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Why Can't We Build Small Houses?

November 27, 2005
by Tom Condon

After a speech in Canton a week ago, in which I said that sprawl was giving us a disproportionate number of McMansions and not enough other kinds of housing, a builder came up to chat. He said he wants to build well-designed smaller homes. Good design can get most people what they want in 2,000-2,500 square feet, instead of 4,000 square feet or more, he said.

But he said when he's tried to do this in the Farmington Valley, he's been rebuffed. The price of land, local zoning and the demands of the real estate market are all telling him to build big.

Could that be right? I asked Bill Ethier, head of the Home Builders Association of Connecticut and a member of the Place board of contributors.

Yes, he said. "There's a market for smaller houses ... but it's underserved. Towns won't let us build them."

He said smaller houses are either discouraged by zoning or by the whim of local land-use boards. For example, a developer might propose 30 smaller houses on a piece of land, only to have neighbors complain about the density. So the builder reverts to, say, 10 large houses. Officials often encourage this scenario, figuring they can get more property tax for fewer school kids if they allow just mega-houses. In a number of towns, small older houses are routinely torn down to make way for giant new ones.

This is a problem. While there's obviously a market for large houses, we need a mix of housing types. We need smaller smart growth housing in town centers. Smaller houses offer the opportunity to live within sight of other people, an arrangement formerly known as a "neighborhood."

We can use upscale small houses, and we need a lot of smaller homes that are affordable, so that young workers can afford to live here. The cost of living in this state is slowly strangling the economy.

I'm at a loss to explain why a family of four needs a house with 4,000 square feet or more. You have to heat it, clean it and pay taxes on it. These new houses all seem to have huge atriums whose purpose escapes me. Do people keep free-range parakeets?

Is a big house some kind of ego trip? Are the same people driving huge cars for the same reason? Or, perhaps people looking for new homes don't even think about it, assuming that big houses are all the market has to offer.

They're not far off. The bigger-is-better mantra seems pervasive. Since 1950, the average size of new single-family houses in the United States has more than doubled, even as the average family size has steadily shrunk, according to several studies.

The average size of new houses increased from about 1,100 square feet in 1950 to 2,340 square feet in 2002, while household size dropped from 3.67 members to 2.62 people, according to Greenbiz.com, a website of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation.

As should be obvious, larger houses cost more to build and operate, use more resources in construction and operation, use more land and create more stormwater runoff, an increasingly serious environmental problem.

That's not all. We understood in the 1800s that if we were to have workers, they needed a place to live. Sam Colt built a factory, and he built worker housing. Today we seem to have lost this thread. Many young families can't afford a $500,000 mortgage to buy in the latest development in Canton. So where do they move to and take jobs? North Carolina.

Ethics wasn't the only thing that was allowed to slide during the Rowland years. We've got to get a coherent housing policy going, one that encourages smaller houses and mixed-income developments.

But, you say, towns will object. Two of the principal objections were raised at a housing conference last week sponsored by the Partnership for Strong Communities in Hartford. The first was whether mixed-income developments had an adverse effect on the value of nearby single-family housing.

Henry Pollakowski of the MIT Center for Real Estate presented a meticulous study of housing prices around seven mixed-income sites in suburban Boston. The answer: There was no effect on surrounding property values.

Another frequent objection is that more housing density will increase school costs. Massachusetts has addressed this as well. Last year, the state passed a smart growth zoning law that creates incentives to put new housing near town centers, transit stops and certain other development areas. This year, the state agreed to pay for any additional education costs a town might incur in using this law.

Ethier said there's a market for all kinds of housing in Connecticut. I think he's right. Let him build it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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