Bring back the rowhouse

Down with cul-de-sacs, up with the block

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

In October of 2019, I set aside my reservations and coughed up a down payment on a house. It wasn't easy — I had to move out of Washington, D.C., where I probably never could have saved up enough due to rent being too expensive, and in with my parents for a couple months to sock away enough cash. I ended up getting a rowhouse in West Philadelphia. Financially so far it is working out — I am paying considerably less for an entire house than I paid for a one-bedroom apartment in DC.

But Philadelphia is one of the few places where that is even remotely possible for non-rich people. In cities across the country, home prices are skyrocketing even while the rest of the economy is in dire shape. The reason, it seems, is high demand from people who have been saving money thanks to the pandemic, the CARES Act, and low interest rates, combined with very low supply in most markets.

There are many reasons why Philly is still relatively affordable (at least for the moment). But one of them is its turn to rowhouses in decades past, which gives it a large housing stock and moderately high density. Cities across the country — particularly lower-density ones like Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, or the suburbs practically everywhere — should bring this style of home back.

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The great thing about rowhouses — that is, narrow, long, tall houses built connected to one another, sometimes called townhomes — is that they have most of the stuff Americans say they want in a home in a dense, efficient format. Typically they are single-family homes between two and four stories (though they can be built or split into apartments easily enough), with a front and back yard. The yards are small, but big enough for most purposes — you don't need a McMansion-style soccer field to have some friends over for drinks and burgers, or let the dog run around, or simply get some fresh air and sunshine.

Then because the houses are connected to each other and on tiny lots, they are vastly more efficient. Instead of construction crews working on separate detached projects one after the other, they can build an entire block all at once. Shared walls means smaller bills for heating and cooling. Perhaps most importantly, the high density they enable allows for walkable neighborhoods with lots of shops and workable public transit. South Philly, which is almost entirely rowhouses, has about 24,000 people per square mile — which is not as dense as Brooklyn, but more than five times as dense as Phoenix and easily enough to support a subway line.

Rowhouses do have somewhat less privacy, of course. (I occasionally hear my neighbors even through the foot-thick brick walls, and I'm sure they hear me on occasion.) But even this has its upside — most obviously in a more vibrant neighborhood culture. When the sun is shining the folks on my block like to sit on the porch, chat with each other, smoke some meat, keep an eye on the neighborhood kids playing on the sidewalk, and so on. It feels like a friendly, alive place much more than the silent suburban cul-de-sacs I have visited in my life. And besides, who really wants to mow a three-acre yard all summer? Occasional weeding is more than enough work for me.

So how come rowhouses are so uncommon these days? They simply are not allowed on most city land, which has zoning rules mandating detached single-family homes. Now, while single-family zoning is being rolled back in some places, most rowhouses are already single-family. Instead they are banned due to rules about how much of the lot a house can take up, how structures must be detatched from each other, mandatory setback from the street, and parking requirements, (which have been recently changed in a few places like Minnesota). Contrary to libertarian notions about land use rules, the point is not "deregulation" but changing regulations to be more pro-density. Oregon, for instance, recently abolished single-family zoning, but also has a strict urban growth boundary around its cities to prevent damaging sprawl.

Now, that is not to say that rowhouses will solve all our housing problems. Much of Brooklyn and D.C. are already built out with rowhouses, for instance, and they are still extremely expensive because there is such great demand to live there. In such cases, there are many other ways that governments could and should alleviate the housing shortage. As Peter Gowen and myself have argued at length, cities could directly build and own large social housing projects with a spread of units for low-income, medium-income, and market rate tenants, with the market rents used to cover operating costs rather than constant subsidies from tax revenues like traditional public housing. This would work especially well in very high-cost cities like New York and San Francisco, though it should be at least feasible in most places.

But rowhouses make a perfect middling addition to the American urban housing toolkit. Wherever a location is near to an urban center but not quite suitable for high-rises, slapping down a quick set of rowhouses ought to be the default option whenever land is freed up. By the same token, many American cities are also desperately short of moderately large apartment buildings, in the 3-8 story range, at somewhat more valuable locations like directly adjacent to transit stops.

At any rate, I've elaborated the problems with the American style of homeownership in the past. Most obviously, renters deserve the kind of help that richer homeowners get with the mortgage interest deduction and government-backed home loans. But specific policies aside, the overall problem I see today is increasingly homes are treated as a speculative financial asset rather than a form of shelter. It's one thing for a homeowner to get back more or less what they paid into their home, but constant home price inflation is bad for first-time buyers, toxic for neighborhood stability, bad for wealth inequality, and can lead to destructive financial bubbles.

Cities ought to aim for roughly stable home values, if not lower ones in expensive cities. But that means that when there is big demand for homes, as there is today, supply must keep up. An easy and quick way to do that is to legalize denser forms of construction — like the good old rowhouse.

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