Chapter 23.44 Residential, Single-Family: Castles, fences, and manifest destiny

I grew up in a detached single family home. Our house was built on what was then a vast desert mesa in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s east side, otherwise known as “the Heights.” I have no idea whether people still call my old neighborhood “the Heights” or not, but it’s the kind of name reserved for a prime time soap opera.

Today’s Albuquerque has followed the pattern of most cities its size, with rapid and sprawling growth. In the early 70s it was vast swaths of scrub brush that were rapidly turned into cul de sacs and single family houses. My parents grew up poor, with about 7 brothers and sisters each, and in a very rural area of New Mexico. The house they bought and watched built from the ground up cost about $28,000.

That was a vast sum for a recently returned war veteran and his wife who had a small child. But it was a major achievement. I remember my mom continuing the mortgage payments of $200 or so after my parents’ divorce. And throughout my childhood I played on a retaining wall my dad built in the back yard. I had my own green plastic shovel with a smiley face on it to help out.

Like millions of families after World War II my parents were availing themselves of the mandate to save for, buy, and live in a single family home. And the government wanted my parents to do this and made it easy. As a veteran my dad was able to get easy credit and the loan was backed by the federal government. Before the Great Depression not very many things were financed but after World War II, stoked by Keynesian economics and driven by the housing sector, things blew up. If you borrowed for a house you had to have furniture, appliances, and a car to get to the job you need to pay for it all. Things blew up.

The prevailing housing form that everyone wanted was the detached single family home, with a fenced yard, garage and a driveway. Later maybe a swimming pool or an addition.

The beauty of all this was that it built and transferred wealth. Your parents would buy a house, diligently make payments over the years, build equity, and then, at some point, they could sell and cash in that equity for a bigger house or for the cash. That money and wealth could be passed on or used for college. Single family homes were a ticket into full-time residence in the middle class.

It’s hard to underestimate the impact single family housing has had on our economy. It was the reason to go to college, get a job, save, have good credit, and play the game by the rules. If you played that game you’d get your own castle at the end, furnished with heavily financed furniture with a financed car in the driveway. Generations of us grew up with this vision in our DNA. It was our destiny.

And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and, besides our first birth-right—embracing one continent of earth—God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark. . . . God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race. . . . The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. . . . And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time. . . . national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we can not do a good to America but we give alms to the world.

Melville, White-Jacket, p. 151.

Now every fleece wearing, Obama voting, latte swilling, gator wearing, climate change fearing, Progressive in Seattle would shake their head at what some might call Melville’s overreach and even racism. “The ark of the liberties of the world?” Come on. We wiped out the Native Americans, drank all the water, and exploded nuclear bombs in the desert.

But this kind of expansive exceptionalism is deeply embedded within the American–yes, even the fleece wearing American–psyche. We have a deep sense of entitlement to the outcome of hard work. In many cases a single family house in Wallingford doesn’t represent the wealth and aspirations of one person, but of multiple generations. Families aspired to “make it,” and the single family home–and the white picket fence–was the totem of that religion. It doesn’t matter if the yard has pygmy goats and compost bins or a shooting range, Americans of all political persuasions fought hard and worked hard and followed the rules to get their little piece of paradise.

Did we really cross an ocean, tame a continent, and fight a World War so we could live in a 750 square foot condominium in Belltown? Isn’t that what we were working against, cramped immigrant tenements? Wasn’t the city a dank, dark, dirty industrial death magnet where only the poor and sad lived? Wasn’t it our right to transform the hard work of our families into something better not worse, bigger not smaller, more private not more communal? Of course.

 

Boy and His Dog on the Farm -- Thomas Hart Benton

The bible has Cain and Abel. America has Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The primal story of brother against brother played itself out in our early history and has left its mark indelibly what we believe it means to be an American. I’m not digressing here at all, but getting to the most deeply embedded roots of why the single family form looms so large on our horizon when we consider our city.

Jefferson’s vision was a rural one. Hamilton was an urbanist. Both men could not be more different. Jefferson was the product of slave owning gentry, schooled at the best schools and a member of what could then pass as mid-level royalty in Virginia, which very much considered itself its own country.

Hamilton was the bastard son of a Scottish rogue who grew up in hardscrabble circumstances in the West Indies. Hamilton was in every sense an outsider and a self made person. He worked his way through school and eventually caught the eye of George Washington. By the age of 32 he was the nations first Secretary of the Treasury. He believed in banks and in British government. He was murdered by Aaron Burr, a fanatical follower of Thomas Jefferson, before he turned 50.

And while it wasn’t the murder of Hamilton but the election of 1800 that changed the country for good, there couldn’t be a more primal scene than the death of Hamilton. While Hamilton’s vision for the government and economy actually won out, it was Jefferson’s vision of freedom that won out over Hamilton’s.

Today almost every American associates freedom with individuality, self-determination, limitation of government, natural rights, and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Our view that government somehow limits freedom or that we should be suspicious of it, is very Jeffersonian. And when government tries to re-order the way we live we get very uncomfortable. Check your gut right now.

If I suggest we tax single family homes more than we tax other forms of housing, how does that make you feel? Why? Maybe you’ve deeply internalized Jeffersonian concepts of freedom. Regardless, government has chosen winners and losers, and for 60 years picked the single family form over all others; Monticello over The Grange.

Personally, I owe a great deal to the single family home. I likely wouldn’t be here with out it. Had my parents made different decisions and pursued different dreams my life would be different. Had they not had help and cultural affirmation maybe they wouldn’t have moved to Albuquerque, scrimped and saved, bought a house where I grew up with a huge yard. And perhaps, just maybe, my values would have been different and I would have made different choices. My mom still lives, quite enthusiastically, in that single family home and it ensures that she has a place to live and, if she needs it, an asset she can liquidate in the future.

But the era of single family in Seattle is over. It’s time for us to reshape our destiny. That destiny includes detached housing of various forms, more compact, clustered, and dense. It includes vibrant, crowded, and healthy multifamily neighborhoods with easy access to transit. That destiny, that vision, is all about public living rooms, and shared open space and infrastructure. Our destiny is an urban one. Our destiny is the city.

We can be the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours.

Photo credit for picket fence: jeltovski from morguefile.com

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7 Responses to Chapter 23.44 Residential, Single-Family: Castles, fences, and manifest destiny

  1. David Neiman says:

    There’s a lot of desire in the design community to take another look at SF zones, thinking of them as areas of the city with lowest height/bulk scale, but with uses that are more flexible than what we see today.

    The idea has merit & I’d like to see they city explore it, but I think it’s also critical to understand what works about our SF neighborhoods & not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The importance of ownership housing would probably top anyone’s list. The ability to park near one’s house certainly isn’t a trivial matter. As for tree preservation, privacy, height/bulk/scale, setbacks – these matter to a lot of people. Ignoring this fact won’t make it any less so, but it can paint us YIMBY types as being politically tone deaf & out of touch with practical reality.

    I think the SF zones are the last place we should look in the city for transformational change. We’ve got lots of opportunity zones to focus on: Transit Stations, South Downtown, South Lake Union, Northgate, L-zones in Urban Villages – these are the areas of the city that are supposed to change a lot so that the rest of the city only has to change a little.

    In the meantime, we can focus on small ideas for the SF zones: Allowing corner lots to split in two lots, allowing more opportunities for ground floor commercial for coffee shops, convenience stores, home offices and live-works. These are examples of this sort of use pattern in old neighborhoods all around the city & it’s the kind of thing that would make our neighborhoods more walkable, livable & vital without asking them to become something else altogether.

    • Codillac says:

      Thank you, David, for commenting. Good thoughts. Here are a few responses.

      “There’s a lot of desire in the design community to take another look at SF zones, thinking of them as areas of the city with lowest height/bulk scale, but with uses that are more flexible than what we see today.”

      I agree and I think that is really good news. The work you and Northwest EcoGuild have done is, I hope, the vanguard of a greater force of innovation.

      I think the SF zones are the last place we should look in the city for transformational change.

      We may disagree here. Although two things to keep in mind. I started with single family first because it is the first designation in the code. The code starts with single family and I am reading and writing in order. Second, I think that single family should be considered along with everything else. To exclude it feeds some unfortunate political assumptions.

      The idea has merit & I’d like to see they city explore it, but I think it’s also critical to understand what works about our SF neighborhoods & not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The importance of ownership housing would probably top anyone’s list. The ability to park near one’s house certainly isn’t a trivial matter. As for tree preservation, privacy, height/bulk/scale, setbacks – these matter to a lot of people. Ignoring this fact won’t make it any less so, but it can paint us YIMBY types as being politically tone deaf & out of touch with practical reality.

      Here’s the truth: I am out of touch with political reality. What I am trying to get in touch with is the future and that means trying to shift our footing. What do we promote? What do we subsidize? Why?

      I’m trying to dream a bit here about what we might start letting go of some of our existing social norms about housing typology and begin embracing some different norms. That won’t be easy and I am certainly not the one to lead that. But others are. And I urge them to start thinking and dreaming big too.

      Yes, a lot works with SF today. And I think in my vision of Seattle there is room for single family homes. But I am hoping smart people like you and others can start and be encouraged to continue thinking about a Seattle that doesn’t privilege that housing typology over all others.

      We’ve got lots of opportunity zones to focus on: Transit Stations, South Downtown, South Lake Union, Northgate, L-zones in Urban Villages – these are the areas of the city that are supposed to change a lot so that the rest of the city only has to change a little.

      Totally agree. Especially in L zones. More on L later, but I do think the L type models really well how to boost edges of single family so that we get more density without Heightbulkenscale problems. There are lots of great examples of 7,8, or 9 units that blend in quite well in the SF context.

      In the meantime, we can focus on small ideas for the SF zones: Allowing corner lots to split in two lots, allowing more opportunities for ground floor commercial for coffee shops, convenience stores, home offices and live-works. These are examples of this sort of use pattern in old neighborhoods all around the city & it’s the kind of thing that would make our neighborhoods more walkable, livable & vital without asking them to become something else altogether

      Agreed. This is the place to start. I think a post I just did shows well that many older neighborhoods already have lots of uses mingling together quite well. We have to incentivize this kind of thing and deliberately encourage it.

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