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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.

9 Responses to “Over-housed: Number-Crunching Montgomery’s Housing Crunch”

  1. Neil Harris

    I assume that the single-family category includes townhomes. Where do duplexes get categorized? What counts in parking and transportation – surely not surface parking lots, right?


  2. anonymous

    How much of a problem is zoning really when there’s undeveloped/underdeveloped land in areas zoned for high-density housing? Wouldn’t we solve the housing crunch more quickly if we concentrated on accelerating development and maximizing density in those areas that already have the bus and subway lines needed to serve them? Maybe we should have minimum numbers of units in those areas instead of maximums. And are developers trying to provide affordable housing or are they trying to build housing that costs the maximum amount that people are willing to pay?

  3. Anonymous

    It would be helpful to know the number of various types of units being built and not just the size of SFH.

  4. Anthony Camilli

    Great analysis as always. Of course the political will does not exist at this time to change these things, but when that happens, not if, I would suggest that elected leaders start by up zoning areas around transit locations first. Those areas won’t be cheap to re-develop, but they will provide the highest return on investment for builders and thus the development costs can be widely dispersed and absorbed.

  5. Ralph Bennett

    Thanks, Casey – This illustrates clearly why the single family zones need to adjust to allow incrementally higher densities where transit options are near. The polarization of SF and MF, of course misses the missing middle. The SADU reform was a start – let’s keep going.

  6. Robert Oshel

    The post says: “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.”

    Rather than suggesting that these homeowners are “finding a shortage of smaller housing options,” it seems to me equally if not more likely that these homeowners without mortgages are happy living where they are and may have converted that extra bedroom into another use or are just leaving it ready for the kids when they come home on a visit. How many people decide to move just because they have more space than they need, especially if they’ve lived somewhere for many years and like it? Many, if not most, probably won’t move until health concerns force them into assisted living or another more intensive care arrangement.

  7. Sylvia Tognetti

    On my small street in a historic neighborhood two McMansions replaced one small dilapidated tear down. Same thing happening directly across the street, and another one down the street on a lot that had been vacant. And so far three of these have gotten waivers from installing stormwater controls. (Other two not built yet) And claiming “emergency” another house started excavating without a permit to pipe all that stormwater to the stream (behind my house). If that keeps happening, will my back yard turn into a de facto stormwater pond? My house is very small and among the historic ones and these new houses are presumably suppose to be “in character” with the existing neighborhood.

  8. Anita Morrison

    Very good points. We need to be providing a wider variety of housing types and sizes to meet the needs of our diverse households. Robert Oshel is quite right that many of those over-housed residents are not yet seeking alternative housing but rather enjoying their long-term homes (and neighborhoods) and/or, like me, avoiding the task of clearing out junk to allow for down-sizing.
    Overall, the number of over-housed homeowners is actually much larger than 18,000. That total only applies to older homeowners with no mortgage. Many more older households still have mortgages and houses larger than their immediate needs.

  9. Robert Smythe

    I agree strongly with comments by Robert Oshel and Sylvia Tognetti. We like where we live and have lived for more than 40 years, near downtown Bethesda, with our 4 bedrooms (actually 3 bedrooms and an office) accommodating first two daughters and guests, then several visiting grandchildren and guests, and now guests. We have no mortgage and will stay here unless forced to downsize by declining health.
    The county is all too eager to allow building of “McMansions” where more modest housing has served local needs well and could continue to do so. The label “Luxury Townhouses” seems to be redundant these days as county planners offer no incentives to restrain the greed of developers. Why not adopt incentives and some effective restraints to encourage more actually AFFORDABLE housing options in the county, and not just as some minimum percentage of otherwise “Luxury “ large apartment and condo projects?.