Why are we building so little multifamily housing?
On ugly apartments, aesthetic appeal, and the need for more YIMBYs
In 1972, the United States had an estimated population of 208 million people. Today, we have 332 million. Yet despite the increase in population -- 124 million additional people -- there are about 45% fewer new multi-family housing units being started. While it's certainly not the only reason people are complaining about high housing prices, it's also impossible to look away from the basic relationship between supply and demand. Demand is forever on the rise (as the population grows) and supply not only has to keep pace with that growth but with the loss of old dwellings as old housing stock wears out.
■ Single-family homes remain the 800 lb. gorilla in the American imagination, but multifamily housing has several roles to play: It's not only the place where many people start as they stake out on their own in adulthood, it's also where lots of people choose to live in retirement. And for many people, it can be a sensible choice for lots of the time in-between. But we're very good at chasing multi-family housing out of the market, particularly through zoning laws.
■ Resistance to multi-family housing can be very strong and can create a major impediment to new construction. Sometimes that resistance is active (manifesting as objections to particular projects), but it's often systemically baked into zoning laws and land-use regulations.
■ Since so much of the resistance and opposition is based upon perceptions and assumptions, some of the questions that deserve to be asked are qualitative rather than quantitative.
■ Perhaps the most important question is: How different would the picture for multi-family housing be if it were seen as a net creator of value for nearby single-family housing, rather than perceived as a detractor? More specifically, but perhaps more to the point: How much of the categorical resistance to multifamily housing is a result of a broad-based lack of creative, attractive architecture?
■ Apartments, townhomes, condominiums, and even mixed-use buildings tend to be either stultifyingly bland or achingly predictable. The closest thing to real creativity tends to be the repurposing of old industrial buildings into lofts, and even that aesthetic has become a cliche (exposed brick, ghost signs, and ductwork -- we've seen it already).
■ Especially when it comes to delivering on the "missing middle" in the housing market, perhaps what is most needed (aside from the obvious regulatory and zoning reforms) is an attitude change -- one that sees multi-family housing as a value-adding feature in a neighborhood, rather than a value-depressant. People often need to see the proof of a concept before they can get on board with a YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) attitude.
■ The imagination on display in some places should inspire people to see that density doesn't have any excuse to be ugly, and in turn that attractively-designed dwellings (whether detached or multi-family) can not only fit within but ultimately enhance the neighborhoods where they are built. Aesthetic appeal isn't the only thing that matters, but it certainly has a role to play in reconciling attitudes with the real needs of the market.