Single Family Housing – A Waste of Space

Mix of Single-Family Detached Houses on Chowen Ave. S.

Mix of Single-Family Detached Houses on Chowen Ave. S.

As southwest Minneapolis takes a strong stand against density by arguing for the preservation of the “character of their neighborhood”, let’s take a look at the inefficiencies of living in a single-family house.

Take me, for example. I live in south Minneapolis in a single-family house. It’s 1,800 square feet. The occupants of the house are me and my partner—an adult female and an adult male—and a cat. I’ve owned the house since 2003. In the years since I’ve owned the house, how much time have I actually spent in my house?

Think about it. In order to afford a house, you need a job—a job that you most likely have ttravel to. So from, say,  7:00 am to 6:00 pm, you’re either working on getting to and from work. The house sits empty except for the cat who sleeps all day. You get home, finally. You prepare a meal and afterward go into the living room and read a book and watch TV until bed, say 10:00 pm. So on any given day you might be spending four hours actually awake and moving around in your house.

And, of all the space in the house, you actually spend time in three rooms primarily: kitchen, living room, and bedroom. So 33 percent of the space is used consistently. Are we maximizing our use of space based on our mortgage payment? Probably not. Between the three of us, we could possibly get by with 600 square feet.

Data demonstrates that the single-family house is an outdated concept. When I look at my neighborhood, I see how the lives of my neighbors are changing. It fits with the trend that has been reported on before, Chart of the Day: Twin Cities Household Size and Age Forecasts that there are more people living alone or with only one other person.

I have a few neighbors whose children have already moved out or soon will be. I see them reducing the number of vehicles they own because they no longer need a larger vehicle to haul kids around. But what about their living arrangements? If you look at southwest Minneapolis, there are many adults who are living alone in houses that are probably too large for what they need.

Minneapolis is following a national trend that was reported in 2016, that single-family housing primarily built for a nuclear family no longer fits the future demographics of the city, The Decline of Families Could Mean a Change in Housing Demand. I hear the arguments of those who don’t want to leave their neighborhood or a house that they have lived in for many years. I get that. I hate transitions, but I also know that the space I take up in my single family house is preventing others from finding adequate housing. It also keeps the status quo, continues inequities in housing due to single-family zoning restrictions, and as a contributing factor in social isolation: Single-Family Housing Upholds the Patriarchy and Hurts Moms.

What’s the solution? I think it’s inevitable that southwest Minneapolis will change with the changing demographics and housing pressures, but I don’t think the answer is the large-scale, expensive multi-unit cookie cutter construction that has dominated the Uptown neighborhood.

If city leaders and developers have a vision they can create housing for more people without taking away from the community but adding to it. What if they add a different model into the mix, one that reduces the costs of new construction by creating housing with more shared space? Intentional communities aren’t entirely new, but they haven’t yet caught on in a big way. What if the city decided to consider this model as one of the solutions, in addition to traditional multiple-family housing?

For example, Iowa is building a new type of housing: New Iowa City Neighborhood is being built with Feeling of Commmunity in Mind. And a recent article in Time Magazine outlines the demand for communities that have less personal space and more community spaces: Why Americans of All Ages Are Embracing Communal Living. Can Minneapolis choose developers who can work with local communities to build the kind of housing the community wants and needs? I hope that this will be the case.

18 thoughts on “Single Family Housing – A Waste of Space

  1. Monte Castleman

    I’s true that single family detached houses were primarily built for nuclear families, but that doesn’t meant that only nuclear families benefit from them. You don’t need kids to enjoy a private yard, an outdoor space to personalize, and not having to put up with sharing a paper-thin common wall / floor / ceiling with neighbors. Maybe people are only home for a few hours, and maybe some people would prefer a condo or townhouse if it were available, but some people would be miserable if they had to spend those hours in a condo every day.

    Back in the day the idea of a home computer and home office was pure fantasy when a lot of our housing stock was built. New houses tend to have a nook someplace to put a computer and a desk, but in older houses often an extra bedroom is pressed into service. The house I share with my sister is 1100 square feet plus a 3 season porch, and every square inch of the finished area gets used.

    As I’ve stated before I’ve advocated for a return to building more modest housing, along the 1000-1500 square foot size where you would still have the benefits of detached housing but without the cost and space needs of a 3000 square foot McMansion. Zoning, urban growth policies, economics, and consumer demand make that impossible, unfortunately. There’s a lot more people that prefer detached housing and can get by in a house of that size- think people that choose to not have kids, on child families, empty nesters, etc- than houses available. When one of them in my neighborhood goes up for sale it typically sells in a week with multiple offers for above asking price. So the rest either have to settle for multi-family housing or stretch themselves and buy a McMansion.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      That is pretty small comapred to what is being built today, about the same size as my apartment with two people and a cat inside it. I think the point the author here is making is more about having choices, and wanting alternatives to the houses today that are double or triple the size of yours. So yeah, I agree with you here.

  2. Ben

    To Me this sounds like Kathleen does not like living in a single family home. Easy fix, sell and move in to an apartment. I really don’t see how one can say with a strait face that “I also know that the space I take up in my single family house is preventing others from finding adequate housing.” this just seems quite silly. If someone was looking to build dense housing they can. It may not be easy but it is possible. My 1400 sq foot home is not preventing someone down the street from buying up property bulldozing it and putting in an apartment building. They may need to fight the city for a variance or change in code but the homes existence is not the cause of that.

    The fact that it takes 80% of our waking hours working for someone else to afford to live in this state/country is a much larger problem then your single family home. IMHO.

      1. Nora

        I agree with Bill here. The specific argument made by this author might be going too far. However, I believe that one of the points being made here is the lack of choice in our housing market.

        My family would have much preferred an attached home when home-hunting in 2013, but we could not find one that was affordable, greater than around 1200sf, and within one of the center cities. Those were our only three criteria, but it simply doesn’t exist.

        The few that exist are either too small, have extremely high HOAs (we’re talking $600/month for Loring Park condos – I kid you not), or are waaay out of our price range, which at the time was $250k or less. Mind you, we have 2 children, and still want attached housing.

        Please someone build more of what we want! We’re not the only ones that want more options. It was VERY frustrating to learn that literally our ONLY choice was a single family home.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          We were definitely in the market for a townhouse before we bought too. Coming from our Loring Park condo, I wasn’t that keen on shoveling and yard work (turned out to be less bad than I remembered). But there wasn’t much out there in the city that appealed to us.

          There was a beautiful newish one on Lowry Hill that was asking $550K (nope), an East Isles one that look perfect in the pictures, which turned out to have been shot with a fishbowl lense making it much smaller than it appeared, and a few other underwhelming options and that was about it.

    1. Rosa

      are you sure your neighborhood zoning and/or your neighbors aren’t preventing someone from building an apartment building down the street? And that the cost of housing isn’t related to the preponderance of single family homes?

  3. Janne

    I’m happy to report that intentional communities are allowed in the Minneapolis 2040 plan as proposed. We need lots of different, flexible housing options, and that’s an important one!

  4. Harrison

    This is an unfocused argument. Is the issue that single family homes are an inefficient use of land, or that the author has to many square feet of living space?

    If the argument is truly that single family homes are a waste, the measure of metric is lot size. so 2 people plus a cat occupy a city lot. If you lopped 50% of the house off, you’d take up the same land. So what’s more important, the FSF or the lot size?

    “A waste of space – for some families”. The fact the author her partner and cat should move into a condo does not mean everyone should nor does it mean that the concept of SF homes are out of date. I understand the intent of the article is to argue for more options in housing but presuming “Data demonstrates that the single-family house is an outdated concept” is a bridge way way to far.

    1. Evan RobertsEvan

      We make it really easy (legally) to build single family homes. Even slight variants on that like the bungalow court where you share the yard and the garden path are hard to do. (

      Yes, single family homes are fine for many people. But many people end up buying one because that’s the only option in their price range in the area they want to be in. They make it work.

      And lot size is important — if you want a smaller yard and smaller setbacks that’s hard to do legally, even if your neighbors were all fine with it.

  5. Bruce BrunnerBruce Brunner

    Current Zoning Code restrictions do not allow less expensive homes from being built

    I own a nice 3 bedroom SFH in the Kingfield neighborhood. It is on a double lot. Both of my next door neighbors are on 25 foot lots and my parcel is 2-25 foot lots with the house being on only one of them. Minneapolis code prevents me from building a small house on the open lot due to zoning code restrictions that force you to have a bigger/wider lot. As a further issue, my street is zoned R1 even though we have duplexes on it. This would be a perfect opportunity to build a less expensive smaller house or affordable duplex where someone could live and have a stream of income but our zoning code doesn’t allow me to try to build an affordable priced house.

    The deck is stacked against trying to build affordably.

  6. Leslie MacKenzieLeslie Mackenzie

    I’m all for promoting density, but don’t bash SFH. When I was a single mom with 3 kids, we lived in an apartment for a year. My kids got a lesson in domestic violence and how quickly the fire department could get to our place. I couldn’t wait to get us into a SFH again.

    A single family home offers OPPORTUNITY. I couldn’t afford a house on my own so my brother moved in, no lease violation cuz I owned it. I worked at home. I grew a big garden to feed my family. After my kids grew up I rented out two bedrooms at a very reasonable rate, thereby adding two units of much-needed, actually affordable housing. Sure, we had to share kitchen, laundry and bathrooms. Sharing is a skill we should all work on developing.

    The city should allow – even help – more people to share homes. We should have a home-sharing assistance service to help people find a good match. There is such a service for seniors in some other states. But maybe we could also match college students and seniors?

    The city should also stop micromanaging co-housing with unnecessary rules. Grown-ups can figure these things out for themselves. if they need help, provide help.

    A single family home offers FLEXIBILITY families can’t get in apartments or controlled housing spaces. Someone loses a job and moves in; someone gets divorced and moves in with kids. A family home can accommodate as many people in as many ways as they can make it work. You might not want to live that way but for some families, that’s critical. Add another person in your apartment and you’ve run afoul of your lease.

    I’m with Bruce Brunner. We should be able to accommodate small homes – even tiny homes – on city lots. It would be a great way for grama or college kid to have their own place. I bet he could add a unit next to his house, creating a side-by-side duplex.

    Shifting from a bigger house to a smaller house is a real challenge, as my husband and I are discovering. Yes, it’s hard to leave a beloved neighborhood with friends and local businesses. But there are a lot of other very valid difficulties and it’s often not financially beneficial.

  7. Bruce BrunnerBruce Brunner

    I’m believe we should bash the requirement that only sfh can be built in areas.

    SFH are great but so are duplexes and triplexes. For people that are actually interested in townhouses, a great option is to buy a duplex and house hack- live in one unit and rent the other out. You then have say in unit that is joined to you. It is the new affordable housing. I know of dozens of examples of people who have bought duplexes for their primary residence. Most bought duplexes in the $300,000-$400,000 range so essentially the portion they live in cost $150-$200,000 for “an attached house”. Now tell me again why we should let those be built throughout the city?

    I live in a former 1900’s built SFH that was too big for practicality living so it was converted to a duplexes some years ago. It’s great for my wife and I as we live upstairs and we rent out the other unit which pays for the mortgage.

  8. Steve Gjerdingen

    I don’t think it’s fair to knock the SFH. Janne’s comment about intentional communities is a good one. I have some friends that live in this type of housing. I know of 1 single family home (St. Paul) that’s housing 6 females living in community with one another. Unfortunately, St. Paul doesn’t officially allow intentional communities (that I know of). I have other friends who live out in suburbia and have SFHs that are filled with up to 5 single adult males (some of this suburbs allow more unrelated adults to live together than Minneapolis does).

    Even without an intentional community you should be able to fill each SFH with at least 3 people (assuming the right number of bedrooms). Furthermore, the SFH is the ideal place to have any kind of a house party. Sometimes the best way to breed community is by inviting people over and letting them stay over and laugh as late as they want.

    Duplexes and triplexes are sometimes what I refer to as hackplexes. When you take a house that was never intended to be a duplex but turn it into a duplex, many times you create something that is ugly and unpleasant for everyone. The best duplexes are ones that are built that way from the beginning. A duplex that is side-by-side though often has the disadvantage of a really small living room on both halves. For accommodating large groups of people and spaces were movement can happen, this isn’t ideal. My favorite kinds of duplexes are the up/down style, but very rarely do I see ones like this that were built that way from the start. Again, there can be sacrifices in how space is allocated, in such a way that it creates a shortage of living space. It’s better if you have a massive foundation to begin with (800+ sq feet). I’ve also seen some pretty janky-looking upstairs kitchens. It definitely should only be done in true 2 story homes.

    Condos are a good idea, but frankly there aren’t enough of them in the Twin Cities. Also, very few developers are building units that are of a reasonable size. 800 square feet is plenty for a 2 BR condo, but rarely do you see new ones being built with those dimensions. Instead, they’d rather sell you something twice as big so that they can charge twice as much. Also, the challenge with condominiums is organizing them in such a way that the governmental structure can maintain them properly. I’ve seen numerous wet basements and asbestos wrapped pipes in a number of Minneapolis condo buildings. Personally, I think apartments are better in terms of organization (1 owner/manager) for ensuring that they receive proper maintenance and are cost effective to operate. SFH allow 1 owner to easily change what would otherwise be a hazardous situation without having to debate about it with 20 other people first.

  9. GlowBoy

    As an SFH owner, I’m glad that my family of four humans (plus two dogs and a cat) has a yard to play in and our dogs to run in. But I qualify that: our house is pretty modestly sized by most families’ standards, and I’m glad I don’t have to clean and heat that extra thousand square feet we don’t really need. And by the way, as soon as the kids are out of the house, so are we.

    From a public policy perspective, the choice isn’t binary. We can acknowledge that putting too much emphasis on SFHs – which we unequivocally have done – has helped created artificial scarcity, with all the distortions one should expect: inflated prices, bidding wars, shortages. But that doesn’t mean SFHs are evil or should be torn down. We just need to finally take our thumb off the scale.

    Choice is good. We need more apartments, condos, duplexes, triplexes, quads, intentional communities, tiny houses and all sorts of options that have been zoned out of new construction for too many decades. There’s no need to feel threatened just because we’re trying to give people more choice.

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