Let’s quit fetishiz­ing the sin­gle-fam­ily home

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY FARHAD MANJOO

When my fam­ily em­i­grated from our na­tive South Africa to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in the 1980s, my par­ents, my sis­ter and I fell hard for this state’s end­less sub­ur­ban sprawl. To the four of us, the acres of sub­di­vi­sions that had been mush­room­ing up across Cal­i­for­nia since World War II were the em­bod­i­ment of every­thing we’d been promised about Amer­ica. A big­ger-than-enough house, a two-car garage and a back­yard of bril­liant green lawn – this was the Cal­i­for­nia Dream we’d seen on TV.

By the time I got to mid­dle school, my im­mi­grant fam­ily was able to af­ford a house with a yard of our own – back then, Cal­i­for­nia re­ally was the land of milk and honey – and I spent my youth in the sun­drenched sub­urbs. It was a fine place to grow up; in the mass-pro­duced “lit­tle boxes made of ticky-tacky” that stretch across Cal­i­for­nia and much of Amer­ica, I found com­fort, safety and a cru­cial sense of be­long­ing in the Amer­i­can land­scape.

And yet, wist­ful though I may re­main for my sub­ur­ban-sprawl child­hood, these days I find my­self con­tin­u­ally amazed and be­fud­dled by my state’s in­sane fetishiza­tion of an anachro­nis­tic model of ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. Why – when the case for some bet­ter way of liv­ing has be­come so painfully ob­vi­ous – can’t Cal­i­for­nia quit prop­ping up its end­less rows of sin­gle-fam­ily houses? Why can’t so much of Amer­ica? And what level of ex­treme un­liv­abil­ity is it go­ing to take to fi­nally con­vince us that there isn’t enough space for all of us to live as if space is in­fi­nite?

Last week, Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers re­jected an ef­fort to over­ride re­stric­tive zon­ing reg­u­la­tions across the state for the third year in a row. I sus­pect that the re­luc­tance stems from a re­al­ity that many politi­cians would pre­fer to avoid ac­cept­ing: The reign of the sin­gle­fam­ily home is over. What­ever its hab­it­able charms and nos­tal­gic ap­peal, the sin­gle-fam­ily home is out of step with the fu­ture. In an era con­strained by sus­tain­abil­ity and af­ford­abil­ity, a big house with a back­yard should be a rar­ity.

In­creas­ing den­sity by re­plac­ing sin­gle-fam­ily homes with mul­ti­fam­ily ones would be a boon to our ef­forts to ad­dress cli­mate change, and it would help with af­ford­abil­ity. But if that is too prac­ti­cal a sell­ing point, let me offer a cou­ple more po­lit­i­cally salient ones.

First, there is noth­ing es­pe­cially ad­mirable about the de­vel­op­ment of sin­gle-fam­ily zon­ing in Amer­ica. Though the pol­icy is now de­fended as a way to main­tain the in­ef­fa­ble “lo­cal char­ac­ter” of neigh­bor­hoods, sin­gle-fam­ily zon­ing has a his­tory in seg­re­ga­tion. As his­to­rian Richard Roth­stein has doc­u­mented, sin­gle-fam­ily zon­ing was one of the many ways white home­own­ers and politi­cians kept African Amer­i­cans out of sub­urbs.

And sec­ond: We can move on from sin­gle­fam­ily hous­ing to some­thing bet­ter for ev­ery­one. A few years ago, shut out of the sky­rock­et­ing mar­ket for sin­gle-fam­ily homes in our North­ern Cal­i­for­nia sub­urb, my wife and I bought a town­house. At first we thought of it as a starter home. But you know what? Our at­tached town­house, on a piece of land a small frac­tion of the size of a sin­gle-fam­ily home, is less of a bur­den on the en­vi­ron­ment, and it is just the right size for the four of us. It’s also just as lov­ing and pleas­ant a place for my kids to grow up in as my own sub­ur­ban manse was for me.

I re­al­ized that I no longer fan­ta­sized about ever hav­ing a back­yard – my dream home is now a town­house.

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