Sunday, February 17, 2013

Was the Rise of Car Ownership Responsible for the Midcentury Homeownership Boom in the US?

It's common to hear from certain quarters that not only did the advent of mass motoring in the mid-20th century lead to a change in the types of homes Americans lived in, but that it brought about increased rates of homeownership as well.  This increase is typically presented as being one of the major benefits of mass automobile ownership.  Randal O'Toole, writing in 2006, makes the claim more boldly than most:
"Homeownership rates have increased by nearly 50 percent, from less than 48 percent in 1930 to nearly 69 percent today. This was almost entirely due to the increased mobility that automobiles offered to blue collar workers."
The point is often grudgingly conceded by sprawl opponents, or else goes unmentioned (The Geography of Nowhere, for instance, does not mention homeownership rates once in its 275 pages, nor does Suburban Nation). If the mobility provided by the automobile did lead to high rates of land consumption for residential uses, at least in doing so it brought down the cost of land accessible to job centers, allowing city workers to enjoy property ownership where once they had been in thrall to urban landlords, right?

The picture, looked at a bit more closely, isn't quite so clear.  The 1890 Census, the first census in which questions about ownership and renting were asked, showed a homeownership rate of 47.8% (homeownership had apparently been declining since at least 1870, however).  In spite of the arrival of the affordable automobile in 1908, the rate continued to decline through 1920. By 1930, following 20 years of explosive growth in household car ownership, it had only regained its 1890 heights of 47.8%.  The first great wave of car-buying, representing one-half of the total increase in household car ownership down to the present day, was accompanied by very little change in the homeownership rate (note that the electric streetcar boom, starting in the late 1880s, was similarly not accompanied by a rise in homeownership).

Based on Census data and car registration statistics.

Although car ownership dipped in the early Depression years, a resurgence after 1933 drove it to new highs by 1940.  In spite of unprecedented government intervention to spur the housing market in the 1930s, however, including the arrival of revolutionary forms of mortgage financing, homeownership declined to 43.6% in 1940.

The most curious piece of the puzzle, however, is the period from 1940-1945. During those years, the homeownership rate increased by around 10 percentage points, representing almost 50 percent of the entire increase from 1940 to 2012.  The timing of this increase is oddly overlooked in much of the economics literature on American homeownership trends (O'Toole himself tells the audience in a CATO presentation from last year, at the 15:22 mark, that the increase in homeownership occurred "after World War Two").

It goes without saying that these were years of exceptionally low car use: although the absolute number of cars did drop substantially, gas rationing reduced automobile mobility to levels not seen since the mid-1920s, if not earlier.  This seemingly inexplicable rapid rise has not received much direct attention in the literature, but one 2012 paper finds that one probable explanation was the wartime imposition of rent controls, which "stimulat[ed] the withdrawal of structures from the rental market for sale to owner-occupiers at uncontrolled prices."

The study also contains an implied suggestion that, counterintuitively, it may have been the very reduction in wartime use and availability of cars that helped spur the ownership increase. Although the study notes that "due to restrictions on the purchase of many goods, much of consumers' income had no outlet other than savings" -- savings which were put toward down payments on homes -- one of the primary savings must have come from reduced spending on new automobiles and associated goods and services.

Of course, homeownership did continue to rise after 1945, but at a slower rate.  Notably, the price of homes did not decline during this period, as might be predicted by the automobile-based theory, but instead after a brief postwar dip continued to climb through the mid-1950s, according to Case-Shiller data.  Prices did begin a very gradual decline in the late 1950s, but by then the rise in homeownership was slowing, and increases after 1960 (at which time the interstate system was less than a quarter complete) were very modest. In fact, as of early 2012, the US homeownership rate was estimated to be close to that of 1965.

Case-Shiller home price data, adapted from original NYT graphic.

Rather than being a benefit of cars, the postwar portion of the increase is generally attributed to a combination of 1) the increasing prevalence of FHA and VA mortgages, which by the early 1950s were approaching 50% of the mortgage market, 2) rising real incomes; and 3) demographic changes.

Although some studies have estimated that increasing car ownership was responsible for as much as 60% of the form of the suburban growth that occurred after 1945, this is not to be confused with homeownership. After all, countries with large shares of multifamily housing, such as Spain and Italy, may have very high homeownership rates (78% for both), while Germany and Denmark, where densities are lower and single-family detached housing is more common, have very low rates (42% and 51%).  These differences appear to be due to government policy toward housing rather than to transportation mode (Spain and Denmark, for instance, have a nearly identical modal split). 

Now, I do think O'Toole ought to agree with at least some of this: he admits in his talk that varying homeownership rates from country to country are due to government policy (at 4:16), and has lately criticized smart growth policies for inflating prices (a topic I plan to get to in an upcoming post). If one's concern is not actually homeownership per se, but rather living in detached single-family residences on large lots (a favorite theme of Joel Kotkin), or perhaps if one believes that ownership of a single-family detached home is the only true form of ownership, then the car does take on greater significance. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

More Townhouse Parking Approaches, From the Comments

I'm fortunate on this blog to have commenters who not only are willing to share their wealth of knowledge on the topics I post about, but who frequently include links to streetview images of their own choosing which, due to the limitations of Blogger's commenting system, can't be easily displayed there.  Many of these examples are so interesting and relevant that I often want to feature them in a post of their own. I've finally gotten around to doing that here, using some of the examples submitted in response to last Friday's post on townhouses and parking (I may add to this list as time allows).

Nicolas Derome, who has a series of posts at the Strong Towns Network exploring the urban form of Toronto and Montreal that I recommend checking out, contributed examples of contemporary attempts to integrate townhouses and parking from both of those cities:

Nicolas notes that in the above Toronto example, since the streets are private, widths of only 20 feet, rather than 25 or 30 feet, are permitted.  The technique of recessing garage doors while emphasizing pedestrian entrances is presumably intended to mitigate the visual effect of the garages: is it an improvement?

From Alai comes this example of parking subtly integrated into Craftsman-style San Francisco rowhouses.  I agree with Alai that this is a better result than the example I showed from the Sunset neighborhood, and in fact many San Francisco townhouses of the first half of the 20th century did make creative efforts to incorporate garages elegantly and unobtrusively:

Another example from Nicolas shows a parking approach taken in Montreal, where a narrow driveway is used to access below grade parking, which is then decked over to provide a spacious patio area.  This is very similar to one of the townhouse parking approaches described by Nathan Lewis (see Solution Three), and requires no more than the excavation of a basement-sized area:

Finally, another example from Nicolas featuring Alcorn Avenue, not far from Toronto's central business district.  The street appears to have a mix of rowhouses from throughout the 20th century, including several from the 1980s with front-loading parking.  The overall result is very successful though, due in part to the narrowness of the street, in part to the effective use of limited greenery, but more than anything to what Marc describes in the comments as "organic variation - [where] each house and door [is] designed by a different person." This variation, Marc notes, communicates a human presence even where garages are present and noticeable.

This sort of variation was also cited as a sign of urban health by Jane Jacobs, of course, whose own home was located within walking distance of Alcorn Street.  As she wrote, "a successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normal granary as far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year by year, are replaced by new ones or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is, therefore, constantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types." When redeveloped piecemeal, rather than at once, each new building adds to the texture of the street, and the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Thanks again, everyone, for all the interesting comments.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Can Townhouses and Front-loading Garages Work Together?

The Philadelphia Real Estate blog recently ran a post on local opposition to a very modest rowhouse infill project in the city's East Kensington neighborhood.  Driving the objections of nearby residents are three planned garages that open onto the street, which occupy approximately half of each of the three façades, and which are apparently prohibited under the city's new zoning code.

Do front-loading garages truly present an insoluble design problem for the rowhouse format?  A quote from Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk's The Second Coming of the American Small Town illustrates this common point of view in arguing for the reintroduction of rear service alleys:
"When housing achieves a certain density but parking remains a necessity, the car's house (the garage) overwhelms the human's house. No architect is skillful enough to make human life project itself on the façade of a house when 60 percent of it is given over to garage doors."
Taking the 60 percent figure as a rule of thumb, we'll then say that no more than 50 percent of a façade can be occupied by a garage door before the aesthetics become intolerable (this is debatable, and I'd wager it's not what Duany and Plater-Zyberk meant to imply, but it sounds like a more or less reasonable estimate).  Using this figure, we get:
  • For single-car garage rowhouses, a width of no less than 16'.
  • For two-car garage homes, a width of no less than 32'.
Now, 16 feet is an extremely common width for rowhouses in the older neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., but contemporary attempts to integrate standard 8' garages on these lots usually have not, in my opinion, succeeded in making "human life project itself" on rowhouse façades, nor do they provide much in the way of eyes on the street. I'm not convinced that it can't be done, but successful examples seem to be the exception rather than the rule

Contemporary rowhouses, South 19th St., Philadelphia.
What if we were to widen the lot a bit more?  These early 20th century rowhomes in the Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco, at 25 feet across, lessen the visual impact of the garage doors, although the street level experience is not much improved:

18th Ave., San Francisco.
Once we take a look at models beyond the United States, however, we see that far better street level results can be achieved using the same dimensions.  These Mexico City homes, at around 25 feet wide, present a friendlier face to the street.  The garage door itself, stylistically integrated with the window bars and iron balcony railing, is relatively inconspicuous. Success is dependent on there being a single-car garage only, although use of a two-car garage can be difficult to resist when the space is available. 

Colonia Condesa, Mexico City

Lengthening the frontages of rowhouses in order to admit more light and increase privacy was one of the many urban "patterns" set out by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language (available online here).  The primary anticipated objection to this change that it would decrease the density of new developments by reducing the number of rowhouses that could be accommodated on a single street he addressed by introducing a seven-foot pedestrian-only right-of-way between homes, which would, at intervals of every six to eight houses or so, intersect with wider automobile roads running perpendicular to the rowhouses. (Alexander advocated separate networks of auto and pedestrian streets in most cases, although not necessarily requiring each lot to have access to both, and proposed shared space streets on low-traffic routes).

Under Alexander's plan, rowhouses would not have garages, but instead any cars would be stored in small parking lots or garages along the automobile roads.  With 1000 sq. ft. rowhouses 30' wide on lots of 30' x 35', Alexander estimated a density of at least 30 units per acre, a figure which stands up to scrutiny.

This compares to the above examples as follows (using for reference a typical block, with fronting streets included):

Under the assumption that dense rowhouse streets will be low-traffic, we could instead adopt the Mexico City format, but with narrow, shared space streets with no sidewalks, and garages opening onto them directly.  On-street parking would be prohibited, although temporary access for drop-offs would remain possible.  Using lots of 25' x 35', it would again be possible to achieve around 30 units per acre. An additional benefit of the wider lots is that they seem to be more conducive to redevelopment as small apartments (visible in the Mexico City neighborhood).

Although examples of this precise format are very rare or perhaps nonexistent in the United States, California does have a number of places that come close, such as Manhattan Beach (note the unpleasant street-level effect of two-car garages, though).  Newer developments have begun incorporating shared space, narrow streets even closer to the model suggested here.  The bottom line, though, is that front-loading parking, even in high-density attached housing formats, need not be an aesthetic disaster, or without a watchful street presence.

Related reading:
  • Nathan Lewis' definitive take on the subject, "Townhouses with Parking," is available here.
  • To get your Philadelphia rowhouse fix, Townhouse Center covers an architectural review of 26 new rowhouse designs in that city, some which appear to integrate parking quite well within the context of 16-foot wide lots.
  • A photo collection of very narrow houses, including an image of Tokyo homes with front-loading garages on 10-foot lots.