What Happened to the Starter Home?

In the 1940's my grandparents had recently married and were renting a small home in Dallas. They were expecting a second child and were ready to own a home that would become a more permanent residence. My grandmother made an offer on a house that was being relocated to make way for the new Dallas Love Field airport. Her $5,000 offer ($100,000 by current standards) was accepted and the house was moved to it's present location and that became their home for the rest of their lives. 

There was a time when developers would recognize a need for affordable housing and respond with modest developments not far from the city ceneter. Those developments had to be close to town, near centers of employment, schools, transit and shopping. Families often could only afford one car so their home had to be located within walking distance of common services. Developers in the mid 20th century responded to the need for affordable, durable housing. Levittown, NY outside New York City is one famous example. Built in 1947, Levittown offered homes priced at $7,000 for new families. That is the equilvalent of $125,000 in today's costs.

A family of 5 outside their newly purchased home in Levittown, NY. Now this house sells for $500,000. 

A family of 5 outside their newly purchased home in Levittown, NY. Now this house sells for $500,000. 

What happened to the simple, affordable starter home in Austin? I'm not talking about homes in Roundrock or Leander but within the Austin city limits. We hear developers talk about today's "affordable" house in Austin being a 850 sf house at the back of many central Austin properties. This is made possible by zoning laws that the city has in place that allow a second dwelling unit of no more than 850 sf to be at the rear of a property. However, these new units are being "affordably" priced at $325,000.  A more reasonably sized house of, say, $1,700 sf costs $500,000 in the same neighborhood.

Affordable housing in central Austin

Affordable housing in central Austin

This is not the solution to our affordable housing crisis, nor is the crisis limited to Austin. Many growing cities across the country are neglecting middle class housing. Developers find it more profitable to pursue more affluent customers and who can blame them? With average land costs in central Austin ranging from $200,000-500,000 for a single family lot you almost have to market to the affluent buyer.

The solution rests in the hands of our city planners. We need zoning changes that allow for more density and a greater variety of housing types. We're missing the 4-plex and 6-plex housing units that make expensive lots more affordable to develop. We also need more granny flats or alley flats to densify existing properties and enable homeowners to generate income from their own properties. The city is currently developing new zoning standards based on building size rather than use and they are moving towards allowing alley flats of less than 650 sf for most central lots, pending neighborhood approval. These are steps in the right direction.

 

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