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  • Big, dense cities can work for families. In fact, they can work really well. Tweet This
  • Those of us who care about families need to make the case that limiting the supply of housing has consequences that hit families especially hard. Tweet This
  • American families right now face a unique and brutal challenge when it comes to housing. Tweet This
Category: Family Life

A few years ago, during a visit to Paris, I sat down in a quiet public square and saw something surprising. A couple dozen kids exited a nearby school, walked to the square, and began playing on a small carousel. Over the next 30 minutes or so, parents gradually emerged from the crowds and cafes to retrieve their children. 

The scene was charmingly ordinary, the kind of thing that makes travel so rewarding. But for me, an American from the sprawling West, it was also remarkable. Paris is huge and one of the densest cities in the world. More than 11 million people live in the metro area, which is sort of like France’s equivalent of Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City all rolled into one—but denser than any of those cities.

The experience also forced me to consider an idea I might otherwise have dismissed: Big, dense cities can work for families. In fact, they can work really well. My own neighborhood, after all, lacks both public squares and carousels. 

Why does this matter? 

As it turns out, American families right now face a unique and brutal challenge when it comes to housing. For five years now, I’ve been covering the housing industry as a journalist, and for at least that long (actually, longer) explosive price growth has pushed the dream of home ownership ever further out of reach for more and more people. The result is the least affordable housing market in decades, which in turn will likely delay or interrupt family formation. In other words, this world we have of too-expensive homes is a world that’s antagonistic to families. 

Luckily, there’s a solution staring us in the face: greater density. In cities across America, we should take a page from charming old places like Paris and figure out how to fit more houses into less space. And we should do this not just because those old places are charming, but because densifying our cities is an obvious way to help families. 

Expensive Housing is Anti-family

The story of the U.S. is the story of property. All the way back in the nation’s early days, for instance, Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America a connection between political power, land ownership, and democracy. Being a nation of homeowners was part of our cultural DNA. 

But along the way something broke. According to the U.S. Census, the median price of a new home in 1963 was $18,000, which is about $182,000 in 2023 dollars. But by 2022, the median price of a new home was $457,800—a price increase that far outpaces inflation. The result is that the typical homebuyer now spends 35% of their income on housing, and 19 million renter households spend 30% or more of their earnings on shelter—a situation known as being “cost burdened.”

That housing is unaffordable will come as no surprise. But it’s also worth pointing out that this situation has a significant negative impact on families. In 2012, for instance, researchers found that women living through an expensive housing market will delay having their first child by three or four years. In a similar vein, multiple studies have found that higher housing costs are associated with lower fertility among renters. 

Expensive housing is also bad news for marriage: A 2022 paper looked at data from China and found that rising housing costs “significantly reduced the marriage rate” in the country. Meanwhile, research from this year linked home prices and marriage, with the implication being that lowering housing costs is a way to bolster marriage rates.  All of which is to say that overheated housing costs have many downsides, but chief among them is that they hurt families. 

A Supply and Demand Problem

Housing costs have become a millstone around families’ necks for many reasons, including rising mortgage rates and record inflation. But there’s also a deeper issue: The supply of homes simply hasn’t kept up with demand. As part of a reporting project I’m working on, I recently asked Realtor.com for numbers quantifying this shortage. The company provided me with a report stating that the U.S. has experienced “more than a decade of under-building relative to population growth.” 

The numbers are stark. In 2012, the U.S. saw the formation of 973,000 new households, according to the Realtor.com data. But that same year, builders only finished about 535,000 new single-family homes—leaving a deficit of about 438,000. By 2022, the U.S. was short about 6.5 million new single-family homes relative to new household formation. 

The numbers are a little less dire when factoring in multifamily housing, but a shortage remains; between 2012 and 2022 the U.S. added a total of 15.6 million new households but only built 13.3 million new housing units of any kind. And any time there’s more demand for something than there is supply, prices go up. 

Luckily, there’s evidence that adding supply can help solve this problem; as a large wave of new multifamily housing has hit the market this year, rents in many cities have stabilized. Economist Jay Parsons has documented this phenomenon, pointing out that “if you really care about rental affordability, you should really care about building as many new apartments as possible.” 

Density is a Way Forward

The logic here is simple. People need affordable housing in order to establish stable families. Affordable housing is lacking right now because we haven’t built enough of it. Ergo, we need to build more. 

The problem is that many cities now lack vast swaths of land on which to build sprawling neighborhoods of single-family homes. Los Angeles is a good example. After World War II, Americans flocked to Southern California, in part, because it had plenty of affordable new houses. 

There are still places to build new homes in Southern California, but the only areas to do it at a meaningful scale are now on the periphery, hours (in traffic) from the city’s main job centers. In other words, we’ve run out of land to keep doing business as usual. 

But Parsons’ tweet hints at the solution: “You should really care about building as many new apartments as possible.” The idea is that if we’re going to build homes in the places where people need to be, those homes are going to have to be denser than what we’re used to. They’ll need to be apartments, condos, townhouses, backyard cottages, and fourplexes. This is the way—and probably the only way—to meaningfully increase the supply of homes in places where demand is most intense and supply most lacking. There’s simply no space for anything else.

That’s a hard sell. Many Americans have a viscerally negative reaction to “density,” imagining slums in the developing world or failed projects such as St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt–Igoe.

But places like Paris and other European metros (I was surprised to see a playground in nearly every square during a recent visit to ultra dense Barcelona) show that not all density is dour. Such cities are livable and humane. Their apartments are charming. On the other side of the world, cities like Tokyo also prove that adding lots of housing is an effective way to keep housing costs low, and that high density housing need not lead to crime, grime, or chaos. Indeed, Tokyo is often considered the biggest city in the world while also being among the safest and most orderly. These cities are not perfect, of course, and their families face plenty of challenges. But their density and built environment is not the problem or the enemy. 

The solution then is twofold.

First, we need regulatory reform that allows more housing types. Right now, about 75% of the residential land in the U.S. is zoned to only allow single-family homes. That needs to change. Anyone who cares about the vitality of American families should also be an urbanist pushing for zoning reforms that can unleash a flood of apartments, condos, cottages, and more. Of course, single-family homes aren’t going away, nor should they. But right now, it’s mostly illegal to even attempt the common sense, market-based solution of building denser housing in existing high-demand neighborhoods. 

Second, and more importantly, we need a cultural shift. Many cities actually are reforming their building regulations even as they face stiff opposition from incumbent landowners who don’t like change. 

Those of us who care about families consequently need to make the case that limiting the supply of housing has consequences, and those consequences hit families especially hard. We need to make the case that building more homes, including those that are denser and more compact, isn’t just an issue for urban planners and city nerds to debate on Twitter. Instead, it should be the cause célèbre of every person who wants families to thrive. 

Jim Dalrymple II is a journalist and author of the Nuclear Meltdown newsletter about families. He also covers housing for Inman and has previously worked at BuzzFeed News and the Salt Lake Tribune.