Predict
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Predict

Will Apartment Buildings Have a Bigger Role in American Housing in the Future?

In discussing the future of housing we hear a great deal about houses, but much less about apartments — and this is not at all accidental. A mere 1 in 6 Americans live in apartments, and while the numbers vary greatly by region, even in highly urbanized New York state, with the highest proportion of people residing in such homes of any state in the country, only 1 in 4 residents of that state do so. Moreover, the comparative fewness of apartment dwellers is reinforced by the tendency to think of people who do so doing so only temporarily (like single people who have yet to settle down); or doing so because they are, frankly, socioeconomically marginal — and therefore of no interest to the media, politicians or other opinion-makers. (Indeed, the marginalization of apartment living goes along with the marginalization of rental in a culture devoted to the ideal of “home ownership,” apartment dwellers disproportionately accounting for the country’s renters.)

Still, as a glance at Europe’s situation makes clear this is not the only possibility in even a “First World,” Western, country. Half of the European Union resides in apartments, and while the proportion is admittedly greater in the less affluent east and south of the Union, even in wealthy Germany over half do so — all as the proportion living in apartments in even richer Switzerland is still higher.

Is it possible that the U.S. could be more like Europe in the future in this respect?

There seem to me some reason for thinking so, not least in the prospects for technological innovation. There is, for example, the possible effect of technologies like prefabricated homes and the 3-D printing of structures — which, while mostly identified with small buildings, may be extendable well beyond that (with the method’s potential to produce a 5-story building already demonstrated several years ago). It may well prove the case that such technologies will achieve economies of scale in the construction of large multiunit structures relative to detached houses, to the advantage of apartments over houses in price.

There is also the prospect of apartment living itself being made more attractive than it has been to date — its disadvantages diminished. One can, for example, imagine that apartments themselves might be improved in such ways as interior design economizing the use of space, or improvements in soundproofing reducing the annoyances caused by noisy neighbors.

Of course, “innovation” has a tendency to materialize in significant fashion where it “sustains” rather than “disrupts” established businesses — while business is more enthusiastic about chasing the dollars of those who have most rather than those who have least, adding to the comfort of the rich rather than relieving the discomfort of the non-rich. However, the differing situation in Europe and elsewhere suggests that even where the U.S. may not be particularly fertile territory for it can still happen.

Meanwhile the shifts in the demography of the United States may suggest a population more open to apartment living than its predecessors. Young people, we are told, are less car-oriented and less city-averse than their elders, while, perhaps reflecting the harder economic times which have been so formative for them, also leerier of financial commitments. They are also less inclined to marry and raise families — conventionally the moment when people decide to buy houses. And many of them have gone on living at home, in part because of a lack of affordable housing. At the same time an aging world is moving toward an older age structure in which we would have more older persons, who not incidentally have had a harder time saving for retirement, who might find it a good move to sell off their family home after the nest has been emptied and move into an apartment to relieve themselves of the hassles of the high-maintenance housing we have, especially if they could improve their financial situation doing so. Between those young persons, and those older persons, one could picture a greater demand for affordable apartments, reinforced by other shifts in daily living — for example, the ascent of Transportation-as-a-Service making residence in a dense urban center more attractive than before, by making it that much easier to get along without cars.

One can picture the two lines of development (technological innovation improving the attractiveness of apartment living, more singles and older people looking for cheaper and more hassle-free units) converging, and in the process possibly remaking one of the most fundamental aspects of daily life in the United States, how we provide ourselves with shelter.

Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy

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Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.