The Demise Of The Starter Home

In the fall of 1976, my wife and I signed contract to buy our first house. We closed and moved into the little starter home in January 1977. It was a row house in Flushing, Queens on a block with many other young couples.

During the spring and summer of 1976, we first looked at renting one-bedroom apartments in the Chelsea neighborhood we lived. It was then an eclectic working-class neighborhood but still had a smattering of longshoremen and seamen. Our apartment was a studio, but we wanted to start a family, so we needed a bit more room.

Doing our homework, we calculated that the rent for a one bedroom was about the same as a mortgage would be on a starter home with 20% down. We scraped the down payment together with much help from parents. We found our home, and the mortgage including the real estate tax escrow was $308 a month.

We lived in that home for almost ten years. We progressed in our careers, opened businesses, had children, and outgrew that starter home. In 1977, we paid $49,000 for it and sold it for $150,000 to another couple looking for their dream although a more expensive one.

Perhaps we were the last owners who could call it a starter home. The prices for comparable homes, which are ubiquitous not only in Queens but also in Brooklyn and the Bronx, have steadily risen. When I checked on Zillow, the price for the home was listed as $956,000.

Starter homes are a thing of the past. My home had one bathroom and three bedrooms upstairs. There was a small powder room on the first floor along with a dining room/living room and a not-so-big kitchen. There was a garage under the first floor and an unfinished walk-out basement that we did finish with a bathroom and kitchen.

If built today, it would be called a townhouse. There would be nicer finishes in the kitchen and baths. A central HVAC system would be installed instead of radiators and wall air condition units.

Since we were an end unit, there was a 5-foot passageway between us and the next building on one side and outside access to the postage stamp size backyard. That was worth a little more to us and to most people. It also meant there were windows on three sides even though not much breeze or light was in the little space between the buildings.

The problem of high prices is not only in New York but all over the country. Because of construction costs, local governments fees, building codes, and land costs, young working people cannot afford to buy the new homes being built. My first home was probably less than 1500 sq ft including the finished basement. The average size today is 2300 sq ft. Minimum lot sizes in most places are much larger than in the mid-20th century because of land development codes. Just another impediment to building new starter homes.

What was a dream that could come true for the Boomer Generation became much harder for that of their Generation X children and nearly impossible for Millennials and now Generation Z. It isn’t that the economy today is any worse than the one we had in the 1970s. It is just different.

My parents’ generation were the product of either farms and small towns or city apartments. In the 1920s and 1930s, housing was more functional than opulent. There wasn’t a suburbia or sprawl. When Boomers like myself came along we had the best of post-war America.

Young people today need to have the same opportunity as I did in the 1970s. It probably won’t be that starter home that I could buy. Yet it may be a small condo or townhome. For some it may be a rental apartment like my grandparents lived in all their lives. They never wanted a yard to mow or make repairs or even paint. That is why they paid rent.

We need to give people options and not demonize one form of housing in favor of another. Preventing different kinds of homes from being built is economic and social elitism. Call it what it is…prejudice…against those who do not have the money that owning a single-family home requires.

Some would like to make our towns and cities gated communities where only people like “them” can live. Stuart is not a gated community. It is a living organism that must evolve or sadly perish. The market should decide what is offered for housing. But then some people only believe in market economics if it gives them the result they want. When you pervert the market, you are rightfully called a socialist.

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Thomas F Campenni

Currently lives in Stuart Florida and former City Commissioner. His career has been as a commercial real estate owner, broker and manger in New York City.