A roof overhead
On spacious suburban lawns, interior cabins on cruise ships, and the lessons we ought to think about applying to the costly housing market
One of the heavier social issues of the moment is housing affordability. The gravity of the problem varies a lot by market, but there are fairly dependable indications that the situation is broadly felt. One is the National Association of Realtors' housing affordability index, which tells a story of rapidly-rising costs that outstrip prospective owners' ability to pay. Another is the surging share of renters spending more than 30% of their income on rent.
■ There have always been -- and always will be -- people eager to make money by building and selling or renting places for others to live. So if the market is characterized by painfully high prices, then the most likely culprit is some kind of constraint on supply. After all, anyone who was willing to build housing at pre-surge pricing is likely to want to build even more as market prices rise.
■ Some of the big constraints on housing supply come from zoning regulations, imposing restrictions like minimum lot sizes in single-family neighborhoods. And there are lots of widely-found restrictions on any construction of medium density or greater.
■ Those restrictive practices basically guarantee difficulty in pacing housing supply along with demand, especially as urbanization (broadly speaking) remains a dominant trend. Individual cities may shrink, but on balance the United States continues to urbanize (just as it has been doing at least since the Baby Boom).
■ Certain attitudes about housing trail public needs. A number of architecture critics flipped out over an offer made by Charlie Munger to subsidize a huge new dormitory for the University of California Santa Barbara -- using high-density single rooms, many of them interior and without windows. An "abomination", some called it, even though it was a novel solution to a very real need to house more young people in a compact way at a growing university.
■ Yet one can find advertised options to voluntarily rent a windowless interior cabin on a cruise ship for $2,500 a week. Obviously, context matters: On a cruise, passengers are paying for destinations, food, and entertainment.
■ But it seems exceptionally unimaginative of us to see the plain evidence of the need for innovative housing solutions in America's cities on one hand, and the chronic insistence that we chain ourselves to often inflexible criteria on the other. Windowless rooms may be suboptimal, but homelessness certainly isn't better -- nor is being priced out of access to opportunity, which is what happens when there aren't enough dorm rooms on college campuses or affordable places to live near growing business districts.
■ If a windowless cabin on a cruise ship can be so creatively and thoughtfully designed that it is desirable at a market-clearing price of $2,500 a week, then that experience must offer at least some transferable lessons we could apply as a society to getting more people safely and affordably housed on land.