decisions and investments — installing a window in the side wall of a garage or adding a bathroom or stove in an underused space, thus enabling a recent graduate to live in the city or an entrepreneur to seed a business — have helped to transform many older urban neighborhoods in Southern California. And they suggest possibilities that seem more hopeful than Leinberger’s forecast of suburb-slums for the poor and lifestyle centers for the wealthy. 12

What designers and planners can do, then, is to reinforce these positive trends and create viable visions of neighborhoods that are equipped to adapt, to change and grow in density and use without diminishing quality of life, while bringing new income, amenities and services. We have to collaborate with policymakers, zoning boards, neighborhood associations, builders, engineers and lawyers; we have to study neighborhoods that have already been densified and diversified by informal housing and start-up businesses; and we have to use our understanding of spatial relationships and land use to modify negative perceptions of infill and mixed use. In doing so, architects might finally succeed in claiming a professional place at the forefront of suburban redevelopment, rather than merely critiquing and bemoaning the waste of so much ill-conceived growth.

Backyard Homes, Pacoima 10k Project, cityLab, UCLA. [Photo via cityLAB]

Design Research

Some promising initiatives are already underway. At the School of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, the design center cityLAB is working on the Backyard Homes project. Under the direction of cityLAB directors Dana Cuff and Roger Sherman, an interdisciplinary team — university designers, community organizations, Los Angeles planning officials, city council staff and the Community Redevelopment Agency, and for-profit and non-profit developers — is examining the potential for infilling workforce housing in the backyards of large residential sites in the Pacoima district of the San Fernando Valley; ultimately the center hopes to encourage experimentation throughout Southern California. Other center activities include researching the history of single-family housing and suburban infill; working with non-profit developers such as Habitat for Humanity to build two units instead of one unit on suburban lots; persuading private homeowners to erect prototype backyard homes; and, scheduled for 2013, constructing a prototype infill unit in the Hammer Museum courtyard.

Some municipalities are already focusing on the potential of infill. In 2003 the city of Santa Cruz, California, recognized there was a scarcity of affordable housing within its municipal boundaries, due largely to the limited availability of developable land and an increasing population. In response to state legislation requiring cities to permit accessory dwelling units as a matter of right, the city created an Accessory Dwelling Unit Program, enacting an ordinance regulating the development of mother-in-law or granny flats on single-family lots. The ADU Program seeks to “promote infill development to help preserve the surrounding natural greenbelt,” to “help minimize the impact of population growth on the community by providing more rental housing,” and to “foster the use of public transportation.” Funded by the California Pollution Control Financing Authority, the program is being implemented in a number of ways, including publication of an ADU Plan Sets Book featuring prototypes designed by local and regional architects; distribution of an ADU Manual and a Garage Conversion Manual with guidelines for obtaining permits; public workshops; wage subsidies for licensed contractors who employ apprentice workers to build ADUs; and loans to homeowners of up to $100,000 through a local bank. In the three years prior to the implementation of the program, Santa Cruz issued an average of six construction permits for ADUs each year. In the eight years since, the city has issued an average of 23 permits each year. Those numbers rose steadily before the recession, reaching a peak of 36 permits in 2007 before declining in the last three years due to wider economic distress. 13

Prototype accessory dwelling unit, SixEight Design, created for the Santa Cruz Accessory Dwelling Unit Program.

What is remarkable about the Santa Cruz ADU program is the degree of cooperation that its implementation required — cooperation between city planners and city council, between the community at large and city officials, and between individual stakeholders and the community. In speaking with key individuals, I learned that the program required a shared understanding of the issues of housing affordability and housing choice, and the acknowledgement that thousands of illegal garage conversions throughout Santa Cruz were the direct result of failed policies. 14 For example, a local architect and city council member, Mark Primack — who as a zoning board member in the 1980s and ’90s worked with frustrated homeowners who struggled to comply with restrictive codes — became a strong champion of the ADU Program. With his professional knowledge of building practices, Mark worked with the fire marshal to develop new requirements for sprinklers and firewall separations; with the water department to adjust the requirements for new attachments to utilities for ADUs; and with the planning department to rewrite the parking requirements — all to ensure that the new ADU policies would not be prohibitively costly. In a related effort, a local garden designer, Lynn Robinson, ran successfully for the city council as a “concerned community member” in order to represent neighborhood interests, especially regarding the potential effects of ADUs on privacy, daylight and parking congestion. It is important to note that both Primack and Robinson combined their professional experience — the understanding of building, space and design — with a sustained engagement in political and social processes in order to make the new ADU program a meaningful contribution to the urban future of Santa Cruz.

Both the cityLAB project and Santa Cruz program demonstrate the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and political advocacy. I’d like to further emphasize this with examples from my own research. In 2009 I studied the capacity of single-family residential lots in Temple City, southwest of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley, to accommodate infill rental units that would alleviate the pressures of the regional housing market. Temple City (population 35,558, according to the 2010 U.S. Census) has a large immigrant and non-white population; it’s a place where many garages have already been converted to extralegal units. In thinking about how new units could be inserted into built-out suburban lots, I looked carefully at the city’s zoning code and at the prototypical single-family lot.

According to one zoning regulation, a 40-degree plane drawn from the front property line cannot be intersected by any part of the structure in the front 30 feet of the lot. 15 City planners most likely intended this as another means, along with setbacks and height restrictions, of controlling the buildable envelope of single-family homes, bringing order and coherence to the street by dictating a consistent relationship between the house, front yard and street. Rather than challenging the necessity of such a rule, I propose that the 40-degree rule be the model for a new kind of regulation that would allow infill units to be constructed with minimal impact. For example, the city could develop sun-angle zoning, a performance-driven regulation that would require infill units to be designed so that a plane drawn from a given sun angle across the relevant top edge of the infill unit could not block more than 20 percent of a neighboring facade or yard. This regulation would address neighbors’ fears about new structures diminishing their quality of life, while providing a new buildable envelope within with architects could work. The resulting forms would be specific to the climate and existing geometry of the lots.

My study also proposes flag-lot parking zones that could alleviate homeowner concerns about parking shortages that might result from new infill or commerical development. The city could purchase rear portions of lots in residential areas and provide street access via long driveways (in plan the long driveway resembles a flag pole; hence the term “flag lot”); these lots would accommodate cars internally within the block, so that the overall appearance of the street would change little as the block capacity expanded. The parking lots could be regulated so that development rights of individual homeowners would be linked to parking spots they own or rent, potentially a means of deriving additional city revenues. Finally, I propose that architects work with engineers and manufacturers to identify building systems and materials especially suitable for infill housing. For example, an exterior envelope of structural insulated panels could be built more quickly than an envelope of standard two-by-four construction, minimizing the disruption to daily life for residents.

Proposed ADUs and sun-angle zoning, Temple City, CA, research by Aron Chang. [Images courtesy of Aron Chang]

While none of these strategies alone would ensure an efficient or friction-free transition from lower density single-family neighborhoods into more complex, higher-density and multi-use neighborhoods — and none would be easy to achieve politically — they begin to suggest how architects could use their knowledge of housing typologies and spatial relationships, and their ability to envision possible futures, to work with multiple public-and private-sector collaborators to plan and implement viable approaches to suburban redevelopment. Innovations in zoning policies, construction techniques, property assessment and taxation, parking distribution, maintenance and expansion of utilities, provision of social services, processes for formalizing existing informal housing — all these strategies will be required for us to truly rework the suburbs, one home and one neighborhood at a time.

Work such as this is hardly outside the realm of what architects are already doing (again, as we see with cityLAB and Santa Cruz). But to achieve large-scale results, we need to move beyond the ideas competition, the student thesis, the part-time and often pro bono work of architects and institutions. We need to develop broader interest and initiative among an entire generation of practitioners to take on the complexities of innovative suburban redevelopment. Just as urban redevelopment has been at the forefront of academic discourse and planning and design practice for the last several decades, suburban redevelopment must take on similar importance. It’s an urgent issue with arguably greater relevance for the future of the American landscape, both physical and social, and how that landscape is inhabited and traversed. The result might be a new kind of American suburb that grows over time and responds to the needs of a dynamic population as well as to the contingencies of time, place and economics.

In an article in The New York Times, architecture educator and critic Witold Rybczynski lamented the monotony of single-family subdivisions across the country. He noted the disproportionate media and public attention to the “glass-roofed museums, the granite-faced office towers, the glamorous hotels,” and pointed out that Americans spend more on the construction of single-family houses than on any other building type. Yet most homebuyers are asked to choose among houses and neighborhoods essentially identical in structure and function, differing only in stylistic flourishes or material finishes. Rybczynski was especially disappointed by the “scant evidence that the [building] industry [is] responding seriously to the chief concern of many young Americans: housing affordability. Instead of pioneering innovations in construction, design and planning that would reduce selling prices and enlarge the size of the first-time-buyer’s market, most builders prefer to cater to the prosperous second- and third-time buyer. The button that is labeled ‘Small and Cheap’ remains unpushed. Too bad.” He then concluded: “It might be time to reconsider the single-family house; either we content ourselves with smaller houses, or we will be obliged to look at alternatives like patio and row houses, and to resurrect such housing types as the California bungalow court and the Georgian housing terrace.” It might be time, wrote Rybcynzksi. It’s especially notable, then, that the article I’ve just quoted was published in 1991.

Two decades on, the issues remain just as relevant, except the houses have gotten bigger and more wasteful and the environmental imperatives more urgent. Writing for the same newspaper in 2009, design writer Allison Arieff focused upon the same theme of “suburban and exurban master-planned communities and how to make them better.” She cited big box reuse and the High Line in New York City as examples of the ingenuity designers and developers could apply toward transforming subdivisions into “self-sufficient mixed-use neighborhood[s],” imagining “three-car-garaged McMansions … subdivided into rental units with street-front cafés, shops and other local businesses.” It’s a spirited call to action, whether or not one agrees with the particular post-suburban spin. The problems of affordable housing, sustainable development and the fate of suburban single-family neighborhoods are more pressing than ever. Design alone will never bring about the changes that are necessary and desirable. Rather it is at the intersection of public policy and design, zoning innovation and design, construction innovation and design, neighborhood activism and design, and cultural perception and design, that possibilities for change exist.

Editors' Note

“Beyond Foreclosure” has been peer-reviewed.

  1. See Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (New York: Wiley, 2008), which has just been published in an updated edition, with a foreword by Richard Florida. An early set of studies for the book appeared in Places Journal, Summer 2005.
  2. This information was compiled by the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing for its 2009 report The State of the Nation’s Housing, using data from the U.S. Census.
  3. See Paul Glick, “Family Trends in the United States, 1890 to 1940,” American Sociological Review, vol. 7, no. 4, (August 1942), 505. See also “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2010, Table AVG1,” US Census Bureau; and “Geographical Mobility Detailed Tables: 2009 to 2010,” US Census Bureau Current Population Survey.
  4. According to the 2011 report of the Joint Center for Housing, single-family house prices continue to drop, despite the lowest levels of construction since the 1960s, and 20 million home loans are at least 90 days delinquent. Unemployment rates are a contributing factor, but the high rates of delinquency and the depressed demand suggest that there were too many large and now unaffordable homes built during the boom. More specifically, Arthur C. Nelson, then director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, predicted in 2006 that the supply of large-lot single-family houses will be sufficient for meeting demand through 2025, despite population growth, because of changes in demographics and homebuyer preferences.
  5. For a more qualitative assessment, see Alejandro Lazo, “Housing Bust Creates New Kind of Declining City,” The Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2011. Lazo opines that parts of suburban California may “experience fates similar to places such as Cleveland and Detroit, with neighborhoods experiencing high rates of vacancies for a very long time.”
  6. See Renee Chow, “Ossified Dwelling: Or Why Contemporary Suburban Housing Can’t Change,” Places, vol. 17, no. 2, Summer 2005, 54–57. Based on her study of house and lot sizes and of building systems, policies and financial systems, Chow argues that contemporary suburban dwellings have become increasingly difficult to modify; thus households accommodate changes in composition and need by moving from “starter home, to family home, to home-office, to retirement home,” rather than by adapting their homes.
  7. Note that not all common-interest developments consist of detached single-family homes (though most do). See Evan McKenzie, Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), for a provocative examination of the history and sociopolitical ramifications of the boom in homeowners associations.
  8. In Los Angeles County, for example, the population grew by 28 percent between 1980 and 1998, while the number of housing units in that period grew only by 13 percent, a gap that has made housing prices beyond the reach of many households. See Jennifer Wolch, Pascale Joassart-Marcelli, Manuel Pastor, Jr., and Peter Dreier, “Los Angeles: Region by Design,” in Sunbelt/Frostbelt: Public Policies and Market Forces in Metropolitan Development, ed. Janet Rothenberg Pack (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), 55–109.
  9. There have been few studies establishing the number of illegal housing units in Los Angeles or elsewhere. A2011 working paper from the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development assembles figures from a wide range of studies that speak to the ubiquity of illegal conversions and secondary units in major cities throughout the United States; but the most recent paper cited for Los Angeles County, pegging the number of people living in illegal garage conversions at 200,000, was published in 1987.
  10. In 1982, California passed State Bill 1534, which required local governments to allow the development of “companion units,” also known as accessory dwelling units, on single- and multi-family lots. SB 1534 was enacted to respond to a housing crisis characterized by “spot shortages, gluts, and underutilization of existing stock.” Legislators saw infill as a way to increase the supply of affordable housing; second units cost less to build, and they allow elderly and low-income citizens to maintain their homes with income from either renting out the ADU or living in the ADU and leasing the main residence. But the results were mixed; local municipalities and residential developers have often blocked construction of ADUs, claiming that higher densities and rental units would compromise property values. Not surprisingly, the result was a rising incidence of extralegal additions and rental units. In 2002 state legislators passed AB 1866, which recognized the failure of SB 1534, and enabled local governments to approve permits for second units without requiring discretionary reviews or public hearings so long as proposed plans met municipal codes. Furthermore, AB 1866 amended an existing Density Bonus Law to require that municipalities provide a 25 percent density bonus for housing developers who set aside 20 percent of the units in a project for lower-income households, or 10 percent for very low-income households, or 50 percent for senior citizens. Most important, local governments “may not apply development standards that make it impossible to develop housing at the density permitted by density bonus law.” Such standards include open space and parking requirements, setbacks, minimum lot sizes, maximum heights, and the like. Although AB 1866 eased the permitting process for some homeowners, and thus encouraged the construction of second units, the legislation has had little impact on subdivisions controlled by homeowner associations, which continue to limit additional uses, higher densities, and second units. Thus the future of second units depends as much upon real estate covenants and community association limits as upon state law.
  11. A City of Rosemead employee whom I interviewed said the city’s zoning compliance officials sought to close garage residences only in response to specific complaints by neighbors, and that the city did periodic aerial surveys to track non-compliant structures, but otherwise took little action.
  12. This kind of self-reliant construction belongs to a long American tradition of owner-built housing that thrived from the colonial farmsteads to the early 20th-century suburbs. A century ago many Americans were able to afford suburban living only through a considerable output of sweat equity; some aspiring homeowners even lived in tents while building their homes as resources became available. See Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 2003) 110-115. See also J.B. Jackson, “The Westward-Moving House,” republished recently on Places. The current inability of many suburbanites to alter their properties thus runs counter to a long history of owner improvement; it’s a relatively new phenomenon that reflects the rise of homeowner associations and the “covenants, conditions and restrictions” that dictate so much of subdivision development, and also the increasing tendency to see homes as commodities.
  13. For more information, see the presentation by housing manager Carol Berg on the Santa Cruz ADU program. The numbers for ADU construction permits are as follows, as provided via email to the author by Carol Berg on August 1, 2011: year 2000: 5; 2001: 6: 2002: 7; 2003 (program start): 13; 2004: 22; 2005: 25; 2006: 33; 2007: 36; 2008: 26; 2009: 15; 2010: 13; 2011: 3 to date. To address its own affordable housing shortage, in 2006 the City of Seattle adjusted zoning regulations to allow ADU structures in single-family neighborhoods and hosted a design competition to encourage the development of marketable plans. According to a 2010 article in USA Today, an ADU pilot program resulted in 28 units in the first year, and another 22 permits have been issued since the program was expanded citywide in December 2009. Cities such as Denver are beginning to allow and even encourage backyard residences as well, spurred in part by the effects of the recession and mortgage crisis.
  14. In order to learn more about the creation and implementation of the ADU program, I conducted phone interviews in July 2011 with Carol Berg, Santa Cruz planner and housing manager; Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty; Lynn Robinson, council member and garden designer; Mark Primack, former council member, zoning board member and architect; and Kevin Gallagher, a residential builder responsible for a number of ADUs throughout the city.
  15. Temple City Code: Article M. Part 1. Zone R-1, 9333: Standards of Development.
Aron Chang, “Beyond Foreclosure,” Places Journal, September 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 09.18.2011 at 22:49

    Excellent article; a wonderful review of the many strategies that need to be explored and implemented in relationship to managing the evolution of the single house type of American suburb.

    At the same time, most people that live in these places move to them because they seek a specific lifestyle that is embedded in history, memory, and settlement patterns that are not so easy to give up, and remain attractive to rich and poor no matter the economic constraints of the present moment.

    This and more is the basis of the tension, a political tension, that is mentioned in the article and ever present in community meetings that seek to implement all manner of ADUs, home offices, urban farming on small lots, etc. within existing single family house neighborhoods. Surely these are the right solutions in some places but they are mightily resisted in most and the basis of this resistance has to be reckoned with both politically and architecturally as cities and their suburbs are reformed.

    Perhaps it would be better most of the time to leave SFD neighborhoods alone; don't worry too much about operating on them. Obsessing about the typological transformation of the single family house and neighborhood as a generator of new urban form, while very interesting and important, may ultimately be less strategic from an urban policy point of view than inventing the tactics and policies needed to stimulate the creation of alternative high-quality affordable multifamily housing, lifestyles, dreams, and neighborhoods that adjoin and respect, but do not overtly challenge single-family lifestyles.

    Having the architecture profession challenge the "dream", while a neccessary exercise and very well and thoroughly documented in this post, may prove to be in many if not most cases too politically divisive for too many.

  • 10.03.2011 at 08:39

    Without a doubt, the suburban landscape in many areas needs to be reimagined, but I think it is less about the older homes on large lots than the newer developments which have poorly constructed homes, packed in too close and virtual clones of each other. They are also the greater challenge, but in 20-30 years these homes will be crumbling into decay and any proven solutions will be welcome. The older neighborhoods which have remained stable for 40 or 50 years will probably still be ticking along exactly the same.

    Southern California is the ideal breeding ground. 20 years in that state, and most of it I lived in homes coverted to multi-family house or converted garage apartments. I distinctly remember the shock I felt the first time I was at someone's 1940's urban home that was the original 1/3 acre lot that had never acquired a second unit. As you say, the population has long since decided to move in that direction. A few policy nudges may be all that is required.

  • 10.05.2011 at 09:20

    I found this article very interesting and couldn't agree more with the need to shift focus toward the "irreducible unit " of the suburbs, the single family home.

    I take issue however with the images representing sun angle zoning, specifically with the claim that "single-pitch roof facing south becomes the most efficient form for maximizing usable volume."

    This may be true in a hot sunny climate where solar panels could be mounted on the south facing roof and thereby power the air conditioning system. However, in a cold climate, the house would want to be rotated a 180 degrees so that more facade (and hence more windows) could be exposed for passive solar gains.

  • 10.05.2011 at 20:16

    parapet -- thank you for your comment on sun angle zoning. You're absolutely right: the orientation shown in that image may not make any sense in another region of the U.S. Just to clarify, the models shown in the image you're talking about has the taller face of the infill units facing south in order to take advantage of southern sun -- the overhangs you see on the units shade the south-facing windows. I worded the description poorly -- the unit maximizes southern exposure, but the roof is angled away from the sun and towards the north. The design was not meant to maximize possibilities for solar panels (perhaps something to critique), but was intended instead to minimize the shadows cast by the infill units upon neighboring yards -- hence the tapering of the volume from south to north.

    It's important to note that the design for these units is intended specifically for the specific lot dimensions and orientations found in a number of blocks in Temple City. No one infill design would be suitable for all regions, or even different parts of the same city. Rather, what the designs serve to describe is an approach towards zoning and building regulations that can result in geographically- and climate-appropriate forms that address the challenges of suburban infill in a variety of ways.

  • 10.10.2011 at 00:45

    Excellent article. I concur with John Kaliski's observation about the political tension at the public meetings seeking to change the status quo of established single family neighborhoods by introducing ADU and other similar concepts no matter how logical or meritorious they might seem on the face of it.
    I worked as a town planner for a large suburban town in upstate New York and about 20 years ago an ADU proposal that I worked on was quickly shot down by the town council after a very contentious and well attended informational meeting. Our proposal sought to create an ADU overlay zone in certain single family neighborhoods and allow such units only on lots that were at least 50 percent larger in area than the permitted minimum.

  • 10.13.2011 at 19:30

    Nicole mentions that 50 year old neighborhoods are working fine, while most since don't. Almost seems that the more we try to dictate outcomes, the less we get. Citizens who think they own their homes busy themselves to suit, while the planners try to Codify and answer questions no one asked. A great part of my practice as a small (micro?) remodeler is explaining to a potential client why she can't have what she wants, imagining how to satisfy her desires without getting either of us arrested....
    Chang and Kaliski both understand that zoning and code are the primary obstacles to the evolution we need. Mago is correct that the enemy is us -- fierce resistance to the slightest change is assured.
    Rather than soCal, perhaps Detroit is the better ground to wield the regulatory sword.
    Laws matter more than buildings or people -- good bumper sticker!

  • 10.14.2011 at 11:46

    Great article.
    You mention some of the new systems ideas, transit oriented development, new urbanism and smart growth but only hint at Aging in Place, though clearly recognize the issues and concerns. You are so right that better using our suburbs is a key to providing the dignity, respect and efficient use of resources we will need....and fast!

    MetLife Mature Marketing Institute published a paper I wrote, called Aging in Place 2.0 that will provide more background. It is available at

  • 11.28.2011 at 00:32

    Architecture and urban design are public arts. All the best places have been made by people combining market demands with ideas about the places they love that made them become architects and urban designers. I think the future is less about invention than good old fashioned place making.

    Yes, the "family unit" has changed, but apartments large and small, boarding houses and houses on lots compact enough to walk to are all old ideas - we just stopped building much of them in most places.

    I'm not advocating that everything has to look traditional. What the buildings look like is secondary to providing "units" where people want to be and shaping streets where people want to walk. Read the Steve Jobs biography for a good description of the modern house where he grew up with an appreciation for good design and good housing.

    But what I worry about is that students trained in the esoteric parametric designs of Zaha or the intellectual conceptual objects designed by Rem don't know how to design art and urbanism that appeals to the public. Fact: blobs and unprecedented objects don't make good streetscapes and don't appeal to most of the 99% outside the 3 coasts.