By Hope Melton
– A former urban planner, Hope Melton serves as the coordinator for the Edina Neighbors for Affordable Housing.
It’s time to reimagine “affordable housing” and the American Dream.
I live in an endangered species – a small, older home in Edina’s Concord Neighborhood. Homes like mine, in the $350,000-$400,000 range, are rapidly being destroyed and replaced by much larger houses going for a $1 million and more.
I bought my house from the same family that built it in 1946. A generation ago, it contained five children and two adults. Beautifully cared for and solid as a rock, it was one of the first houses built in an area of farmland. I fell in love with its cottage appeal, wood paneling, pretty moulding, leaded glass window and oak floors. My favorite place is a south-facing sunroom. It’s got a small, workable kitchen that includes a dining area, a front living room with a fireplace, three bedrooms and two baths. That’s it – approximately 1,600 square feet of house.
Unfortunately, it’s hopelessly out of date; small everything, and a one-car garage (on a bus line). It reflects a simpler, more modest era when craftsmen took pride in their handiwork and families were content with less stuff and “personal space.”
According to the New York Times (“The New ‘Dream Home’ Should Be A Condo”; March 3, 2019) the average new home today is 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973. The square footage of living space per person has increased to 971, from 507 – a 92 percent increase. New home square footage hasn’t gone below 2,200 since 1985.
As houses enlarge, households shrink. I’d guess the average new house in my neighborhood is 3,000-4,000 square feet. The average American household shrank by 30 percent from 1948 to 2012, to 2.55 people from 3.67.
These ever-larger houses ignore the changing nature of families and household size, the urgent need for a broad spectrum of affordable housing and climate change.
The teardown/rebuild phenomenon has socioeconomic consequences as well. If trends continue unabated, middle-income single-family homes will all but disappear. Older people who’ve lived here all their lives will be displaced. That’s called gentrification – although we don’t think of it that way. Only the very wealthy and their children will be able to live here.
It’s social engineering by market forces.
The question is: What kind of community do we want to be? It’s great to have wealthy households – but don’t we want to remain a mixed-income community? Haven’t we committed to greater equity and diversity with city approval of the Race & Equity Task Force Report? Shouldn’t modest-income families have a choice between affordable multifamily and single-family homes?
Wouldn’t saving our well-built smaller homes be a move toward combating climate change? Yes, these new houses are more energy efficient, but they still consume large amounts of energy. And wouldn’t we reduce greenhouse gases with smaller single-family and low-density multifamily (three-story) homes (no bigger than the new houses) in our neighborhoods, in addition to larger multi-family buildings in more urban areas – all connected with sidewalks, bike paths and additional mass transit?
Finally, Edina faces a stormwater management challenge. Smaller houses take up less space, allowing more permeable ground area for runoff.
Retaining our well-built smaller homes is challenging, but possibilities exist. The Edina Housing Foundation, with its “Come Home2Edina” program, provides second mortgages for qualifying buyers of homes under $350,000. The West Hennepin Affordable Homes Land Trust’s “Homes Within Reach” enables workforce families to purchase homes and lease the land. It reduces the mortgage, down payment and closing costs. Private investors and developers also purchase Edina’s small homes, renting them permanently or allowing their former owners to rent and live there until the homes are sold.
If the private market recognizes the investment value of our well-built small houses, couldn’t the city or housing foundation expand these efforts using some TIF funding and money from the newly created Affordable Housing Trust Fund? Could nonprofit developers, like Habitat for Humanity, help with rehab construction? Or, might there be for-profit construction firms in our community who’d be willing to step up and lend a hand?
Given our affordable housing needs, our commitment to the goals of the Race & Equity Task Force Report, and environmental considerations – saving our endangered small Edina homes would seem worthwhile. Let’s figure out a way to do it.