Last week, The Record’s Alex Breitler brought up a very important question on his blog. While participating in an SJCOG survey on the future of growth in the region (which you can access here), Breitler noticed that while a strong majority of participants felt that new development should be built “within existing cities,” an equally strong majority preferred to live in either a “rural ranchette” or a “conventional family home.” Naturally, this begs the question: If a majority of people prefer suburban style housing, should we bother with infill, such as apartments, condos or townhomes?
Most people prefer single family houses, and that’s to be expected. But this is not an either/or argument; while not a majority, there is a significant section of the population that does want townhomes, apartments and condos, especially in walkable areas. Unfortunately, the preferences of these consumers have been woefully ignored in Stockton and the Central Valley, while we have already built enough suburban-style single family houses to last us until 2050. Moreover, not all infill need be attached housing. Single-family homes can be built (or rehabbed) within existing cities, too. So to answer the question: Yes, if we build apartments, lofts, and townhomes in walkable areas, people will live in them. Let me explain why we should be encouraging and supporting infill and walkable neighborhoods, and explain why this is not a zero-sum decision.
Supply of single-family homes already equals the demand
Breitler notes that 63% of people surveyed in his group preferred suburban style housing, which is actually right on par with other data regarding housing preferences of valley residents. As I have written before, most people in the Central Valley say they would live in a “detached, single-family house.” 63%, to be exact, which is nearly identical to the national percentage (62%).
While it is absolutely true that nearly two thirds of Central Valley residents say they want a single-family house, concluding that all new construction should be of the suburban variety and none of it should be infill would be foolhardy. When you look at the housing that is already available, it turns out that the Central Valley already has enough single-family housing to meet demand far into the future (not to mention the tens of thousands of single family units the city approved before the real estate crash that are still on the drawing board). As I have pointed out before, analysis on existing housing stock and market demand projections indicate that the region’s current supply of single-family homes is already sufficient to meet demand until 2050. In other words, if we didn’t build a single single-family home in the next 40 years, there would technically be enough single-family housing already in existence to meet future demand. Does this mean we shouldn’t build more single-family housing? Not necessarily. People will certainly buy new homes if they are built (and they can afford them). Instead, I bring up this analysis to show how lopsided development has been in recent decades.
On the other end of the spectrum, the smaller (but growing) proportion of residents wanting more infill-type development have been woefully underserved. Today, 35% of valley residents prefer some sort of attached housing, though these housing types make up just 29% of the market. Moreover, this 29% includes duplexes and triplexes in areas of high poverty (as they were designed to be), meaning the actual stock of desirable, market rate attached housing is dramatically lower than 29%. The main takeaway here is that development in the Central Valley is incredibly disproportionate to market demands, and just because a majority of people prefer larger homes doesn’t mean that there is no demand for attached housing in walkable neighborhoods.
On a more qualitative note, I have the privilege of seeing how people are refereed to this blog and what search terms they are using. I can tell you that one of the main searches that brings people to SCL are phrases such as “Downtown Stockton condos” or “Stockton lofts” or “University Lofts housing.” Clearly, there are people out there who are looking for a different lifestyle than what most new development provides in Stockton. (sidenote: I also get a lot of traffic from people searching for the operating hours of the Trinity Parkway Wal-Mart)
People want communities, not just homes
The questions regarding housing types in the SJCOG survey are asked in a vacuum, when in reality, we are never just buying a house or renting an apartment, we are moving into a whole community. If a townhome, apartment, or condo is just as car-dependent as a single family house, people will invariably choose the single family house. Case in point, If I was asked to live in either a Spanos home in Glen Oaks– a subdivision comprised entirely of townhome-type houses– or a home across the street in a conventional Spanos neighborhood, I would probably pick the bigger house across the street. What’s the point of a townhome if I still have to drive everywhere? The point behind a “townhome” is that it’s supposed to be in the “town” where you can easily access goods and services. A townhome in a sprawling subdivision is not nearly as enticing as a townhome within walking distance to shops, restaurants, bars, parks and jobs. When we query consumers on their housing preferences, we also need to take into consideration the surrounding neighborhoods and what they provide, which brings me to my next point.
You can have single family homes in walkable areas, too
My last point is that just because someone wants a single-family house doesn’t mean they automatically want sprawl. Single family homes can be built within existing city limits, too (or better yet, rehabbed!), and can be just as walkable as apartments. In fact, I would say that I would prefer a single family house in Stockton over any condo that is currently available. Why? Because there are areas in Stockton where you can have a beautiful, unique single-family home in a walkable area, such as near the Miracle Mile. As people grow older and start having families, life in apartments and townhomes becomes cramped, and larger accommodations are necessary. But a need for
more space does not necessarily translate into a move to the suburbs. In fact, 56% of home buyers prefer homes in smart growth neighborhoods, according to the National Association of Realtors. Even in car-dependent Stockton, buyers are willing to pay more for homes that are in walkable areas. Still not convinced? Simply Google “walkable housing” and you’ll be inundated by articles from all over the country explaining how walkability is driving the housing market. When I have kids, I probably wouldn’t want to live in a condo, but I certainly wouldn’t raise my family in a car-dependent development, either. There is a place for all housing types, but we can all agree that everyone should have the option of living in a walkable community, no matter their housing preference.
In conclusion: Yes, there is a significant portion of the population that would take advantage of well-designed attached housing in desirable, walkable neighborhoods. And just because more people want single-family housing, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the only way to meet this demand is to rely exclusively on greenfield, car-dependent development. Also, what’s a rural ranchette, anyways?