The detached, single-family home — far and away the most common style of housing in America — is rare in Washington, D.C. Only about one in 10 homes inside the District is designed this way, with a private front door to the city, maybe a yard in the back, some buffer space keeping the neighbors at bay. Windows all the way around!
Instead, we live differently here: with meager lawns (if we have any at all), common stoops, shared walls (or ceilings), and echoes of our neighbors' dubious TV choices.
The District is a city of row homes and modest apartments, which makes the feel of the place — and your housing options here — significantly different from what you'd find in New York or Chicago or Kansas City.
The above chart, based on new 2014 American Community Survey data on the characteristics of occupied housing, breaks down these differences. A quarter of all housing in DC is in rowhomes. One-third, as of 2014, was in large apartment buildings of 20 units or more, a share that will no doubt grow as new apartments emerge downtown and in Southeast.
Half of the occupied housing in Baltimore, in contrast, is in row homes (a whole lot of the unoccupied housing there is, too). Nearly half of the housing in New York is in large apartments. Detroit, a spread-out city now struggling mightily to shrink with grace, has vast stretches of single-family homes on par with newer car-centric cities in the South and West.
These figures tell us not just about the physical character of each city, but the potential they have for new housing as many places (Detroit not withstanding) look for space to fit a growing urban population. Higher density, in all of these cities, doesn't have to mean Manhattan-style mega-rises.
A parcel of land that has traditionally been zoned for a single-family home could fit several rowhouses. A hundred-year-old rowhouse — as Washington has witnessed — can become a three- or four-unit condo. A stretch of land that fits several houses can also accommodate a modest-scale apartment building fitting three times as many families.
As this chart shows, there are a lot of options between the traditional single-family home and the tower. And there are few cities in America — including those with conspicuously rising housing costs — that don't have room in the mix for more of them.
Seattle, for one, has been reassessing this summer all the land it has historically protected for single-family homes in an effort to create more affordable housing. Seattle has, in fact, a greater share of that kind of housing than Los Angeles. (This debate, though, is not going well, since political power in cities also tends to accrue to the left end of this housing spectrum.)
L.A., for its part, is often described as a poster child for sprawl (an accusation aimed at both the city itself and the broader metropolitan area). But L.A. is actually one of the denser places in America, thanks to its many modest-scale multi-family buildings.
Below we've charted the 40 largest cities in America, by population and ordered by their devotion to the detached single-family home (these are cities, not metro areas). Single-family homes make up a minority of housing options in only 15 of these 40 cities:
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