Should Single-Family Houses Be Banned?

They are doing it in some parts of Germany and the idea is spreading.

Houses under construction in Germany
Houses under construction in Germany.

plus49/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

In Hamburg-Nord, a borough outside Hamburg, Germany, single-family houses are no longer allowed. Critic Alexander Neubacher complains in Der Spiegel that the idea is an import from the old East Germany. He writes, "The Green district office manager Michael Werner-Boelz has ruled there [Hamburg-Nord] for a year and has decreed: The single-family house building type no longer fits our times: too much space consumption, too much building material, comparatively poor energy balance." (Originally written in German and translated here.) He accuses the Green Party of wanting to ban single-family houses all over the country.

This was all surprising to me because the few times I have been to Germany, I never saw a single-family detached house; everything was connected townhouses or small apartment buildings. I asked architect Mike Eliason, who has lived and worked in Germany, and he tells me that "while single-family zoning doesn't exist in Germany, there are a plethora of single-family homes." – 16 million of 42.5 million dwellings are single-family but "sprawling areas outside of cities are becoming an issue."

Anton Hofreiter
Anton Hofreiter.

Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

Der Spiegel asked Anton Hofreiter, the leader of the Green Parliamentary Group, "Do the greens want to ban their own four walls?" Hofreiter responded (also originally in German) that there are lots of ways of putting four walls together.

"Of course the Greens don't want to ban their own four walls. By the way, they can look very different: single-family house, terraced house, apartment building, apartment building. Where what is to be found is not decided by the individual, but by the local authority."

He noted also that it is a lot more efficient to build in forms other than single-family, telling Der Speigel:

"One-family houses consume a lot of space, a lot of building materials, a lot of energy, they cause urban sprawl and thus even more traffic. Therefore, municipalities should use development plans to ensure that the limited space in metropolitan areas is used as best as possible in order to create affordable living space."

Other Germans are outraged; another Parliamentarian complains: "The Greens want to spoil people's dream of owning a home."

In fact, Hofreiter didn't demand a ban at all. Architect and activist Leonhard Proettel says "Everyone framed it that way. Der Spiegel paywalled the interview and had a very misleading title." (See The Guardian here for a bit of it that isn't paywalled.) He was calling for an end to subsidies to single-family houses and regulatory loopholes, as well as the lower standards of energy efficiency that apply to single-family houses.

Rows of dumb boxes in Munich
Apartments in Munich.

Lloyd Alter

In Much of North America, Everything But Single-Family Housing is Banned

It all struck me as odd since I have spent so much time on Treehugger raving about the housing I saw in Germany, how people all own their own homes, their own four walls – but they are in these lovely little green apartment buildings where there is actually no single-family zoning at all. Compare this to much of North America, where single-family zoning is the rule and everyone fights like mad to stop every multi-family building from being built anywhere near them.

A pair of houses

Lloyd Alter

Attached housing is such an anathema in Toronto where I live that even when townhouses or semi-detached houses are allowed, builders will put them up with a useless space between that is too small to squeeze through, costing more money, reducing useable space, and increasing heat loss just so they don't have to share a wall. It seems everyone, everywhere wants a single-family house with four exterior walls and a roof.

Missing Middle
Missing Middle Housing. Opticos Design

What we really need is a lot more of what Daniel Parolek calls The Missing Middle: "A range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. These types provide diverse housing options along a spectrum of affordability, including duplexes, fourplexes, and bungalow courts, to support walkable communities, locally-serving retail, and public transportation options."

You can do that all over Germany. You have to fight for it in North America.

Little apartment building
Not legal now on Terell.

Lloyd Alter

Certain readers always get mad at me when I suggest banning things, but single-family houses pose a particular problem. They are less energy efficient, use more materials, and promote sprawl. It's almost impossible to live in one and not own a car; you can't have one without the other. We could, instead, ban the restrictive zoning that prevents building anything else like duplexes, townhouses, and small apartment buildings, like we used to see all over many cities before more restrictive zoning became the rule.

We could also follow that Green Party approach of ending the subsidies and making developers and homeowners pay the full cost of the roads that get them home, the services and infrastructure that is now paid for by everyone. That might work as well as a ban.