The clas­sic nu­clear-fam­ily house­hold isn’t ac­tu­ally nor­mal

Scholar Jonathan Cop­page writes that the sin­gle­fam­ily home is a modern in­ven­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­post.com Jonathan Cop­page is a vis­it­ing se­nior fel­low at the R Street In­sti­tute, re­search­ing ur­ban­ism and civil so­ci­ety, and a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor to the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive.

Amom, a dad, 2.4 chil­dren, and an en­er­getic but well-be­haved dog com­pose what we long have rec­og­nized as the clas­sic Amer­i­can house­hold: a nu­clear fam­ily nes­tled in a sub­ur­ban bun­ga­low, liv­ing on a street with sim­i­lar houses that con­tain sim­i­lar house­holds. Grandma and Grandpa live on their own match­ing street some­where over the river. When the kids reach adult­hood, they will es­tab­lish their own independent nu­clear habi­ta­tions.

We tend to see any de­vi­a­tion from that pat­tern as an un­for­tu­nate aber­ra­tion, whether it’s the co­hab­i­ta­tion of el­derly grand­par­ents who can no longer live in­de­pen­dently or young-adult chil­dren ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a “fail­ure to launch,” stuck in the base­ment. A Wall Street Jour­nal head­line re­cently rued that the “Per­cent­age of Young Amer­i­cans Liv­ing With Par­ents Rises to 75-Year High.” The New York Times fret­ted, “It’s Of­fi­cial: The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave.” And the Fis­cal Times warned: “The Kids Aren’t Al­right.” When House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wanted to sum­mon a worst-case sce­nario that could fol­low a re­peal of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s Af­ford­able Care Act, she asked her fel­low Amer­i­cans: “You want Grandma liv­ing in the guest room?”

But is liv­ing in a house­hold with grand­par­ents, par­ents and kids re­ally so ter­ri­ble? Judg­ing by the num­bers, it can’t be all bad: More than 60 mil­lion Amer­i­cans cur­rently live in multi­gen­er­a­tional house­holds, the high­est pro­por­tion since the Korean War. De­mo­graphic pat­terns in­di­cate that share should con­tinue to rise in the years ahead. And his­tor­i­cal data sug­gests that the wholly independent nu­clear-fam­ily house­hold may be the aber­ra­tion — that pat­terns of close fa­mil­ial sup­port are the more nat­u­ral ar­range­ment.

Why are we so down on a prac­tice that has been so com­mon? Those sen­ti­ments flow from the pe­cu­liar his­tory of post­war Amer­ica, when nu­clear-fam­ily house­holds be­came the norm in spite of, well, ev­ery­thing.

Through­out the 20th cen­tury, sev­eral schol­ars claimed that nu­clear house­holds had been the his­tor­i­cal stan­dard, pre-dat­ing post­war Amer­ica. In­deed, ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of Min­nesota his­to­rian Steven Rug­gles, “by the mid-1970s, the the­ory of long-run [nu­clear] sta­bil­ity in Western fam­ily struc­ture had found its way into ev­ery one of the ba­sic so­ci­ol­ogy text­books.”

But th­ese days, that the­ory doesn’t seem to wash. Rug­gles has found that multi­gen­er­a­tional house­holds were a nearly uni­ver­sal ex­pe­ri­ence in mid-19th-cen­tury Amer­ica and that “the great ma­jor­ity of fam­i­lies went through a multi­gen­er­a­tional phase if the par­ents lived long enough.” It turns out that life­spans and large broods, not pref­er­ences, might ex­plain why nu­clear-fam­ily house­holds ap­peared wide­spread be­fore the post­war years: A par­ent of seven can, of course, re­side in the home of only one adult child at a time; some of the adult chil­dren’s house­holds would have been purely nu­clear, but not nec­es­sar­ily by choice. And the demise of multi­gen­er­a­tional house­holds ap­pears to have been less about shift­ing pref­er­ences than his­tor­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal changes.

Most of the col­lapse in multi­gen­er­a­tional ar­range­ments took place in the four decades af­ter World War II, when unique cir­cum­stances com­bined to trans­form the pat­terns of ev­ery­day Amer­i­can life. The tremen­dous de­mo­graphic pres­sure built up by a gen­er­a­tion raised dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion and then sent overseas to wage war was sud­denly re­leased, as ser­vice­men re­turned home to set­tle down and seek quiet sta­bil­ity. The GI Bill sent many vets to col­lege and provided hous­ing sub­si­dies that spurred con­struc­tion of vast quan­ti­ties of hous­ing, quickly. The con­struc­tion in­dus­try, which had been con­strained by wartime sup­ply ra­tioning, was now en­cour­aged by Fed­eral Hous­ing Ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­grams and oth­ers that of­fered un­prece­dented sub­si­dies and new, gov­ern­ment-guar­an­teed 30-year fixed mort­gages for sin­gle-fam­ily homes.

With a boom­ing economy, So­cial Se­cu­rity in place and Medi­care soon to come, Amer­i­cans had in­cen­tives to fol­low an un­usual pat­tern of gen­er­a­tional seg­re­ga­tion. The el­derly be­came more fi­nan­cially independent and less re­liant on their chil­dren as fil­ial re­tire­ment ac­counts, while the young-adult gen­er­a­tion took the plen­ti­ful jobs avail­able out­side any fam­ily busi­ness. The wealth trans­fers that once kept chil­dren close to their in­her­i­tance were re­versed, and fam­i­lies were quickly spread across fresh suburbs that of­fered cheap ac­cess to new wealth. As Rug­gles re­flects, “Ma­te­rial con­di­tions, fam­ily be­hav­ior, and at­ti­tudes were chang­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously, and it is likely that the changes were mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing.” Multi­gen­er­a­tional liv­ing reached its nadir in 1980, when only 15 per­cent of older Amer­i­cans lived with their chil­dren, and only 12 per­cent of house­holds over­all con­tained mul­ti­ple adult gen­er­a­tions.

In the post­war years, new lo­cal or­di­nances also re­in­forced nu­clear-fam­ily house­holds. Th­ese laws didn’t in­ten­tion­ally tar­get multi­gen­er­a­tional ar­range­ments, but the growth of rules built around one model of liv­ing crowded out oth­ers. Zon­ing codes ini­tially writ­ten to keep in­dus­trial fac­to­ries out of res­i­den­tial ar­eas in­creas­ingly dic­tated what res­i­dences could be built in a neigh­bor­hood, and grew the dis­tances be­tween houses and be­tween ac­tiv­i­ties. This made neigh­bor­hoods less walk­a­ble — and thus less friendly to the youngest and old­est — and moved fam­i­lies far­ther apart.

The town of Ur­bana, Ill., il­lus­trates how this un­folded, as the Univer­sity of Chicago’s Emily Talen re­counts in her book “City Rules.” Ur­bana’s first zon­ing or­di­nance, in 1936, al­lowed great flex­i­bil­ity. The 1950 code in­cluded six dis­tricts, two each for res­i­den­tial, busi­ness and in­dus­trial. In 1979, the town’s zon­ing code ex­panded to 16 dis­tricts and two over­lay codes, banned apart­ments in sin­gle-fam­ily ar­eas, and in­tro­duced min­i­mum lot sizes and floor-area ra­tios that crowded out small ad­di­tional liv­ing spa­ces. The mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of rules to keep renters out and en­shrine the priv­i­leges of sin­gle-fam­ily home­own­ers grad­u­ally blocked multi­gen­er­a­tional-friendly add-ons and neigh­bor­hood pat­terns.

Where once a non-driv­ing res­i­dent, whether a child or an el­der, could help around the house by walk­ing to the cor­ner store for a gal­lon of milk be­fore sup­per, the ex­pand­ing de­vel­op­ment as the 20th cen­tury went along sep­a­rated a home from a su­per­mar­ket with an in­ter­state high­way.

To­day, those same le­gal frame­works con­strain fam­i­lies seek­ing homes for their multi­gen­er­a­tional house­holds pri­mar­ily by for­bid­ding the con­struc­tion of houses with ded­i­cated spa­ces for live-in rel­a­tives.

For as much as some fam­i­lies want to live to­gether, they rec­og­nize the need for a cer­tain de­gree of sep­a­ra­tion and pri­vacy to stay, well, sane. Ameni­ties to help achieve that might take the form of a sep­a­rate en­trance or an ex­tra kitchen. But this ver­sa­til­ity is just what many lo­cal codes are writ­ten to pre­vent. That such “ac­ces­sory units” will prob­a­bly be oc­cu­pied by peo­ple at a dif­fer­ent stage of life or in­come level than the own­ers of the sur­round­ing houses is seen as a threat to neigh­bor­hood sta­bil­ity and home val­ues, rather than an op­por­tu­nity.

Neigh­bors and plan­ners com­plain about the po­ten­tial of such units to de­grade an area’s sin­gle-fam­ily char­ac­ter, to in­duce un­sightly crowd­ing or to over­whelm street park­ing, even though none of th­ese con­cerns have sound em­pir­i­cal foun­da­tions. “Granny flat” ex­pert Martin John Brown found that park­ing is­sues were the most fre­quently raised ob­jec­tion in pub­lic de­lib­er­a­tions, de­spite a to­tal ab­sence of ev­i­dence, and Port­land, Ore., builder and re­cent Har­vard Loeb fel­low Eli Spe­vak notes that his city, by far the leader in Amer­i­can ac­ces­sory-unit con­struc­tion, has not seen a pub­lic back­lash in re­sponse to such units be­ing built once city-wide ap­proval was granted. Nev­er­the­less, as the Wall Street Jour­nal has re­ported, the grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans seek­ing to build ac­ces­sory units onto their homes, even for fam­ily use, fre­quently are told by builders that they’ll never get the per­mits ap­proved.

Some com­pa­nies, such as in­dus­try gi­ant Len­nar, are be­gin­ning to spe­cial­ize in con­struct­ing homes to serve multi­gen­er­a­tional de­mand, but even th­ese ex­pe­ri­enced builders fre­quently are re­fused per­mis­sion un­less they twist their de­signs into a con­form­ing shape. The Jour­nal re­counts sto­ries of builders be­ing re­quired to dis­guise a two-unit prop­erty be­hind a sin­gle front door or to strip out ovens or other kitchen ap­pli­ances. Even cities that do al­low such units, such as Columbia, Mo., often charge their own­ers large util­ity-im­pact fees equiv­a­lent to those levied on a whole new house. And some home­own­ers have dis­cov­ered, neigh­bors often are at the front of the line to file com­plaints about per­ceived prob­lems with aes­thet­ics, park­ing or over­crowd­ing that an ac­ces­sory apart­ment could in­flict on their sin­gle-fam­ily street.

And that’s a shame. There are good rea­sons to live multi­gen­er­a­tionally, from the mun­dan­ity of shar­ing costs and chores to the sub­lim­ity of shared wit­ness to each mile­stone of a child’s growth. At a time when par­ents are work­ing longer hours and grand­par­ents are see­ing their re­tire­ment ex­tend, the old­est shar­ing economy of­fers ben­e­fits to both. But thanks to our post­war le­gal and cul­tural her­itage, many peo­ple still seem to fear Granny or Ju­nior stick­ing around. They shouldn’t: Liv­ing with your par­ents, it seems, isn’t an aber­ra­tion. It’s down­right nat­u­ral.

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