Smaller Homes—Vanishing, but Still Needed

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.

Your thoughts?

Rising septuagenarian; 40-year resident of Newton, though a Northern Californian by birth. Married, with two Millennial daughters who are products of the Newton school system (Countryside, Brown, NSHS).

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Julia MalakieLynne LeBlancBob Jampol Recent comment authors
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Bob Jampol

John,this battle has been raging for years. The realtors are determined to tear down all the capes and ranch houses and replace them with MacMansions. Despite a push from members of the community, the Board of Aldermen (now the City Council) rejected a modest proposal for a one-year moratorium on tear-downs. Here the realtors rule, and the greed in the air at those aldermanic meetings was palpable.
As a result, Newton is becoming not Brookline, as I first conceived it, but Beverly Hills, the home of the triumphantly prosperous. Even the handful of “affordable” units in 40b projects are hardly cheap. My daughter, who would have loved to live in her own community, instead settled in an modest house in Lynnfield.
Though the city-supported approach to housing seems all wrong, I am more than a little discouraged. Still, I will attend tonight’s meeting about the latest monstrosity in Newtonville. Oh, well.
Thanks for reminding us of those obvious truths that the powerful would rather we ignore.

Actually, John, it is possible to generalize about what millennials want. As this recent article in the LA Times explains:

“Whether the lack of supply is hampering demand, or the other way around, isn’t clear. But millennial-generation home buyers have not emerged in expected numbers, in part because they are staying single or getting married and having children later in life.

“That trend has been building for decades: The share of 18- to 34-year-olds who are married and with kids has fallen steadily to 20% from almost 50% in 1970. That means fewer people feel compelled to go out on their own or move out of apartments they share with friends and other roommates.

“For whatever reason, millennials are also staying in their childhood bedrooms longer. From 2000 to 2005, the share of young adults living with parents remained at about 27%. Then it started to rise, propelled by the economic downturn that began in 2007. But to the surprise of many analysts as well as parents, that share has continued to tick higher, climbing to 31.5% in 2015, a full six years after the end of the Great Recession.

“The same story holds for older members of the generation, those 25 to 34, according to an analysis by Jed Kolko, an economist formerly with Trulia, the online real estate business.”

It’s pretty simple to understand why birth rates are going down. According to urban theorist Terry Nichols Clark of the University of Chicago, childlessness drives the “new American metropolis” which favors the thinner family. Contributing factors are expensive living and low wages (remember the days when one income could support 4 people or more), smaller apartments, less green space, and less leisure time. Millennials just starting out professionally have no incentive to create a “home”, they are just trying to make rent. Maybe just skip the apartment and stay with the folks a little longer. Take on the responsibility of raising kids: pay for daycare, transportation, food, etc? Who can afford that? But eventually when they are more established, have more income, had their fill of nightlife, they will be ready to slow it down some and move out of the city and get their part of the American dream, right? Except all the starter homes will have been replaced with McMansions and Apartment buildings so maybe hold off on the family.

Lynne LeBlanc

I remember when we first moved to Newton how we were thrilled to be able to afford a home here. A new acquaintance remarked that our 1920’s colonial was a good “starter home.” I remember thinking that this was our forever home, not a starter home, and so it has been. We were and are happy to be in the ‘burbs, happy for a less congested neighborhood than our Boston one, happy for the schools and the greenery and the beauty.
There is a lot of evidence showing that many millennials prefer the suburbs – especially when they start having families (http://www.wsj.com/articles/millennials-prefer-single-family-homes-in-the-suburbs-1421896797 and http://www.city-journal.org/html/cities-and-census-10828.html). It looks like they will have to keep moving further and further out for that experience – either because there is no “sub” left in the closer suburbs, or because up-zoning has prohibitively escalated prices.

Julia Malakie

It really offends me to hear builders explain their oversized houses by saying “we’re building what people want.” As if no one would buy smaller houses. No, they’re building Cadillacs instead of Chevrolets because they make more money.

In fact many people, even families, don’t need or want to live large. If our zoning didn’t allow for such large replacement houses, existing houses would be scooped up by people planning to live in them.

I met woman Sunday at Nonantum Village Day who lives in a small ranch house and is very happy in it. She said to me “I don’t want to need an intercom to know which room my kids are in.”