Chicago starchitect Jeanne Gang says that better design–not just responsible financial models–can help lift America’s suburbs out of the housing slump.
On the op-ed page of today’s New York Times, Gang and Fast Company‘s own Greg Lindsay argue that if you want to revive the flagging residential real estate market, you have to offer alternatives to traditional single-family homes, which fail to accommodate the domestic needs of many Americans.
By “Americans” they mean predominantly immigrants, who’ve flocked to the suburbs in spades. They point to Cicero, Il., a Chicago suburb with a large Latino immigrant population and an astronomical foreclosure rate:
Most of Cicero’s housing is detached, single-family homes. But these are too expensive for many immigrants, so five or six families often squeeze into one of Cicero’s brick bungalows. This creates unstable financial situations, neighborhood tensions and falling real estate values.
Gang and Linsday suggest redesigning abandoned buildings, like Cicero’s old factories, to create flexible residential units so that “rather than force Cicero’s residents to contort themselves to fit the bungalows, their homes can expand or shrink to fit them.” They further suggest relaxing zoning laws–which often prohibit adaptive reuse–and embracing new financial mechanisms that ease the burden on homeowners.
Compelling stuff. People tend to think of the housing crisis as a monolithic problem that requires a monolithic solution, with the onus placed squarely on individual homeowners: Tackle all those pesky mortgages, and we’ll beat this thing. But there’s something deeper at work here. America has changed dramatically since the 20th-century rise and proliferation of the suburban single-family home (and we’re not just talking about an influx of immigrants, but also more single-parent families, multi-generation families, and so on). The housing stock has not. Gang and Lindsay show how elegant little design tweaks here and there can redefine home ownership to better reflect both the social and financial realities of Americans today.
Or we could all just rent.
Top image: SClements/Shutterstock