An underrated approach to family housing: large apartments

When the subject of housing comes up in Texas, a few key points often come to mind.

First, the lack of affordable housing. Now, more than 600,000 affordable housing units are missing in Texas, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Then, of course, there is the question of property taxes.

Rocket Mortgage reports that the average Texas property tax is just under $4,000 a year, the seventh highest in the nation.

But when it comes to meeting housing needs, it’s easy to miss some points, which is why Andrew Justus, a housing policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, joined the Texas Standard to talk about “family apartmentsand how they fit into the housing conversation. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: You published an article in which you claimed that there were not enough “family apartments.” Could you elaborate on the role they play in meeting housing needs?

Andrew Justus: Of course. First, let’s start with the definition of a “family apartment”. I think we could agree that this is anything that has three bedrooms or more. Something that you could have with some working adults, with elderly relatives living with them, like many people live in the same family, in a separate house. But what we’re seeing pretty much across the country is a shortage of these types of units in cities of all sizes. And there is a part of the market that is not served by people who would like to live in a more urban area, whether it be a big city, a mid-sized city, or even a small city.

You noticed that in 2006 there were about 80,000 family apartments under construction in the US. And in 2020, that number has dropped to less than 40,000 — less than half. Is there an explanation for this sharp drop?

In general, I think, as in many areas of the housing industry, financiers and developers are becoming more conservative and want to build something that sells or rents very quickly, and often these are apartments with one or two bedrooms. And because of this scarcity, everything they put on the market is rented or bought in most places.

It’s very interesting, but I want to talk about why we got to where we are now. I mean, why – if there is such a demand for family apartments – why aren’t they being built?

So, we’ve built a lot more in the past, but it’s usually building codes that limit developers’ ability to easily and inexpensively build large blocks that they can mix with other apartments.

Well, aren’t these building codes for safety reasons?

That’s what they say, but they’re doing more to just limit the freedom of architects and developers to create different types of blocks without really improving security. Modern apartment buildings are safer in terms of fire safety than a single-family home in the United States.

Now, if you are a local politician and have been thinking a lot about what to do to increase the amount of affordable housing, what could you do to open up housing options for families? Could you just post a couple of options?

Of course, I think it’s okay to build apartment buildings with what we call a “single staircase driveway”, i.e. with a core of stairs and/or elevator located roughly in the middle of the building that serves as an entire floor of several apartments. We currently limit such buildings to four or five stories, with most of the US and Europe allowing up to ten. And it really helps to increase the supply of apartments that are more affordable for the big floor plans a family might need, while also keeping access to windows, light ventilation in all bedrooms. In many modern apartments in the US, either you have a large apartment that needs to be at the end of a hallway, so you can only have a certain amount per building and therefore very expensive compared to other apartments, or you have three or more apartments. sleeping blocks, where, say, one of the bedrooms does not have windows.

Are there any examples of cities doing it right when it comes to family apartments, how do you see it?

I don’t think there is a single city that does everything perfectly, but I think Seattle and New York are moving in the right direction by allowing one-story buildings to be slightly taller than the national average, but still not that big. or as high as in other places and, frankly, in other places where the fire safety record is better than ours, despite more relaxed building codes.

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