Last week my younger daughter, after having spent nearly 11 years in Cleveland in college, postgraduate education, and residency, returned to Massachusetts with her Ohio-born husband in order to prepare to take a job in a community near the southern end of Route 495. The two had spent several weeks using real-estate websites to look at homes in the area and, working with a high-school classmate who was an agent, arrived here with a short list of houses to visit. Needless to say, some had already sold, but after two days of visiting homes, the couple found a 3-bedroom Cape that met their needs perfectly, so they put in a bid and after a tense day of negotiations, reached agreement with the seller on a price.
I visited the house with them and as I walked through it, couldn’t help but think how similar this was to many of what used to be thought of as “starter homes” in Newton, but which are now viewed here mainly as targets for demolition. In just the preceding four years (1/1/12 – 12/31/15), approximately 240 houses with a floor area under 2,000 s.f. were demolished in Newton. Nearly every one of them was replaced by a house 2 or 3 times larger and 2 or 3 times more expensive. (The accompanying photos show one example from my neighborhood in Newton Highlands, where the original 828 s.f. ranch was replaced by a 3,092 s.f. Colonial.)
While looking over the shoulders of my daughter and son-in-law as they pored over listings for Capes and ranches in two dozen communities, I also thought of how impossible it is to generalize about what Millennials want in the way of housing. Yes, some want to live in apartments convenient to their workplaces or to public transportation, but many of them, as they near their 30s, having lived in dorms and apartments for nearly a decade, are equally intent upon finding houses of their own. And given the reality of starting salaries and house prices, those houses in most cases have to be small.
A recent piece in the “Upshot” column of the New York Times online (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/04/upshot/houses-keep-getting-bigger-even-as-families-get-smaller.html) presents some fascinating statistics—and several graphs—that support what many of us have observed in Newton over the past several years. Even as family sizes continue to shrink, the total floor area and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms in new houses continue to grow. As the article notes: “New houses tend to be more expensive than used ones (“existing houses,” as the industry terms them). Wealthy people are driving that new-house market, and builders are giving them what they demand.“
What is happening is that developers, understandably catering to the high end of the real estate market, are reshaping Newton. The result: the steady pace of demolitions of low-end houses is gradually but inexorably reducing the diversity of Newton’s housing stock. Some people, including many city officials, seem to believe that the only solution is to encourage the construction of apartment buildings. I’d like to think that it’s possible for Newton to take another path.