A House, Divided

Hank Dittmar (who sadly passed away earlier this month) delivered an inspiring presentation for the Savannah Urbanism Series last fall. His visit to Coastal Georgia coincided with a Lean Urbanism exercise organized by the Savannah Development & Renewal Authority that explored ways to generate development in urban neighborhoods where investment has stalled.

Over the past three months, I’ve been thinking a lot about housing – mostly because I have been searching for it myself. After looking at dozens of homes in Ithaca I have witnessed how strong demand for rental housing has transformed the physical fabric of the city.

One thing that stuck with me nearly half a year after Hank’s presentation is a fact he shared about Washington, D.C. during World War II. According to his presentation, the city’s population soared after the war started. The city’s public broadcasting affiliate, WETA, confirms this:

With America now fully involved as a participant in the war, the population of Washington, DC continued to burgeon. In 1930 there had been 600,000 residents of Washington, by the end of 1941 well over a million. In the first year after Pearl Harbor, 70,000 new people arrived in the city. Since the beginning of 1940, government employment had doubled; 5,000 new federal workers were coming to Washington each month. The District of Columbia government was issuing 1,500 building permits a month and that wasn’t scratching the surface. Temporary government buildings were going up everywhere — they lined both sides of the Reflecting Pool, and nearly surrounded the Washington Monument.

Dittmar pointed out that the city’s housing stock transformed to accommodate the expanding population. Mansions that had housed a single family were suddenly rented out by the bedroom. New construction simply could not keep pace with the surging federal employment. The sudden demand for housing led to the division of single family houses into multi family dwellings.

When the war ended, and federal employment decreased, so did the demand for housing. The fact that many of these workers lived in housing built before the war allowed the city to shrink gracefully.

It’s hard to imagine cities in North America today allowing such wide-spread division of existing housing units. In spite of well-documented demand for housing, it remains stubbornly expensive in practically every urban area. Local restrictions on the division of existing homes are one barrier to increasing the supply of housing units in desirable locations.

The fact that it is difficult to comprehend of cities as dynamic, evolving, and organic contributes to the reluctance of local politicians to liberalize policies on house division. Local elected officials typically identify closely with the current character of the neighborhoods and communities they serve. They don’t win any new votes by arguing to expand the rights of residents to subdivide housing units. In fact, this sort of proposal can be viewed as endangering the established neighborhood character by political opponents.

Ironically, when house division is allowed, it can present huge advantages to existing home owners. Renting off a bedroom or suite can provide owners with income opportunities. In turn, the prospect of rental income can elevate property value. In some marginal situations, house division may be the only thing that allows a home owner to be able to pay his property taxes. Cities that prohibit or severely restrict house division generate lots of underutilized interior space.

I don’t see house division as a long-term solution to housing affordability. In cities with lots of demand for housing, internal divisions provide existing owners with a way to capitalize on their area’s fortunes. Eventually, developers will find ways to accommodate growing demand with new or renovated housing units, and the demand for divided housing units will subside.