“Mr. Mayor, Tear Down This House!”
The average size of American homes has increased dramatically in the post-war period. (And by post-war, I mean post-World War II, not post-Grenada.) The average size of a home has increased from 909 sq. ft. in 1949 to 2,480 sq. ft. by 2021.
Where do we put these larger homes? Well, obviously, many of them are new homes in outer suburbs around the country. But many of them are also infill housing, which simply means someone (often a developer or rehabber who plans to flip the property) buys an older home in a developed area and either substantially remodels it or tears it down and rebuilds from scratch. Usually, as the trend above indicates and the profit margin often requires, the new “infill” house is larger than the prior house. Because there are two constants in life—change and people complaining about change—infill housing often becomes a public policy issue.
While many cities have dealt with the issue of infill housing in Missouri, two cities are debating the issue right now. Columbia and Glendale are both considering changing their municipal codes to address infill housing, though Columbia at least for now has decided against any changes. The objections in both places—and basically everywhere this debate occurs—are very similar. I agree with some and disagree with some. In Columbia, supporters of a moratorium on in-fill development in part of the city described the concerns thusly:
Infill development doesn’t match the character or the scale of the existing neighborhood, historic buildings are not adequately protected, there is a lack of affordable housing, and the areas need better storm water management, stronger development buffers and increased walkability.
Remember, these aren’t really zoning disputes. In many cases, you have single family homes replaced by larger single-family homes. The infill housing in question in Columbia is a bit different, given that it’s a college town with more multi-family (i.e. student) housing in the area. Let’s start with where I agree with some limits or regulations on in-fill housing, which are the very real concerns about the stormwater and flooding issues. That is a big part of the Glendale debate. Tearing down an older home and replacing it with a larger home often involves filling up much more of the lot with concrete and asphalt, with much less space to retain water. Just a few of these infill houses on a block can mean worse flooding for downhill neighbors. These water issues are a legitimate issue for cities to address, either by requiring improved stormwater systems or requiring minimum greenspace on a lot.
What don’t I agree with? Generally, the neighborhood character argument. As people objecting to a development in St. Louis County a decade ago phrased it:
The “McMansions” of Berra’s proposed Estates are too large for small lots and are crammed together to maximize profits, while irrevocably changing the character and density of a treasured neighborhood, 15 residents living near Schuessler Road told the panel. They presented a petition with 186 signatures opposing the development.
The character of a neighborhood is not for the government to decide. That is best left to market decisions or homeowner indentures (which are now easier to amend in Missouri). Yes, the difference between neighborhood indentures and government zoning and regulations may seem small, but I think it is important. There are many aspects of life we do because of social commitments, not government mandates or laws. I can sympathize with objections based on size of the homes, etc., even if I don’t agree with them. I have much less sympathy for government regulations on “neighborhood character” issues like siding, color, heights, plywood, and so on. Those are decisions for people to make with their property, not the government, even in instances where the neighbors may reasonably hate it.