The Oscar winning 2020 film Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao, has been acclaimed for painting an intimate and honest portrait of a particular subculture of American wanderers who permanently take to the open road. This new class of nomad doesn’t travel around for solitude’s own sake, or to check national parks off a bucket list. The phenomenon is born from necessity, the byproduct of an economy that no longer has room for workers of a certain age or skill set. What Zhao’s film does well is patiently spend a few moments getting to know the human beings behind the laid-off factory worker, the Uber driver who got priced out of his hometown, the couple who lost their house in the wake of the Great Recession. The film’s protagonist, Fern, played by Frances McDormand, is a newly widowed nomad who describes herself as not homeless but “houseless.” And though not explicitly addressed, chief among the factors that make Fern’s story—and that of her fellow nomads—the stuff of poetic tragedy is America’s extraordinary and increasingly palpable housing crisis.
As with many facets of the U.S. economy, the pandemic has exacerbated the ills that have been slowly infecting the housing industry for decades, with an estimated 40 million people now at risk of losing their homes. These ills have become so innumerable and entrenched that solving this crisis is now a mission-critical undertaking that will require a broad, government-led effort. “Housing is one area of American life where government really is the problem,” wrote the New York Times editorial board last June. There is no disputing this—and thus the irony shouldn’t be lost on us that we now need the government to lead the way.
Enter the Biden administration’s proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, aka The American Jobs Plan. Once you get past the ongoing semantics debate over what constitutes “infrastructure,” within the plan are a number of crucial housing-based proposals that are paramount, lest we remain a nation of crumbling cul-de-sacs and strip malls. The scaling back or outright abolishment of single-family zoning laws is one such initiative being touted in the plan. (My adopted city of Minneapolis led the way in 2018, becoming the first major U.S. city to end single-family zoning; soon after, the cities of Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, took similar actions.) If this practice goes national, or at the very least starts to take place in more cities with a population greater than 1 million, it will be a positive first step in doing away with the types of exclusionary redlining, urban planning, and residential development patterns that have long circumvented federal laws against housing discrimination.
Interestingly, much of the recent literature devoted to diagnosing the housing crisis puts it in the context of “the last half-century,” which would place its beginnings on or around the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. This timeline also roughly corresponds with the collapse of manufacturing that was happening in many urban centers; white flight en masse from cities like St. Louis, Detroit, and Newark; and President Nixon’s housing allowance plan, which proposed putting federal dollars into the hands of low-income families, but gave zero consideration to increasing the supply of decent, affordable housing. But the “last half-century” shouldn’t timestamp when all this began. It’s actually worse than that: The amount of time that we’ve devoted to discussing, diagnosing, and, when the mood struck, attempting to solve the crisis has been more than a century in the making.
So: How do we solve America’s housing crisis?
While I certainly don’t have the answers (evidently, no one does), I’m optimistic that practices like ending single-family zoning and promoting more responsible and efficient land use are steps that can soon make a real impact. More cities should also adopt a policy of full transparency when it comes to unearthing and formally renouncing the racial covenants that—even long after they were declared illegal—effectively shaped whole swaths of the American suburb. (Projects like Segregated Seattle and Mapping Prejudice are great resources for better understanding the issue of racial covenants.) Secondary to such policy shifts, private enterprise should certainly have seats at the table, since nothing good ever came from letting a government official design a building.
Of course, the theoretical silver bullet will never be one housing type, one technology, or one unicorn company that finally cracks the case of making modular housing cost-efficient. The solution won’t be to put all our government eggs in the co-housing basket, tiny houses, repurposed shipping containers, or some other innovative take on reversible design and circular economies. We won’t be addressing the larger problem simply by granting U.S. contracts to BoKlok. That said, design should be integral to the affordable housing conversation. But we also need to consider the suburbs.
While on the campaign trail last year, Donald Trump claimed that Joe Biden wanted to “abolish the suburbs,” a rather asinine statement that nonetheless has some serious historical implications.
Long before the ubiquity of suburban and exurban sprawl interconnected by nothing more than a stretch of county road, a young, Harvard-educated real estate developer from Olathe, Kansas, named Jesse Clyde “J.C.” Nichols began building whole neighborhoods and residential subdivisions based on an approach he dubbed “planning for permanence.” Nichols’ master-planned Country Club District in Kansas City, Missouri, which began construction in 1906, was just one of these, and it created the template for the kind of subdivided developments that are all too familiar today: oversized single-family homes on large lots with large setbacks, scattered throughout winding neighborhoods, the planning for which openly mocks the proven benefits of street grids. Spacious, bucolic, and restricted. Indeed, while Nichols didn’t invent race-based and other restrictive covenants to control the use of land (and who lived on it), he very much harnessed and unleashed their full potential, not unlike Henry Ford and the assembly line.
Decades later, in the postwar years, the Levittown model of affordable, mass-produced housing would come to define the American Dream on a much grander scale, not to mention make J.C. Nichols’ use of racial covenants seem quaint by comparison. Meanwhile, out west, California developers took a slightly different tack, one more focused on bold design and sound planning. In the Bay Area and adjacent San Mateo County, which by some estimates marks the current epicenter of the housing crisis, the 1950s and ’60s were boom years for the kind of suburban sprawl that prioritized population density and affordability. Daly City, for example, the most populous city in San Mateo County and with a population density of 13,195 people per square mile, was expanding rapidly in the postwar years, and many of its newly developed subdivisions were situated on navigable, intersecting grid patterns. (Daly City also happened to be the inspiration for Malvina Reynolds’ satirical 1962 folk song “Little Boxes.”)
Venture a few miles east or south from Daly City and you’ll come upon examples of the modernist tract homes that embody “California Modern,” developed by merchant homebuilders Joseph Eichler and John Calder Mackay. Eichler and Mackay both famously prioritized design and the use of quality building materials by choosing to commission and work with good (and sometimes great) architects. More important, they built homes of various types and affordability levels. Eichler fought to ensure that these homes befitted modest, middle-class livelihoods, and were built in neighborhoods that actively opposed any forms of discrimination. Not only was he the first large tract-home builder to sell to minorities, but in the early 1950s Eichler actively lobbied the Federal Housing Administration to end the discriminatory policies that William Levitt helped codify, and legend has it he would offer to buy back homes from those who wouldn’t accept living in integrated neighborhoods.
The saga of the American suburb is a long one, often stained by blatant acts of poor planning, bad design, and outright racism. And relative to our current plight, it should hardly be used as a model case study in meeting the demand for affordable housing, whether we’re talking about Levittown, Daly City, or any one of Eichler’s tract housing developments. But the suburbs are key to the housing crisis conversation because fixing (not “abolishing”) the American suburb is a big part of the solution, whatever that may be.
The promise of the 15-Minute City has some serious appeal, particularly beyond the confines of the urban core. That promise is also one still largely focused on places that maintain arcane zoning ordinances which—even with duplex and multiplex units going up—won’t allow developers to build on modest-sized lots that would otherwise cater to the kind of high-density development that makes a 15-Minute City even possible. “People should be free to live in a prairie-style house on a quarter-acre lot in the middle of Minneapolis, so long as they can afford the land and taxes,” reads the Times op-ed, published less than a year after Minneapolis proscribed single-family zoning. “But zoning subsidizes that extravagance by prohibiting better, more concentrated use of the land. It allows people to own homes they could not afford if the same land could be used for an apartment building.”
If affordable housing can ever (again) be defined by material quality, energy efficiency, and good aesthetics, it will definitely require the intervention of the federal government and its trillions of dollars to invest in such efforts. Now, if there’s one thing Americans excel at, it’s throwing money at stuff. But we need a different approach—not a cheaper one, but one more centered on good design and the promise of building home equity on a modest scale. We can do better, because we already have. We just have to do it bigger, while also employing a range of design solutions—and not some fix that’s this year’s cure-all—that benefit from local governments having done away with exclusionary zoning and increasing their housing supply. Short of that, the American nomad class, whose modest version of the American Dream has been reduced to a used van and a prayer for good weather, will only become more commonplace. Fix all the roads and bridges you want, but that alone is definitely not anyone’s definition of infrastructure.
Featured image: Nomadland, via IMDb.