Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A New Face On Residential Land Use?

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has just about confirmed it in their recent report What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy, our unsustainable lifestyle of college graduates getting good jobs and a place of their own, then a starter house while the parents downsize and the grand-parents move to someplace warm to grow old together. It was nice while it lasted but, as evidenced by some long history, it was an aberration and not a realistic scenario.

We have had a hint of its failure over the last decade or so. Fewer folks are making the great salaries and bonus packages than used to and the retirements funded by 401(k)s or Social Security have taken major hits with this latest recession (and even before). Housing prices and the foreclosures debacle have left many without equity or nest egg from which to rise again. Things are NOT going to change over the next decade, even if we come out of this recession, so what are you going to do about it?

To save money, more of us must either live in larger households or in smaller units.” says the ULI. I can tell you that Mrs Sweeper has been saying that for several years now. That does mean living in mufti-generational houses with the parents living in one area and the grand-parents living in another while the working family has the main space. To many people today, this sounds more like Communist Europe than the late 19th century standard for most of the world.

The current rate of home ownership is way higher than historically shown to be sustainable and must come down. At the same time the rental market, both smaller units and the larger complexes will see a rejuvenation and may see huge rate hikes for the better maintained ones. The ULI report calls for an expected 300,00 units annually to be built nationwide and I hope that most of them are designed to fit neighborhoods better that he standard complex of today.

I don't see why the apartment houses of the early 20th century could blend in so well, yet the ones designed after the zoning codes were refined could not. The apartments of Ashland Park or Chevy Chase do not detract from the neighborhood but the units along Alexandria or Cambridge Drs. Seem so out of place. The larger suburban developments just about scream that their residents are just temporary. They might as well be student housing.

One trend that we have seen lately, especially in the newer off campus student housing around UK, is the three and four bedroom apartments with a central entertainment room with kitchen and separate bed/bath suites for the roommates. Gone are the days of shared bathrooms down the hall like in the dorms. Living off campus is more like living at home and for some it is much better. Perhaps this style of apartment living could work for urban families, if we could get past the notion that all children need a yard to play in. What is really needed is the pedestrian access to restaurants, cafes, and parks or recreation centers which adds real value.

The decline of “McMansionized” housing is well documented but they may not be gone for long. They may follow the path of the old style Victorians built in the late19th century and be the typical housing of the multi-generational family culture on the horizon. For a number of our recent immigrants the situation already exists.

One scenario which exists is that with tightening lending standards, (putting down some equity and exhibiting a sound credit history) the rental market re-emerges to meet the multifamily demand. The vacancies will fall and the rents will rise and the institutional investor will re-enter the game. To keep these units affordable, many will need to be located around nsit stops and walkable commercial developments. Massive parking lots around these apartments will not exist.

Our older citizens will increasingly find that, as their financial situations continue to fluctuate their ability to be part of that “gray wave” of seniors relaxing on the beach or cruising the Caribbean is ebbing away. Many more will be aging in place right here in Lexington.

I, along with many others do not care for the idea of living in a “retirement community” and wish to remain a part of the whole community. As such, many of the housing units will have to be age friendly and include the ability of community social services to be provided. This may be done in condominium or apartment style although single family/duplex arrangements may work.

Now is the time for Lexington to look at how and where we will begin to take on these challenges. We can little afford to believe that keeping the long-time “stable” neighborhoods as exempt from change. All neighborhoods are changing. It is just a question of rate of change. In a matter of years, conditions may change which could swing any neighborhood in any number of directions. Plans should be in place to deal with such changes.

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