Family-size apartments in urban areas could help smart-growth communities

(Roger K. Lewis)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 28, 2010

If you are a middle-class family with school-age children interested in urban rather than suburban living, and if you prefer an apartment rather than a house, then your chances of finding a dwelling that meets your needs are practically zero.

Whether located in a city or suburb, few apartments built today are sufficiently commodious for traditional families. Even if big enough, apartments in desirable locations typically are unaffordable. Moreover, concern about the quality of public education -- and the cost of private schools -- further deters young families from considering urban-style living.

Does this mean that cities and city-like environments are destined to be largely child-free? Architects know how to design apartment environments suitable for families with children, but rarely are they asked to undertake such designs.

Housing demand and the products offered by builders continue to be determined by socioeconomic and geographic pressures, not by design aspirations. Real-world behavior and reliable statistics confirm that middle-class families with kids want single-family homes in suburbs and exurbs with presumably better public schools and with more house and land for the money. Unsubsidized apartments built today are almost exclusively designed for and marketed to people without school-age children.

This situation poses a bit of a dilemma for anti-sprawl advocates aspiring to concentrate a significant amount of future metropolitan growth in more urban, environmentally sustainable communities. Through either new development or redevelopment, smart-growth planners seek to create compact, walkable communities with mixed uses, higher densities, access to transit, plenty of jobs and ample housing, especially workforce housing.

Yet in plans for new transit-oriented communities, most of the housing envisioned consists of apartment buildings or attached dwellings in which families with school-age children are unlikely to live. In fact such plans are often predicated on a simple fiscal principle: By serving a population with few school-age children, the need for building additional schools is minimal, thereby ensuring that future growth will yield tax-revenue benefits for jurisdictions where transit-oriented communities are located.

Accordingly, housing developers in smart-growth communities will be building few units for families with children. Promoting mixed-use development will not yield an equivalent population mix.

Yet could it be otherwise in emerging, smart-growth activity centers, such as Tysons Corner and White Flint?

Because public education systems in Fairfax and Montgomery counties are strong, schools might be less of an issue for families interested in Tysons or White Flint. Therefore, imagine development of units reasonably comparable in size, amenity and cost to an average suburban home. With access to safe, convenient outdoor play areas, such units would be in demand.

But there is an economic hurdle. Given the value of urban -- or urbanizing -- land and the cost of construction, making family-size units affordable would require financial incentives. Counties would have to subsidize development by directly or indirectly reducing the per-unit cost of land, and by providing tax breaks for developers and occupants.

Of course, offering public sector support for private, middle-class housing development always invites a political and policy question: Why tinker with the housing market at public expense?

There are two answers. First, we already subsidize middle-class housing, primarily through tax deductions for mortgage interest.

Second, and most important, is that it's in the public interest to create new, sustainable communities with a full range of housing choices, among them choices for families with school-age children.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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