By now I think –or hope, anyway – that just about everyone who has spent any time studying the region’s housing realizes that we are not building enough of it. One part of the housing supply problem that has not received as much attention is the mismatch between the types of housing already built (and being built) and the kind needed for a changing population who are adopting different living arrangements.
The proportion of householders living alone has increased significantly while the proportion of households consisting of an adult couple with young children has decreased. In 1960, single-member households made up 7 percent of all households in the county. By 2018, that proportion had reached 25 percent, or about three-and-a-half times the percentage of fifty years ago:
Yet even as household size shrank, the size of new single-family detached homes grew – almost doubling over the same time period:
As new houses have gotten bigger, the number of people who might be considered “over-housed” has increased. According to the Housing for Older Adults Study, nearly half of households 55 and older in the county have houses with more bedrooms than they need. This study focused on households without a mortgage because these homeowners typically have more flexibility to downsize. This suggests that these homeowners are finding a shortage of smaller housing options that meet their needs.
This is a problem in Montgomery County. As a parent who will be an empty-nester in a few years, I have started thinking about downsizing from our four-bedroom house, but I would wind up paying almost as much to live in a smaller apartment or condo as what I pay on my existing mortgage. This chart shows that about 18,000 homeowners in Montgomery County are over-housed (in the sense that they live in a house with more bedrooms than occupants):
Some people like to have a spare bedroom available or use an extra room for a home office, but some others could benefit from different housing options.
At the same time, the number of households that include extended family (beyond parents and their children) or non-family members has been increasing, suggesting that more people are entering into room sharing arrangements to make housing more affordable. The number of single-parent households also has increased over the same time period. The size of rental units being built, however, has trended toward studios and one-bedroom apartments:
This housing mismatch is partly due to how the county is zoned. As the graph below shows, most of the county’s residential zoning allows only single family houses, which means that even if a developer recognizes the potential for a triplex or some other form of missing middle housing the law won’t permit it. So it’s not surprising that if single family houses are the only choice that developers have, they will usually build the largest (and most expensive) houses that they can sell.
These housing mismatches present several problems for all of us. The county needs a lot more housing to remain economically competitive, among other things. For young renters looking to start a family, the smaller number of family sized rentals and smaller home sizes may cause affordability issues. For an older homeowner in a large house, the lack of smaller housing options means higher maintenance costs and likely increased social isolation.
Montgomery County adapts to each generation’s needs and evolving definition of a “great quality of life.” The evolution of our housing stock is an important part of our work to meet these changing living patterns and preferences.