By Diana Lind
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Over the past century, American demographics and social norms have shifted dramatically. More people are living alone, marrying later in life, and having smaller families. At the same time, their lifestyles are changing, whether by choice or by force, to become more virtual, more mobile, and less stable. But despite the ways that today's America is different and more diverse, housing still looks stuck in the 1950s.
In Brave New Home, Diana Lind shows why a country full of single-family houses is bad for us and our planet, and details the new efforts underway that better reflect the way we live now, to ensure that the way we live next is both less lonely and more affordable. Lind takes readers into the homes and communities that are seeking alternatives to the American norm, from multi-generational living, in-law suites, and co-living to microapartments, tiny houses, and new rural communities.
Drawing on Lind's expertise and the stories of Americans caught in or forging their own paths outside of our cookie-cutter housing trap, Brave New Home offers a diagnosis of the current American housing crisis and a radical re-imagining of future possibilities.
A HISTORY OF SINGLE-FAMILY HOUSING
THE GOLDEN AGE OF SHARED LIVING
TODAY, THE STANDALONE HOME with its white picket fence is the emblem of the American Dream. But this style of habitation was hardly typical when the country was first born. Back then, Americans rarely lived without kin, servants, apprentices, boarders, or enslaved people. A minority of people owned their homes and few bought houses with large mortgages. Most people lived in small cities where housing was located in walking distance to, if not directly above or alongside, commercial activity. In other words, current housing norms were once pretty unusual.
At the very beginning of the colonies, housing was as rough-and-tumble as the original settlers. While houses at the time tended to be crowded and dirty—with dirt floors and all—being indoors was still preferable to being outdoors. For colonists, the backyard had yet to become the bucolic, tame experience that we romanticize today. Rather, nature meant danger and uncertainty, and houses prioritized protection against the elements over aesthetics.
Initially, towns were populated with what might look like tiny homes today—hastily constructed, single-room huts framed in timber that were rudimentary even by the standards of the homelands the colonists had left behind.1 In these early towns, housing was only as big as a family needed or could afford to heat. Families could sleep in the warm upper lofts of a one- or two-story home, and so as a family needed more space, they expanded upward. Houses sprawled horizontally only to accommodate uninsulated outbuildings, kitchens, and quarters for enslaved people or servants.
While some families built their own houses, many single men, travelers, and sailors lived at inns or as boarders in private homes. This was a time of great geographic mobility, making temporary housing more convenient to men who moved as needed to pursue professional opportunities. Taverns and inns also had the benefit of built-in company in the form of fellow travelers and innkeepers. When the Boston tavern The King’s Arms was sold in 1650, its inventory offered a glimpse of the way that food, entertainment, and lodging were all mixed at the time. The tavern’s ground floor had a grand room called the “Exchange,” a kitchen and pantry, and a parlor. Upstairs were the rooms for rent for the “better sort of people,” including space for a nursery. For regular folks, there was a garret divided into three small sleeping compartments. The yard consisted of a brewery, stable, five hog sties, and one “house of office.”2
This image of a bustling building that combined multiple uses—tavern, inn, brewhouse, office, and animal habitat—also illustrates the way early American towns grew: organically, and without any official zoning. In a time before cars, it was impractical to separate commercial and residential (not to mention agricultural) activities across large distances. With the horse-drawn carriage as the primary mode of land transportation, housing had to be in close proximity to amenities. Housing and work were intertwined: people often lived above or alongside where they worked, and tradespeople often offered free housing to apprentices as part of their compensation. Even after factories became commonplace in the nineteenth century, many artisans lived adjacent to the shops where they produced their goods.3
These early towns also lacked the capacity or interest to heavily regulate what went on in and around housing. In 1637, Dutch governor Willem Kieft took a census of New Amsterdam (now New York), only to find that one-quarter of houses were “grog-shops.” Lines blurred between housing and inn, and between inn and bar. (While people today don’t typically crave in-home breweries, neighborhoods that provide housing with quick access to restaurants and bars tend to be popular.)
With little private, clean, or quiet space indoors, people spent much of their time out of their houses and in the streets, which consequently were full of activity. Life was crowded, both within the house and within the town. In a far cry from the levels of privacy we experience today, house and street were interconnected; people could hear the street indoors, and the private lives of families could just as easily be heard on the street.
While there was still a quiet, rural fringe often just a mile or so from the center of town, the major cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia soon became more compact, ever more centered around the commercial core. By the 1700s, houses in these cities were often no longer built as standalone structures, but rather with a “toothing” at the party wall that assumed another building would soon adjoin it.4 Attached housing not only kept the city as compact as possible, and, therefore, as easily traversed by foot or carriage as possible, but also gave each home more insulation against the elements.
A visitor to Philadelphia in 1698 described the city’s common row houses as “most of them stately, and of brick, generally three stories high, after the mode in London, and as many as several families in each.”5 By the mid-eighteenth century, overcrowding was a problem in cities, despite considerable new and ongoing construction. Siblings often shared beds, and sometimes whole families crammed into one bed. Lots were subdivided, and multifamily and multistory buildings soon became more prevalent.
Although the colonies were on the cusp of forming a new country, where an entrepreneurial spirit would guide growth for centuries to come, colonial society was still very much like its European counterpart, with a large base of low-income people and a few very wealthy people. Author Keith Krawczynski’s book Daily Life in the Colonial City provides some of the data illustrating inequality in cities at the time. He notes that in late colonial Philadelphia, 80 percent of heads of household did not own their homes, and the wealthiest 10 percent of Philadelphians owned 70 percent of the city’s real estate and collected 90 percent of the rents.6
Early Americans viewed housing quite differently than we do today. There was little expectation of privacy, stability, ownership, or regulations, all of which are cornerstones of contemporary real estate. Back then, housing was simply shelter. The ways we commonly think of a home—a place of refuge, a backyard meant for leisure, a private space for the nuclear family—were not yet in play.7
THE PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES and sociological meaning attributed to housing began to change in the nineteenth century—a time when just about everything was changing. At the time of its independence, the United States had been a predominantly rural country with pockets of population in a handful of East Coast cities. At the 1800 Census, the population was 94 percent rural, but by 1900 it would be 60 percent (by contrast, it is just 15 percent today).8 New York and Philadelphia, the country’s two largest cities at the dawn of the nineteenth century, had only a little more than one hundred thousand people between them.9 While the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 extended the country’s territory as far west as Montana, most of the population still lived east of the Mississippi. But this sleepy patchwork of urban development would quickly change in the coming decades. Housing would have to change as a result.
During the nineteenth century, the United States grew at a clip of more than 30 percent each decade, with most of that growth coming to cities. The country’s total population would expand from just five million in 1800 to seventy-five million in 1900. It was an astounding flourishing of people, due to a combination of natural population growth, growing immigration (more than twenty-seven million would immigrate to the country between 1880 and 1930), and the slave trade, which would eventually bring more than three hundred thousand people to the country against their will.10 In the nineteenth century, not only would the scale of population grow explosively, but the country’s dominant economic activity would shift from agriculture to industry, changing how cities and the countryside were connected.
Amid this frenzy of growth, expansion, and economic activity, people arrived in cities to build their lives and make their fortunes. Housing had to be dense and cheap to enable cities to absorb thousands of new residents each week and mitigate extreme housing price appreciation. As the population grew exponentially, so did housing.
By the mid-1800s, urban housing, whether a Philadelphia row house or a San Francisco Victorian, tended to be larger, an indication both of growing affluence of homeowners and of improved building technology. These more spacious homes, ranging up to 3,500 square feet, enabled extended families to live together more comfortably. And because families were occupying more space than they needed, they could sublease to boarders when necessary.
The row houses, brownstones, and townhomes that lined cities from Boston down to Baltimore were flexible structures that could be divided into multiple units or boardinghouses as needed. Boardinghouse historian Wendy Gamber estimates that “between one-third and one-half of nineteenth-century urban residents either took in boarders or were boarders themselves.”11 While full-fledged boardinghouses became popular in the 1800s, there were also many families that welcomed occasional boarders, much like contemporary Airbnb hosts.
If the expansive size of new homes explains boarding on the supply side, a multitude of factors explain the appeal of boarding on the demand side. Many boarders had recently arrived in a new place knowing few people and with little money on hand. Boarding was often cheaper and faster than long-term renting or owning. Additionally, society stigmatized living entirely alone, leading bachelors and widows to seek housing with families. As a result of these and other factors, less than 3 percent of adults lived alone in 1890, compared with 28 percent of Americans today.
Today, a person who lives in a motel would likely be thought of as “housing insecure,” but back then living in a boardinghouse or other transient accommodation was often a normal first step in moving to a new city. Economic mobility was high (especially compared to society today), so it was not unusual for a person to move to a city, live in a boardinghouse, and later become a property owner.
For example, when Benjamin Franklin first arrived in Philadelphia, he was “penniless” and stayed at a boardinghouse along Market Street. After he married his wife Deborah, they spent decades renting homes throughout the city.12 Only after a number of years in Philadelphia did he eventually build his own home. But true to the times and Franklin’s entrepreneurial roots, it was a mixed-use building with a print shop, bindery, and foundry, as well as two rental properties.
There was little distinction between boarder and host in financial terms. People often took in others in times of economic need, and families who took in the occasional lodger did not think of themselves as running boardinghouses.13 Lodging got intimate quickly: travelers to inns and taverns could expect to share not only a room with a stranger, but even a bed. Much like sailors and bedmates Ishmael and Queequeg in the famous midcentury novel Moby Dick, many young men made friends through boarding together.
Boardinghouse life was not always rosy. A veteran landlady interviewed by the New York Times in November 1889 pronounced boardinghouse keeping “the most cruel and thankless way a woman can earn her living.” Her grievances included “Weary days and sleepless, anxious nights,” suspicious landlords, and boarders who treated her “as if she were a sort of an upper servant.”14 Numerous cartoons of the period depicted the women who ran boardinghouses as wretched misers who took advantage of people.
Amid all the social and technological change in the nineteenth century, boarding eventually became “the bête noire of mid-century moralists,” historian Wendy Gamber says in The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America. Instead of viewing boardinghouses as value neutral—a living situation that had its share of benefits and problems—Americans soon saw them as the antithesis to wholesome domestic life.
The uneasiness surrounding boardinghouses came at a time when housing became a home, laden with symbolism and meaning. Boardinghouses were the antithesis of the wholesome nuclear family and the single-family home that went with it. In boardinghouses, domestic comfort was furnished out of a financial incentive, not love; family and strangers interacted, often without clear protocol. Gamber notes, “In an era dominated by powerful—if often illusory—dichotomies between home and market, public and private, love and money, boardinghouses emerged as unsavory counterparts to idealized homes. Or, to put it another way, they offered nineteenth-century Americans a means of defining home by representing everything that home was not.”15
Today, we still grapple with issues that muddy the meaning of home. House flippers frustrate the ideal of earnest, family home buyers. Commodified community in co-living irks some as an inauthentic way of building friendships. But the home has never truly been free of market demands.
BY THE LATE nineteenth century, the transience that was once commonplace and in fact necessary slowly gave way to two classes of people: newcomers and the establishment. With many of the newcomers being immigrants—often from Ireland, Italy, and eastern Europe—the blurry boundaries between host and boarder, between newcomer and established resident, became more fixed in order to enforce class and ethnic differences. At the same time, boardinghouses and overcrowded apartments were meeting increased opposition from reformers and local governments. Gone were the days when you could have a hog sty in your backyard without anyone caring!
At the same time, as in-home servants became less prevalent and slavery was abolished, it became more of a norm for the household to be limited to the nuclear family. Families themselves were quickly becoming smaller: the average American family had slightly more than five children in 1870, but an average of four children just two decades later in 1890.
Alongside population growth and changing norms, housing and development also adjusted to new technology. The creation of the railroad system, the emergence of trolleys, and the proliferation of private automobiles changed the geography of whole metropolitan areas. Following the Civil War, land speculation was rampant. And as mass-produced steel enabled the construction of larger and taller buildings, developers focused on high-density housing as a way to maximize profit on land.
In this context, a new hybrid emerged, encompassing the hominess of a boardinghouse and the commercial atmosphere of a hotel: the apartment hotel. The apartment hotel took the boardinghouse’s advantages (short-term room and board) and tried to mitigate its disadvantages (the professional inefficiencies and personal awkwardness of the small scale). Tremont House, built in Boston in 1829, is noted as the first hotel to have indoor plumbing and bathrooms, bellboys, and free soap. Novelist Charles Dickens wrote about it in his travelogue, American Notes, saying, “The hotel (a very excellent one)… has more galleries, colonnades, piazzas, and passages than I can remember, or the reader would believe.”16
This style of residential hotel was imitated and proliferated throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. While these hotels catered to short-term stays, they also became semipermanent forms of residence. Some featured gender-segregated dining rooms and parlors, provided amenities such as laundry and libraries that prefigure today’s co-living common spaces, and allowed a degree of anonymity that the intimacy of the boardinghouse could not offer.
Apartment hotels were not just for bachelors and bachelorettes; families enjoyed them as well. In Columbia University professor Gwendolyn Wright’s history of American housing, Building the Dream, she notes that wealthy families were attracted to apartment hotels’ convenience and technological advantages. “Some saw [the apartment houses] as utopian settings: auguring a cooperative society, providing technological precision and infinitely available comforts.” Rather than move to the privatism in the suburbs, some families preferred the communal and creative apartment hotel and its perch in the city.17
In a way, some apartment hotels prefigured Uber Eats and some of the amenity-laden condos and co-living arrangements of today. An 1871 apartment hotel on lower Fifth Avenue in New York featured public dining rooms and laundry service. Residents could eat in an elegant dining room on the first floor or have their food brought up to them.18 Wright explains, “For rents ranging between $650 and $2,200 a year… it was possible to do away with many of the smells, sounds, and wasted space of household drudgery.”
For those who couldn’t afford an apartment house, many found space in a much less chic type of multistory building that prevailed during this time: the tenement. Tenements, which were once synonymous with any multifamily dwelling, became a distinct housing type in the late 1800s. They were often called railroad tenement apartments, because they were designed without hallways and one passed through the apartment, room by room, as one does through a train’s cars. These tenements succeeded in housing tremendous numbers of people, but did so by sacrificing adequate access to air and light. It may have been that crowded urban housing conditions merely correlated with disease rather than caused it (after all, rural areas with sewage problems and malnourished workers also cultivated disease), but tenements would become associated with a myriad of controversial issues such as poor health, overwork, and poverty. If the boardinghouse seemed problematic in the middle of the nineteenth century, the tenement was, by the end of the century, an official crisis.
In this period following the Civil War, public health took on a new sense of urgency. After thousands of soldiers died unnecessarily due to unsanitary conditions in war camps, the public health reform movement took on a variety of health issues—including crowded housing—through new zoning regulations.
Zoning came to be seen as a tool that could protect people’s well-being. But it was also used to punish and segregate immigrants. In San Francisco, legislators passed the Cubic Air Ordinance in 1870, which required five hundred cubic feet of air per occupant. While such a law would indeed promote better living conditions, it also resulted in hundreds of arrests, primarily of Chinese immigrants whose apartments were then later occupied by white residents.19
In New York, legislation in 1879 similarly required that every room in a tenement have access to fresh air. Tenements built after this law passed were called dumbbell tenements, because they narrowed in the middle to create air shafts that allowed for a tiny bit of light and air and maintained the maximum square footage for living space. That tenements rather easily flouted existing zoning codes made it all the more urgent that cities develop stricter requirements to bring them under control. A New York City law governing tenements that passed in 1901 provided more extensive rules for waste disposal, indoor plumbing, outdoor courtyards, and access to fresh air. It essentially established the modern zoning code that would guide the city’s development for a century.
In the years between these two laws, Jacob Riis’s 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, was published. Riis’s book, which used shocking, candid photography and impassioned storytelling to document the squalor of tenement life, became an immediate best seller that reformers and regular citizens alike marshaled to condemn tenements. But while Riis’s work would have a major impact on society, and is to this day the most commonly cited source on the problem of urban overcrowding, it was merely part of a chorus of media about the problems with urban living. As newspapers published frequent reports about hazardous tenement conditions, even luxury multifamily buildings became tainted by their association with density.20
Reformers also undertook the cause of children mistreated at home, school, or work. City life and shared living were demonized for their purported contributions to the problems of children’s unhappiness and overwork. The Child Welfare Manual criticized raising a family in the city, declaring, “It is hard to think of a real home stored in diminutive pigeon-holes….The quarters are so crowded that not only is it necessary to use folding Christmas-trees, but the natural, free intercourse of the family is crowded out; there is no room to play, no place for reading-room and music and hearth-side; and so families fold up their affections too.”21 For many families, this kind of anti-urban-living commentary was powerful enough to encourage them to seek, literally, greener pastures and more spacious homes. Suburbia would gain in popularity not only because of its advantageous privacy and greenery, but because of the fear that narratives like this instilled in parents. Raising kids in the city became essentially synonymous with neglect.
RIIS’S WORK ARRIVED just as electric streetcars transformed where people could live and work within a city. When Riis was writing about the Lower East Side, the population density had peaked at more than four hundred thousand people per square mile—comparable to the kind of dense habitation prevalent in today’s Hong Kong or Manila, where people live in skyscrapers and not in five-story tenements.22 Streetcars helped ease this kind of crowding by allowing for urban expansion into the early suburbs, which were often within a short distance of the city’s core. Indeed, part of Riis’s prescription for ameliorating tenements was to encourage people to move out of the city. Low-cost fares and free transfers encouraged city dwellers to live outside densely inhabited areas and commute into the city for work.
This new suburban sprawl was fast and had a tremendous domino effect. Robert Bruegmann, author of one of the defining books on the topic, Sprawl, captures the quick exodus from the city:
After several decades of outward movement, there were not enough tenants left to fill the oldest and least sanitary tenements on the Lower East Side. In response to the outward migration, together with new, tighter building laws, many building owners boarded up their properties above the first floor or abandoned them altogether. Densities plummeted. Manufacturing firms dispersed along with the residents, sometimes in advance and sometimes trailing, as they required larger and more up-to-date facilities. Along with the factories, many retail establishments dispersed as well. Both the residential and the employment density curves in the New York area flattened rapidly.23
As the demographics of who lived in cities radically changed, the location of jobs diversified, and streetcar technology allowed for a more dispersed metropolis, housing underwent a shift from urban to suburban, shared to private, rented to owned. And although there was never a halcyon period of American inclusive diversity, during this era of exodus cities and suburbs grew more segregated by race and class.
With jobs moving out of the city center and dense housing viewed negatively, many of the old forms of housing came under attack because of how they purportedly affected people’s moral character. The legitimate concern about overcrowded housing as a public health issue slowly morphed into unproven ideas that densely populated housing would have negative mental and even physical consequences. Despite there being a wide range of living situations between overcrowded tenements and single-family homes, there was little room for nuance. Suburbia was always depicted as uplifting.
At the same time that late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century urban buildings, whether tenements or apartment hotels or plain apartment buildings, made little appeal to the symbolic concept of the home, new model cottages in the suburbs developed a novel narrative for housing. Early streetcar suburbs often offered larger and more private homes than those found in the core city. In places like West Philadelphia, Mount Lebanon in Pittsburgh, and Mount Pleasant in Washington, DC, the turn-of-the-century homes looked like English-style country cottages with stone cladding and landscaped yards. These houses illustrate the true ambitions of suburban and rural architecture—not only to escape overcrowding, but to emulate the rich.
American aesthetics were evolving. Victorian architecture in the late nineteenth and twentieth century demonstrated a preoccupation with nature, personal expression, and family life. In the 1920s, when advertisements, media, and literature all promoted national parks and resort hotels to the middle class, the benefits of outdoor life, fresh air, and exercise became codified as part of American family life. Soon, the image of the suburban home and its inherent domesticity, access to nature, and the “good family” became interchangeable concepts. Even if people still living in the tenements aspired to this lifestyle, it was out of their price range.
When people didn’t willingly move out of dense urban areas, they were often pushed out. Under the banner of noblesse oblige and public health concern, city governments authorized slum clearance—the practice of demolishing substandard buildings and replacing them with new development. By the early twentieth century, tenements were being razed because of their high rates of contagious diseases. In one drastic example in 1905, Chicago cleared two hundred buildings within a two-block area and displaced some 3,500 people.24 Although building owners were compensated for their loss, tenants often had no recourse.
WHILE THE RISE of the single-family home was supported by many factors at the turn of the twentieth century—a public health movement that was biased against the density of urban life, a family-centric approach to living, the creation of streetcar transit, and the incentivizing of early suburbia—its near-complete dominance of housing was not yet a given.
A variety of housing choices sprung up at the time to offer alternatives to the binary of tenements or single-family homes: Companies built entire communities for their workers. Cooperatives of workers built their own housing projects. Women’s empowerment groups created women-run and lived-in communities, like YWCAs and housing for female professionals. Before city governments paid to build subsidized housing, local philanthropists stepped in to build model tenements with more access to shared outdoor areas.
But the strategies employed to improve tenements hint at the difficulty of bridging these housing types with the growing paradigm of familial privacy. Model tenements moved social activity into central courtyards and off the streets, in effect moving public life into the private realm. Eventually, public concern that shared indoor space encouraged unsavory behavior (because it allowed people of different ages, backgrounds, and families to mix) extended to shared outdoor space. The only palatable option, then, was a private home with a private backyard.
- "Diana Lind's "Brave New Home" is one of those invaluable books that offer a new, revelatory window on familiar problems. Faced with a host of societal challenges - economic inequality, loneliness, housing precarity, environmental degradation - Lind convincingly argues that the single-family home is at least partly to blame."—The New York Times Book Review
- "A congenial and well-informed tour guide, Lind balances her hopeful outlook with a sincere acknowledgement of how deeply racial and class inequalities affect these matters."— Publishers Weekly
- “Brave New Home is a compelling read for those willing to start reshaping the residential landscape to meet the needs of a brave, new future.”—ENTER
- “Lind’s provocative and engaging book—which argues for an array of housing options that better address economic hardship, wellness, and the digital nomad—is more necessary than ever.”—Architectural Record
- "In this bracing new book, Diana Lind, long one of America's sharpest thinkers on urban issues, delivers a wake-up call to a country whose mental and legal paradigms on housing are stuck in the past. Brave New Home is a necessary, important call to rethink America's monomania about the detached single-family house and start building communities and economic structures that work for the full range of families and lifestyles present in the country today."—Matthew Yglesias, Vox.com co-founder and author of One Billion Americans
- "Can the history of single-family housing and its current challenges be an amusing, informative romp? In the case of Brave New Home, yes. It is also a refutation of the fear-based Pandemic-Think of the infinite dangers of city dwelling: Diana Lind argues that collectivist living and urbanism should remain our goals, even now."—Alissa Quart, author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America
- "Here's a book that delivers on its promise. I know of no other single source that so completely and cogently explains the isolation en masse that characterizes American housing today, as well as the brilliant alternatives that may be just one zoning-code tweak away."—Jeff Speck, city planner and author of Walkable City
- "From the COVID crisis to rampant inequality, it is time to reinvent the way we live. Utterly fascinating and incredibly important, Brave New Home shows how the single family suburban home has gone from the shining symbol of the American Dream to a veritable nightmare for our economy and society. The book builds on its detailed diagnosis to outline a prescription for creating new, better, more affordable and equitable housing options for a new century. A must read for city leaders, urbanists, and all those concerned with the future of our cities, economy, and society."—Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class
- "Brave New Home urges us to reimagine American housing policy and practice. Without major changes in what we build, we will only continue to see more unaffordable, segregated, unsustainable neighborhoods. By encouraging more flexible, affordable housing options, we can achieve cities that reflect the true diversity of American households. Only then will we have housing that furthers the goals of social justice and equity."—Darren Walker, president, Ford Foundation
- On Sale
- Oct 13, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Bold Type Books