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Retrofitting the Dream: Housing in the 21st Century, A New Report

By Joel KotkinJune 03 2013

Retrofitting-the-Dream-EVersion.pdf1.46 MB

This is the introduction to "Retrofitting the Dream: Housing in the 21st Century," a new report by Joel Kotkin. To read the entire report, download the .pdf attachment.

In recent years a powerful current of academic, business, and political opinion has suggested the demise of the classic American dream of home ownership. The basis for this conclusion rests upon a series of demographic, economic and environmental assumptions that, it is widely suggested, make the single-family house and homeownership increasingly irrelevant for most Americans.

These opinions — which we refer to as ‘retro-urbanist’ — gained public credence with the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007. The widespread media reports of foreclosed housing in suburban tracts, particularly in the exurban reaches of major metropolitan areas, led to widespread reports of the “death of suburbia” and the imminent rise of a new, urban-centric “generation rent.”

Yet despite this growing “consensus” about the future of housing and home ownership, our analysis of longer-term demographic trends and consumer preferences suggests that the “dream,” although often deferred, remains relevant. We see this in the strength of suburbs, as well as in the growth of the post-war “suburbanized cities” that generally have been the fastest growing regions of the country. These trends are notable in the three key demographic groups that will largely define the American future: aging boomers, immigrants, and the emerging millennial generation.

This does not mean that suburbia, or home construction patterns, will not change in the coming decades. Higher energy prices, for example, could necessitate shorter commutes, even with automobile fuel efficiency improvements. The emerging concentration of employment centers could help bring this about by improving job housing balance. There is a need to fully make use of the high speed digital communication that can promote both dispersed and home-based work.

For these and other reasons McKinsey & Company, among others, has noted that meeting environmental challenges does not require the kind of radical alteration of lifestyles and aspirations so widely promoted in the media, academia, and among some real estate interests. Equally important, there has been little consideration of the profound economic and social benefits of both home ownership and low to medium density living. These include, on the economic side, the huge impact on employment from home construction and the ancillary industries associated with household upkeep and improvement.

More important still may be the social benefits. Most serious studies have shown that lower-density, homeowner-oriented communities are more socially cohesive in terms of volunteerism, neighborly relations, and church attendance, than denser, renter-oriented communities. Suburban and lower density urban neighborhoods are particularly critical for the growth of families and the raising of children, an increasingly important factor in a ‘post-familial’ era of plunging birthrates.

To be sure, housing has been changing rapidly from the model developed in the 50s, and this process will continue over the next generation. Houses today are more energy efficient, and look to accommodate home-based work, as well as extended, multigenerational families. Similarly, the suburbs and low/mid density urban communities are already far more diverse, in terms of ethnicity and age profile, than the homogeneous communities often portrayed in media and academic accounts. This trend is also likely to accelerate.

Ultimately, we believe that the dream is not at all dead, but is simply evolving. America’s tradition of property ownership, privacy, and the primacy of the family has constituted a critical aspect of our society since before the nation’s founding. It will need to remain so in the decades ahead if the country is to prove true to the aspirations of its people and the sustainability of its demographics.

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Watch Joel in this feature on the role of central planning in Los Angeles. View large version.

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"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Praise for The Next Hundred Million

Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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