Find a little kid and ask them to draw a house. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Finished? Alright, chances are, your kid’s drawing looks something like this:
Single-family, detached house with a pitched roof and a chimney in the middle of a yard with no neighbors in sight.
This makes sense in a lot of places; for a lot of American kids, that’s probably the only type of house they’ve ever lived in. The funny thing is, I think this image is so archetypal that even kids who live in a city like Philadelphia, where there are almost no houses that look like this, would draw something like this if asked to draw a house. So I wanted to look and see; in America’s biggest cities, what does a standard house look like?
I made a list of America’s 50 largest cities, and looked up information on housing units from the American Community Survey (ACS) conducted by the US Census Bureau. The ACS classifies housing types into ten groups, based on the number of housing units in the building: 1, detached (single-family detached homes); 1, attached (rowhouses, townhouses, and twins); 2 (duplexes); 3 to 4, 5 to 9, 10 to 19 (small apartment or condo buildings); 20 to 49, 50 or more (large apartment or condo buildings); mobile homes; and other (boat, RV, van down by the river, etc.). I included the national numbers for comparison. The results are below, and a spreadsheet with the information can be found here.
Of the top 50 cities in America, 39 had a lower percentage of single-family detached housing than the nation as a whole; however, detached housing is still the predominant form of housing in all but six of the cities, and made up more than half of all housing units in 27 cities. Of the six cities where detached housing was not the primary form, there were three types.
In New York, Miami, and Washington, DC, the primary housing type is large apartment buildings such as towers. In New York this building type is very dominant, whereas in Miami it is only about 4% higher than detached housing, and in DC it is less than 1% more common than rowhouses.
Philadelphia and Baltimore are the only cities in America where rowhouses are the predominant housing type. In both of these cities, they make up more than 50% of housing units. Philadelphia has the lowest percentage of detached housing on the list, at just over 8%.
And all on its own, Boston’s predominant housing type is 3-4 unit apartment buildings. These come mostly in the form of the New England triple-decker, a three-story apartment building with one unit per floor.
The other thing I notice looking at the results is that it shows the lack of small-scale multi-family housing, also known as “missing middle” housing. This housing type is important for providing affordable housing without some of the negative consequences of the highest density forms of housing. They also provide a smoother transition between detached and high-rise forms of development, and allow the density that is necessary for mixed-use development.
So is the first image what a “house” looks like? Well, for a lot of people, yes, but not for everyone. For some people it looks like a rowhouse, or a garden apartment building, or a condo tower. But it’s important for cities to have a better mix of these types, so that there is room for anyone regardless of what sort of house they call home.
[This article was originally published by Munson's City.]
Dave Munson blogs about architecture and cities at MunsonsCity.com.
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