The United States is experiencing a severe housing crisis. Cities with high housing demand are woefully short of supply. Over the past two decades, monthly rents have increased 40% more than wages. Over the past two generations, the ratio of home purchase price to annual median income in Boston has ballooned from 2:1 to 8:1. The housing crisis has reached such proportions that Architectural Record—not a magazine noted for its social conscience—devoted an entire issue to the problem.
AR addresses the issues from predictable perspectives: affordability; income inequity; demand beyond supply; and diminished government assistance. All true, and all arguments that lead to the conclusion—consistent with our economic-growth mindset—that we need more housing. They offer little argument that we need different types of housing or—capitalism forbid—share the housing we already have.
Over the two generations that the home ownership affordability gap quadrupled (1950 vs. 2015 statistics) the average size of a home tripled, from 900 square feet to 2800 square feet, even as the average family size dropped from 3.5 to 2.5. Today, one quarter of Americans live alone. It is true that housing is more expensive than it was for our grandparents. It is also true that we expect much more of it than they had.
Except for the single year (1977-1978) that I served as a VISTA Volunteer, I have shared living space with others. From a social perspective, I cannot understand why people want to live by themselves. But when I weigh the economic burden that a single person or nuclear family carries to operate its own home, our focus on private habitation baffles me.
The old adage, ‘two can live as cheaply as one’ is not literally true, but it’s a pretty good first-degree estimate. Because I have housemates, everything is cheaper for me: food; utilities; Internet. I have less space to furnish; maintenance is shared. Someone else takes out the recycling when I’m gone; I water the garden when my housemate travels.
Sharing a house in middle age is not like living as a student. In addition to our shared living room, dining room, kitchen and den, we each have a private bedroom and a study. Yet allocating 2300 square feet among three people puts my personal space allocation in the 800 square foot range: more like 1950’s than 2015. In addition, my two housemates do not contribute to the ‘demand’ problem in Boston’s tight housing market.
It’s not all as rosy as I render. Living with other people requires accommodation. I never leave a dirty dish in the sink because I expect my housemates would never leave one there. We have to communicate; we have to respect each other; we have to get along. We have to apply those antiquated values that our culture undermines by the illusion that every person can be an island of self-sufficiency. At the most local level, the three of us have to extend the common courtesies that all of us need to convey if we want to society to be civil.
The real reason our nation does not promote shared living is simple: there’s less money in it. Mortgagors, insurers, appliance manufacturers, furniture makers, utilities; they all make three times more money from three people living in three 2300 square foot houses, than three people in one 2300 square foot house. Money is the real reason our culture promotes the supposed joys of independence and dismisses the satisfactions of interdependence.
I favor all the good ideas espoused by Architectural Record and others to address our housing crisis. But my strategy is better, and cheaper, and healthier for our social and mental well-being. Promote sharing. Don’t just build new housing. Build new forms of housing. Ones that provide private space, but also require interaction. Redirect public money to support group living. Use the public purse to explore new ways of living, homes that not only provide refuge for the individual, but also create places for us to come together.
Note: All images in this post courtesy of Architectural Record, October 2018.