At this time of year, with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas, there's a tendency to look back at our lives and those of our families. We should be thankful for the blessings of living in an America where small dreams could be fulfilled.
For many, this promise has been epitomized by owning a house, with a touch of green in the back and a taste of private paradise. Those most grateful for this opportunity were my mother's generation, which grew up in the Great Depression. In her life, she was able to make the move from the tenements of Brownsville, Brooklyn, first to the garden apartments of Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, and, eventually, to a mass-produced suburban house on Long Island.
This basic American dream of upward mobility may not, according to the pundit class, planners and many developers, be readily available for my children. Indeed, in the years since the 2007 housing bust, there's been a steady stream of commentary suggesting a future that resembles the past, where most people were renters and, in urban centers, lived chock-a-block in crowded apartment buildings.
The advocates for a return to this not-so-great past are a diverse lot, spanning the ideological spectrum from the free-market Right to the green, regulation-loving Left. Many on the right, such as economist Tyler Cowen, suggest that the era of the “average” American is now past, and that most of us will have to dial down our expectations about how we live, particularly in costly places such as California. The blessed 15 percent might aspire to live high on the hog, and even in luxury, but for the rest of us it's eating rice and beans, and living small. Goodbye, Levittown, and back to Brownsville.
Some in the financial community also salivate at the possibilities contained in downgrading the American dream. The very people who rode the mortgage boom and left millions of homeowners to deal with the consequences, now hail the ushering of what Morgan Stanley's Oliver Chang has dubbed a “rentership society.” Rather than purchasing a home, the middle class is now being downgraded into either renting a foreclosed home snatched by the Wall Street sharpies or being stuffed into small, multifamily housing.
In either case, the financial hegemons win, since they, essentially, get to have someone else to pay their mortgages. As for society, it's a losing proposition. Rather than the yeoman with his own place, and the social commitment that comes with it, we now have the prospect of a vast lower class permanently forced to tip its hat to – and empty its wallet for – its economic betters. This is the fate ardently hoped for by many urbanists, who see a generation of permanent renters as part of their dream of a denser America.
One would expect that this diminution of the middle class would offend liberals, who historically supported both the expansion of ownership and the creation of a better life for the middle class. But today's liberals – or progressives – share Wall Street's enthusiasm, albeit for different reasons, for renting and ever-greater densities.
This reverses the policies of the New Deal and its successors. Half of postwar suburban housing, notes historian Alan Wolfe, depended on some form of federal financing. In fact, the progressive position increasingly is worse than that of free-market conservatives and their Wall Street allies. The Right sees profit in densification and renting, but would likely support other options if they seemed advantageous. In contrast, the progressive Left increasingly sees the single-family home and ownership – what made middle-class people like my mother lifelong Democrats – as outdated, even destructive.
This can be seen in the writings of progressive thinkers like Richard Florida, who, in the midst of the mortgage crisis, proclaimed homeownership as “overrated” and urged Americans to give up the dream of owning their own digs, particularly in the much-disrespected suburbs. In Florida's “creative age,” the proper aspiration is to live in a dense, expensive city, such as San Francisco or Manhattan, where only a fraction of the population can conceivably own their residence.
To accommodate this vision, we inevitably get back to a world that looks similar to that of the tenement era. Already, in part due to regulatory policies making new construction prohibitively expensive, there is severe overcrowding in New York, the Bay Area and throughout Southern California. According to the Center for Housing Policy and National Housing Conference, 39 percent of working households in the Los Angeles metropolitan area spend more than half their incomes on housing, along with 35 percent in the San Francisco metro area and 31 percent in the New York City area. The national rate is 24 percent, itself far from tolerable.
What we are witnessing today is oddly reminiscent of the Brooklyn of my mother's childhood. She and her four siblings generally lived in three or fewer rooms, sharing her bed with her sisters until she got married. Yet, over time my mother's generation did well, and all my relatives were able to ascend into the middle class, or even better, by the late 1950s. Most bought homes on Long Island, although one purchased a co-op in Brooklyn.
Today, our cognitive betters embrace a more déclassé vision, with fewer families, more singles and less focus on upward mobility. Indeed, some, particularly among the environmental community, actually embrace downward mobility. Millennials, by not buying homes and cars, and perhaps also not growing into family life, are portrayed by the green magazine Grist as “a hero generation” – one that will march willingly, even enthusiastically, to a downscale future.
How will we live in this brave new America? It won't be exactly a return to the tenements that housed Depression era families, but will involve much smaller, less-communal arrangements. To serve the hip and cool youthful urban crowd, planners embrace microunits of 200-300 square feet. These are either being built or planned in such cities as Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Portland. Soon, they will become something every second-tier wannabe burg will want to duplicate in their often madcap drive to ape cool cities' hip urbanism.
Such units may make developers' mouths water with anticipation of ever more profitable cramming. But in the process, they will be further encouraging the shift away from housing for married couples, not to mention, children. Families do not make up the prime market for dense housing; married couples with children constitute barely 10 percent of apartment residents, less than half the percentage for the overall population.
And what if you can't afford a trendy “pad” in a hip downtown? The urban advocates embrace another dismal back-to-the-future solution: the boarding house. It's time, argues the Atlantic recently, to jettison our “middle-class norms of decency” governing housing and bring back the boarding house of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
All said, this is a dismal future being dialed up for the next generation, largely by boomer ideologues and their developer allies. It's not clear, fortunately, that the millennials will willingly go along. This gives us hope that, when families celebrate the holidays decades from now, they still will have as much to be thankful for as did my mother's generation, or for that matter, my own.
This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.