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  • Writer's pictureCRAIKER

The Shrinking American Home... But Not the Dream

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB

As a California architect, I’ve become well-trained in designing compact ADU's. We’ve designed and overseen construction of dozens of Accessory Dwelling Units, requiring us to think efficient, sustainable and compact. These tiny homes must fit in small backyards and unique locations. As the price of land, municipal connections and construction costs continues to climb, the desire to provide simple livable, dignified housing has gained a lot of momentum. One bedroom, bath and living/kitchenette homes in 400 to 500 square feet are becoming common and when carefully built, the budget can be in the $150,000 to $200,000 range, assuming the moon, stars and planets all align.

But the ADU phenomenon is all about renting, not owning. While a recent California State law AB1033 allows municipalities to permit a property owner to subdivide their ADU in a condominium-style lot split, the practicality is too weak and won’t reduce our housing deficit.

Getting on the home ownership escalator is the essential American dream, no matter how minimal one’s lifestyle or paycheck is. So, why aren’t we creating new communities of small homes for-sale?

Getting on the homeownership escalator is the essential American dream!

Over the last 70 years, the American dream has evolved from small homes. Levittown NY, 1948, often considered the predecessor of America’s post WW ll Suburbia, a home of 750 square feet with two bedrooms and one bath was creating the Middle-Class of America. Today, the medium California home size is 2200-2700 square feet and lot sizes have only become smaller.

The opportunity to jump on the home ownership bandwagon has changed dramatically. In the 50s, getting a home loan only required one paycheck and was easy to achieve. We bought our first home, a triplex in Hollywood, when we were just 22 years old. From there, we only went up. Today, qualifying for a home loan for even the simplest property requires Mom, Dad and Uncle Willie to sign on the mortgage. In 2023, private homeownership has drifted down to less than 40% by all property surveys.

Another interesting demographic is in the last 50 years, the American household has gone from a typical nuclear family of two adults and maybe three children to mostly empty nesters, well-off singles and childless couples which are now a very large demographic part of our homeowner population. Millennials, Gen X and singles are kept out of the market because the market is selling predominately larger and more expensive homes that first, second and even third time homebuyers can’t afford. Now, baby boomers have homes bigger than they can maintain with more “stuff” that they-or their children- know what to do with.

The concept of building small homes for sale is not a dream. Hayden Homes in Oregon has been building small home communities and selling very briskly. I talked to VP Deborah Flagan about their success. Like all builders, Hayden has spent years working on the process, details and delivery to create simplified, affordably priced homes, both one and two stories. In one community of pre-entitled lots, Hayden homes was able to sell 600 SF homes starting at $299,000. In Oregon the medium price of new homes is about $490,000, perhaps half of California sky-high prices, but the prospect of creating small affordable homes can still be reached. While two story compact homes can be more expensive to build, the saving on land costs will still make a difference.

I believe there isn’t a California municipality that couldn’t create the opportunity for a mini community for first time home buyers. I propose building condominium style air- right mini-communities that would work well wherever land is available. I hear another California State law coming down from Sacramento.

There's no reason why we can't create a subdivision of 1900 to 2200 square foot lots with a 500 to 750 square foot one- and two-bedroom homes for sale. Success will depend on the efficiency of construction and cooperation of the municipality. Everybody knows that track homes are built fast, simplistic, repetitive, with factory precession. There's no reason why a small subdivision of 20 units to the acre couldn’t work to provide homeownership for the aspiring American buyer.

The question is: will the State and municipalities step up to the plate to make this a home run?

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB has won 4 architectural awards for small lot subdivisions.

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