An underused approach to housing families: bigger apartments

In 2006, the U.S. was constructing around 80,000 of the family-sized dwellings. That number has been halved.

By Sean SaldanaJanuary 4, 2023 1:49 pm,

When the topic of housing comes up in Texas, several key points often come to mind. 

First, the lack of affordable housing. Right now, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there’s a deficit of more than 600,000 affordable housing units in Texas. 

Then, of course, there’s the issue of property taxes. 

Rocket Mortgage reports that the average property tax bill in Texas is just under $4,000 a year – the seventh highest figure in the nation.

But when it comes to the issue of meeting housing needs, it’s easy to leave things out – which is why Andrew Justus, a housing policy analyst with the Niskanen Center, joined the Texas Standard to talk about “family-sized apartments” and how they fit into the housing conversation. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You published a piece arguing that there aren’t enough “family-sized apartments.” Could you say more about what role they play in meeting housing needs?

Andrew Justus: Sure. First, let’s start with the definition “family-sized apartments.” I think we could agree that’s anything that’s three bedrooms, thereabouts or above. Something that you could have some working adults, could have older relatives living with them in a way that a lot of people do in a single family, detached house. But what we see pretty much across the country is a shortage of these types of units in cities of all sizes. And there’s a part of the market that isn’t being served for people that would like to live in a more urban area, whether that be a big city, medium sized city, or even in a small town.

Well, you note that in 2006, the U.S. was building something close to 80,000 family-sized apartments. And in 2020, that number is down now to under 40,000 – less than half. Is there an explanation for that steep decline? 

Generally, I would think, as it is across a lot of parts of the housing industry, financers and developers are getting more conservative and they want to build what sells or rents really fast, and that’s often one or two bedroom units. And because there’s such a shortage, really anything they put out into the market in most places gets rented or bought.

Now, that’s very interesting, but I want to talk about why we got to where we are now. I mean, why is it – if there is this demand for family-sized apartments – why aren’t more of them being built? 

So, we used to build a lot more, but generally it’s building codes that are restricting the ability of developers to easily and affordably develop larger units that they can mix in with other apartments.

Well, aren’t these building codes in place for safety reasons? 

That’s what they say, but they do more to just restrict the freedom of architects and developers to provide different types of units without really increasing safety. Modern apartment buildings, they’re safer from a fire safety perspective than a detached single family home in the United States.

Well, now, if you’re a local policymaker and you’ve been thinking a lot about what to do to increase the stock of affordable housing, what are some things you could do to open up housing options for families? Could you just lay out a couple of options?

Sure, I think allowing apartment buildings to be built with what we call “single stair access,” which is a stair and/or elevator core, roughly in the middle of the building that serves like the entire floor of a few apartments. Currently, we restrict buildings like that to about four or five stories, and in most of the U.S. and Europe they allow up to ten. And that really helps boost the supply of units that are more naturally affordable for larger floor plans that a family might need, while also preserving access to windows, light air ventilation in all the bedrooms. In a lot of modern U.S. apartments, either you have a bigger unit, which has to be at the end of the hallway so you can only have so many per building and therefore very expensive relative to the other units, or you have three or more bedroom units where, say, one of the bedrooms doesn’t have any windows.

Any examples of cities that are getting it right when it comes to family-size apartments as you see it?

I think there’s no one city that’s doing everything perfectly, but I think Seattle and New York are sort of headed in the right direction where they’re allowing single-story buildings to be a little bit taller than the national average, still not as large or as tall as in other places and frankly, in other places that have better fire safety outcomes than us, despite having more relaxed building codes.

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