To get the sustainable, vibrant, and livable cities we say we want, we’re all going to have to learn to love shared walls.
I’m in my mid 30s, and in that privileged class where many or most of my friends are in professional jobs and hitting that point in their careers where they’re looking to buy a home with their partner. Indeed, my partner and I bought a condo a few years ago ourselves.
But as I watch my friends and acquaintances do their first dive into the wild world of mortgages and DIY home-improvement, there’s something that has bothered me more and more. Almost without fail, my friends–who read and contribute to this site, who love living in cities, who want better, more vibrant, more equitable cities–end up buying detached single-family homes.
So why does this bother me? They’re usually buying smallish houses, within the cities. Often they still commute primarily via transit and bike. They just want the peace and quiet of not sharing a wall. Maybe they want a yard to garden in. Or just some private space. That’s fine, right? Except it’s not just one decision. It’s the same thing happening over and over. We’re all happy to advocate for apartments, from the comfort of our single-family homes.
So why does this matter? What’s so special about shared walls? Three things concern me about our cultural preoccupation with detached single-family homes: density, climate, and displacement.
Density is a broad term, but what I want to get at here is that successful and vibrant commercial nodes require density of customers. Without multi-family homes, we can’t support as many successful commercial nodes, and people living in neighborhoods further from major corridors have to travel farther to meet their needs. Sometimes that means biking instead of walking, or being a 15 minute walk from the bus stop that gets you to work. Or it just means that on Friday night after a long work week, instead of walking a couple blocks to pick up takeout from the pizza place on the corner, you order in and a Grubhub driver brings you pizza from 4 miles away. These are minor effects, but they add up to more cars on our streets, less commercial activity in neighborhoods, and fewer people walking or biking around our neighborhoods. Detached single-family homes just can’t provide sufficient density for the world we all say we want to live in.
Next, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but climate change is here. And it’s bad. The west is on fire, hurricanes are hitting the gulf coast with unheard of ferocity and frequency, ice sheets the size of states are disappearing, and permafrost is no longer all that “perma”. What do shared walls have to do with this? Well, while our grid is slowly moving toward renewables, we still heat, cool, and power our homes largely with fossil fuels. Have you ever compared the energy bills of a single-family home to those of an apartment or condo? It’s frankly astonishing. All those shared walls, ceilings, and floors add up, and you lose a lot less heat. Plus, as we hopefully move to electrify everything to get our emissions down, it will be easier if we only need to replace one furnace to reduce the emissions of 2-200 families, instead of a furnace for every family. Beyond energy use, as I note above, density reduces transportation needs, and therefore transportation emissions.
Finally, displacement. There is a finite amount of space for single-family homes in a given city. They can’t be stacked on top of each other, and they have front yards and back yards and side yards. So once your city is built out, you can’t really add a meaningful number of them. Meanwhile, despite what some people will tell you, cities are popular, and even in a pandemic, people like living in them! So this creates a situation in which we have ever-increasing demand for a type of housing where the supply is functionally static. As a result there’s intense competition for those few available homes. That means prices go up, and maybe people start looking a bit farther from where they’d lived before. Instead of the Wedge, maybe Whittier, or instead of Lyndale, maybe Powderhorn. So now young white professionals are bidding up the prices of houses in historically working-class, BIPOC, and immigrant neighborhoods.
To put it another way, maybe the aesthetic of displacement is not a new apartment building with ugly cladding, but a small, run-down, 100 year old house selling for $250,000 or more.
So why is this happening? I don’t want to make this all about shaming people. There are cultural and economic forces at work here, besides personal preferences, and in some case, influencing those preferences.
We live in a world where we’ve been told all our lives that the natural progression in life leads to a single family home in the suburbs with our nuclear family and a two car garage. But this is an ideal invented in post-war America. There’s no law of physics that makes this inevitable. We got here through deliberate policy and cultural pressure. But this ideal doesn’t fit the needs of a 21st century city.
Unfortunately, that cultural and policy pressure has led to some cities (most definitely including Minneapolis) lacking the housing options families want. I know I have friends who bought single-family homes because they couldn’t find multi-family options that fit their needs. When my partner and I were condo-hunting, pickings were very slim, and we consider ourselves extremelylucky to have ended up with the condo we ended up buying and loving.
Most of the development Minneapolis has allowed over the past several decades has been either teardown single-family homes, or mid-to-large apartment construction along arterial roads. This why you hear so much about the “missing middle” of housing. If you walk around Minneapolis, you will see a lot of smaller multi-family buildings, but they’re usually nearly a century old. They’ve been illegal to build for a long time, and their numbers are dwindling.
The much-debated Minneapolis 2040 plan is intended to address this by allowing small multifamily within neighborhoods. Unfortunately, most of the other rules governing the size of the building on a given lot were not changed, so in order to get the housing we badly need, we will need to continue to pressure the council to change the boring land use rules like height limits, setbacks, and FAR. They have made a start, but it will not be enough to really allow the abundant housing we need.
One thing that’s common in other cities around the county and the globe, is the humble rowhouse. For some reason, Minneapolis has very few of these, even though they can provide nearly all the benefits of a detached single-family home in a much smaller footprint. We should absolutely legalize rowhouses.
To really create the vibrant cities we want, we are going to have to get over our cultural preoccupation with single-family homes. One part of that is changing our built environment to give people the option, but the other is in our control. We can vote with our money, and choose to live in multi-family homes, even when we can afford to buy a house. The stakes are, quite literally, the fate of the planet.