Earlier this week, the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, signed a law that would prevent cities and towns across the state from limiting themselves exclusively to the construction of single-family homes. Washington, like the rest of the country, faces an acute housing shortage, driven in part by restrictive zoning codes that have long perpetuated racial and economic inequity. The new legislation would allow neighborhoods to meet shifting demographic realities, in the process delivering a greater social good — a couple living in a Tudor revival on a street full of old-growth trees, for example, might find themselves now next door to a triplex with a single doctor in one unit, a young couple with an infant in another, a widowed civil servant in a third.
A few years ago, both Oregon and Minneapolis — where roughly two-thirds of the city was zoned for single-family housing — passed similar laws after long and fierce debate, to discover in the end that the civic order did not implode.
Many in New York hoped that the final version of the state’s $229 billion budget would include provisions of the same kind. Gov. Kathy Hochul had initially embedded a plan for 800,000 new units of housing to be built over a decade with a mandate for increasing density in towns and suburbs, especially in places close to commuter rail lines. It inspired the vision of low-rise apartment buildings with ground-floor coffee bars and bookstores that would bring cosmopolitan life to areas typically defined by the bleakness of parking spaces.
The plan was abandoned when it proved too controversial to keep budget negotiations with the Legislature moving along. The resistance was also broad, particularly in regard to the notion that local zoning codes could be overridden, though Republicans in the State Senate brought the most vocal opposition, calling the initiative “reckless and irresponsible,” an effort to “solve New York City’s housing crisis by turning Long Island into the sixth borough of New York City.”
In his 1987 book, “Bourgeois Utopias,” the historian Robert Fishman pointed out that “suburbia was at once the most characteristic product of explosive urban expansion and a desperate protest against it.” Many policymakers and homeowners are, in effect, still living within that tension, in denial of the ways the modern suburb already reflects trends in domestic arrangements away from the traditional conception of family and toward a lifestyle and experience that feels distinctly metropolitan. In recent years, it has almost became a cliché for real estate agents to describe commuter towns outside New York as “Brooklynish,” even though the great virtue of Brooklyn is that nearly 2.6 million people live there, roughly half of them foreign-born, in apartment buildings.
Despite the pretenses we maintain, Mr. Fishman argued, suburbia is not static. Rapid growth in the 1940s and ’50s fed the myth that suburbanization was an invention of the postwar period, when it had been part of the American landscape since the late 19th century. Unlike the Levittowns of 1957, these early suburbs were not as homogeneous, because the wealthy people who lived there were so reliant on domestic labor. In the absence of efficient mass transit, the difficulty of getting to these places from big cities meant that a certain amount of work force housing had to be nearby.
Over the past several decades, the phobia around density has run deep, whether a particular community is distinguished by its liberal affluence, barre studios and Alsatian restaurants or by a middle-class law-and-order conservatism. In a survey conducted last year, 63 percent of those living in suburbs said that they believed density increased traffic congestion even though the opposite is often true, given that greater density is typically accompanied by larger investments in public transportation.
The more vaporous claim that density threatens a certain “way of life” requires us to ask: What way? In 1960, during the high period of the ranch house, 44 percent of American households were made up of married couples with children. By 2020, that figure had dropped to 19 percent. During the same period, the proportion of households containing only a single individual more than doubled, to 28 percent. We treat the single-family house as sacrosanct perhaps out of a desperation to ignore that the primacy of the single family has itself receded.
Across the country, suburbs have become much less racially and ethnically monolithic. In 2010, the population of Nassau County was 66 percent white; now it is 57 percent white. There are vibrant Hispanic, South Asian, Chinese and Korean communities.
Two months ago, about 150 homeowners across eastern Queens gathered to voice their displeasure over the governor’s housing proposal. Reporting on the event, The Queens Chronicle noted that it represented an “unusual display of unity between racially different neighborhoods,” close to the Long Island border. These constituents were eager to let their political leaders know that they would happily join the opposition there and in Westchester. While this particular housing proposal and other reforms that were cast aside in the budget talks could still pass, with certain modifications, as part of the legislative session which comes to a close next month, it seems unlikely given the intensity of feeling.
“We have a front yard, we have a backyard, we have a driveway,” one participant said at the Queens meeting. “This is how we want our communities to stay.”
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