Why the Future of Housing Should Be Multifamily and Multigenerational

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What if we solved the problem of housing as a group instead of individual families? That's exactly what John Kinsley and others did. That's their 'Baugruppen' in the middle. (Photo: John Kinsley)

When John Kinsley saw an empty property in the Portobello district of Edinburgh, he first thought of building himself a house but it was too expensive. So he ran a notice on a local website looking for like-minded people to put together a little building.

"There was definitely an element of making it up as we went along," Kinsley tells Home and Interiors Scotland, "partly because it was so new to everyone — including the mortgage lenders and lawyers — and also because the residents' requirements were still evolving."

group of builders in baugruppen
The group, still talking to each other, even after living under a shared roof. (Photo: John Kinsley)

He could do it because the site was already zoned for a four-story building, and the "tenement" form of apartment, with apartments opening onto a single stair in the middle, is very common and legal under Edinburgh building codes. He could find interested families because in that Scottish city, as in much of Europe, people are comfortable living in multifamily buildings.

This isn't the case in North America, where since World War II, the dream has been the detached home with a yard and private garage. There often seems to be deep-seated resistance to multifamily housing. Case in point: After writing a recent post asking Where are the baby boomers going to live when they get old? and suggesting that apartments might be good for aging boomers, I received a number of complaints about how they didn't like noise or smoke or food smells, and told me to "Get lost, I am staying until I am 100. MY CHOICE."

But as Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan writes in Fast Company, this preference for single-family housing has created serious problems.

The emphasis on physical and financial independence at every stage of adulthood has high incurred costs, though. The first is the massive accumulation of capital, from money to land to natural resources to labor, necessary to supply the cars, airports, fuel, roads, land, and housing for a country of 327 million people who want to live conspicuously apart.
berlin apartment building
A baugruppe in Berlin. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

It also makes things increasingly difficult as the baby boom population ages, and they start looking for ways to affordably downsize and set up means of support from families or friends. There are a number of innovative ways being tried; Kingsley's approach is common in Germany, where building groups, or baugruppen, cooperate to build their own housing. (We've written about the benefits of Baugruppen on MNN before.)

Another way to approach the problem: Cohousing

Another approach that's becoming more common in North America is a Danish import: Cohousing. Here, people get together and work cooperatively to build their homes, but they also consciously share resources and community spaces. It works well for many age groups, including seniors, as Josh Lew explained on MNN:

Some communities developed specifically for seniors offer "assisted living" features with cleaning, medical care and other services provided for residents, who live in condos or townhouses with common areas. These communities may offer accessibility features that allow residents to remain as they grow older instead of moving elsewhere.

Architect Katie McCamant, who organizes and designs cohousing projects, tells Fast Company about senior cohousing projects:

"It's really about a proactive approach to: What do I want to do with this last third of my life and how do I set myself up for that?" McCamant says. For seniors – who are increasingly baby boomers who came of age during the countercultural revolution – cohousing offers an alternative to corporate senior-living complexes, along with the freedom to determine the design, values, and vibe of a collective senior community.

The problem in North America often comes down to where you can put these projects. Most people want to stay in their current neighborhoods, where they have connections and friends, but find that it's all zoned for single-family dwellings. Things are changing slowly; more and more municipalities are allowing ADUs (additional dwelling units) to be built in backyards, and there's finally some talk about changing zoning bylaws.

In California there's a fight going on over Senate Bill 50, which would change zoning laws to permit multiple-family buildings near high frequency transit lines and schools. According to Laura Bliss in CityLab, there's significant opposition, with people saying "This is about destroying suburban, one-home-per-lot neighborhoods ... this is discrimination." Others chant "Density is not the way! Where is the parking, who will pay?" or complain "We just want to preserve our quality of life."

It's likely that the bill will fail. As Bliss notes:

It's not hard to understand why homeowners are so sensitive to SB 50 messing with the formula of California living. This is the place that took the postwar suburban promise to its apotheosis...These were the houses and backyards and station-wagon-filled driveways that Americans saw on TV every night in the 1960s and '70s; they represented the sun-kissed Golden Dream that lured so many millions of newcomers.
multiple housing
Mike says 'Egads, it's 3 stories tall and full of renters!'. (Photo: Mike Eliason)

But it doesn't have to be that way. Writing from his new home in a small city in Germany, Seattle architect Mike Eliason explains:

The big take away is that there is no single family zoning here (Zero is, in fact, the correct amount of single family zoning — there is no single family zoning *anywhere* in Germany. Or Austria. Or Japan...), and more impressively, there don't seem to be very many single family homes here, either.
apartments in row houses
Mike says 'rowhouses? Try… rowhouses w/ stacked flats.'. (Photo: Mike Eliason)

He notes that the world doesn't end.

Despite all the horrors of buildings touching, bike lanes, and pedestrian zones — life seems to go on. A triplex being built next to a detached home is just a way of life, it's not an existential threat to the neighborhood. Turns out, when your city is zoned to allow a diversity of housing types (as opposed to the straitjacket of exclusionary zoning), it is quite possible to have moderately dense, walkable, bikeable neighborhoods where all your daily needs are readily accessible.

This is why, with 70 million baby boomers aging in place — either because they want to or because they have no choice — we have to change the way we think about zoning. We can have a mix of single and duplex and triplex housing forms, so that people don't have to decide between staying put or moving to a downtown condo.

little apartment building
There goes the neighborhood .... with little apartment buildings. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Where I live, in Toronto, Canada, there used to be a real mix of housing types before more restrictive zoning bylaws prohibited this kind of thing, where little apartment buildings co-existed right next door to single-family houses. It actually works quite well.

It opens up more of our cities for Baugruppen, cohousing or even just duplexing like I did in my own house, turning it into two completely separate apartments and renting the upstairs to my daughter's family. If we're going to deal with our current housing affordability crisis and our coming baby boomer housing crisis, we really have to loosen up our ideas of what a neighborhood should look like.