Both smart growth supporters and sprawl apologists focus on the needs of families with children: sprawl defenders argue that only suburbia can accommodate the desires of parents, while some smart growth types argue that cities should require lots of two- and three-bedroom units downtown because families need a lot of space.
But a current exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington suggests that this focus is a bit misguided. The exhibit points out that nearly 30 percent of U.S. households are singles living alone. Judging from all the planning-media blather about families, one might think that the housing market is focused on their needs, and that 30 percent or even more of the housing stock consisted of single-sized units.
But the exhibit points out that in fact, less than 1 percent of housing units are studios, and about 12 percent are one-bedrooms. So family-oriented units are in fact overrepresented in the housing stock.
Larger units may not dominate downtown, but they start to dominate pretty close to downtown. For example, when I looked at zillow.com I discovered that downtown Pittsburgh is dominated by one-bedroom units, but in zip code 15203 just south of downtown, 3/4 of housing units available for rent or sale have two or more bedrooms, including 80 out of 115 rental apartment listings. In zip code 15202 just northeast of downtown, 34 of 60 rental apartment listings, and 71 percent of all rental listings have two or more bedrooms.
Of course, Pittsburgh is a pretty family-oriented city. But even in Washington’s 20036 zip code (a wealthy downtown neighborhood) 1/3 of all listings are for two or more bedrooms. And if you go just two subway stops north to Cleveland Park (zip code 20008) 108 out of 174 listings have two or more bedrooms.
What about more suburbanized, car-dominated cities? In Houston’s downtown 77002 zip code, the majority of units are two or more bedrooms. And in Montrose, a nice intown area a few miles from downtown, 82 percent of listings (276 out of 336) fit this mold.
So except for the closest-in parts of the most transit-heavy cities, the overwhelming majority of listings are designed for one person living alone. Why is this? One possible reason is that zoning locks up most of every city for single-family housing. Another reason might be that most older housing was built when there were fewer single people, and it may take the market a long way to catch up with changing demand.