How Does Housing Stock Affect Urban Revitalization?

The second of Pete Saunders’ nine reasons why Detroit failed is “poor housing stock,” particularly its overweighting towards small, early postwar cottages. Here’s a sample:

Here’s what Pete had to say:

Detroit may be well-known for its so-called ruins, but much of the city is relentlessly covered with small, Cape Cod-style, 3-bedroom and one-bath single family homes on slabs that are not in keeping with contemporary standards for size and quality…..The truth, however, is that Detroit may have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.S. city….True, Detroit has more than its share of abandoned ruins that negatively impact housing prices. But it also has many more homes that simply don’t generate the demand that higher quality housing would. That is a major contributor to the city’s abundance of very cheap housing.

I have often been struck by the same thing in Philadelphia. There are some districts of great buildings, but most of the city is made up of mile after mile of two-story, very small row houses. Here’s a snap I took in the Kensington neighborhood that provides a sample.

This is decent density of these to be sure. However, keep in mind that most of these row houses contain a single unit.  The Upper West Side brownstone I live in has been converted into ten units. Also, many of these rowhouse units are extremely shallow. Here’s a picture I found online that illustrates a typical depth.

Photo credit: Flickr/pwbaker CC BY-NC 2.0

As it happens, there has been some redevelopment activity in Kensington, both in residential and industrial spaces. (Some neighborhoods nearby are seeing significant redevelopment).

Someone I know recently bought and renovated a rowhouse in the neighborhood, so I got to tour it. It’s a two-bedroom unit, but very small. It’s barely bigger than your average one bedroom apartment. Unsurprisingly, the person who bought it is in her 20s and single.

As nice as this unit was, it’s basically a starter home, much like those Detroit Cape Cods. Cities need to have housing like that, but if it is overwhelmingly dominant, that’s not healthy.

It’s similar to how so many downtowns are seeing tons of Millennial targeting apartment construction. Older families can have trouble finding housing in these areas because there isn’t great housing to take you through your full lifecycle.

Philadelphia should be fine in the near term. The city has great bones and I really find it compelling in a lot of ways. But I wonder if this type of housing stock is one reason the city has seen less demand than other old major tier one urban centers with great transit.

I put out a poll on Twitter about this and most people didn’t seem to agree with me on the potential negative of being overweight very small rowhouses. We will see how this plays out for Philly.

from Aaron M. Renn


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