Family Friendly Housing Requirements are Risky

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 15 2013 11:38 AM

Think Carefully Before Requiring "Family Friendly" Housing

Seattle in March 2011.

Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

A Seattle-based reader asked me what I thought of this Seattle Transit Blog post about the paucity of three-bedroom dwellings in transit-accessible neighborhoods, which floats a variety of regulatory requirements and incentives to encourage their construction. Having recently bought a three-bedroom dwelling in a transit-accessible neighborhood of a large and prosperous American city, I can confirm that this has, yes, become a prohibitively expensive undertaking. So I get the problem.

But this is actually a hard problem to solve. When I was in my mid-20s, I spent several years living in a very spacious rowhouse that had ample room to raise children in. But it was a five-income household, comprising myself and four roommates. It's difficult for 1.5 to two full-time workers to outbid three or four full-time workers for housing. That's especially true because even though people from all walks of life can enjoy city living (I was raised in a big city and would like to raise a family in one myself), childless people are more likely to want to pay a premium for the modern urban lifestyle. Cities crush suburbs in terms of nightlife amenities that parents don't have much time to take advantage of, for example, while shopping for a bunch of people is cheaper and easier at a suburban supermarket.


Meanwhile, the share of American households that consist of parents with multiple small children is plummeting, even though the overwhelming majority of our existing housing stock is suburban-style dwellings aimed at appealing to that market segment. Under the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that urban developers aren't all that interested in targeting this market. And while you can require people to build three-bedroom houses, you can't really force them to design dwellings that are "really" primarily appealing to families as opposed to roommates.

Now in any given city it's not like you'd be considering these regulations against the backdrop of a super-efficient ex ante regime. So it's easy to imagine family-friendly zoning changes that are good. But as with inclusionary zoning proposals, the important thing is to take a good hard look at whether your proposed rule change is going to mean more dwelling units or fewer. More units means more households of all kinds will be able to live in your city. Fewer units means fewer households of all kinds will be able to live in your city. There's no real way to micromanage around that basic dynamic. An affordable city is one that accommodates lots of people, not just one in which a handful of people get a sweetheart deal on a house.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 29 2014 1:52 PM Do Not Fear California’s New Affirmative Consent Law
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.