This Big House

(cc photo by ChicagoGeek)

(cc photo by ChicagoGeek)

Atrios lampoons the tendency of some to dismiss urban living as unsuitable for families on the grounds that the houses are too small. To put this in context, I think it’s important to understand the historical trajectory of house size in America:

The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s; it now stands at 2,349 square feet. Whether it’s a McMansion in a wealthy neighborhood, or a bigger, cheaper house in the exurbs, the move toward ever large homes has been accelerating for years.

And this understates the change since households have gotten smaller. Meanwhile, in part because it’s been generally illegal to build new dense urban neighborhoods for decades, the vast majority of the housing stock in walkable urban neighborhoods is quite old. This means they often really are on the small side relative to the expectations of prosperous present-day people.

The increase in home sizes itself is an interesting phenomenon. Obviously in large part it simply reflects a higher standard of living. Richer country, richer world, bigger houses. But I don’t think it’s outlandish to posit that there’s a certain element of a red queen’s race about it as well. At a time when it was normal for middle class children to need a share a bedroom, parents whose kids shared a bedroom felt fine about themselves and the children all grew up fine. But it’s very different to be the only kid in school who has to share a room with his brother, or be the only parents at the dinner party who don’t own a house with more bedrooms than residents.

To an extent, though, that’s simply lifeā€”the spirit of competition and the negative emotions of envy and spite aren’t something we can eradicate. To an extent, however, the cycle of growing houses has boon boosted by a number of government policies that either intentionally or unintentionally encourage bigger and bigger houses. That starts with our very poorly targeted system of homeownership subsidies and it continues through land use regulations that often specify minimum home sizes, prohibit high density uses, etc. Such policies are not only economically inefficient, they’re ecologically disastrous. The SUV has become the symbol par excellence of the unsustainable lifestyle but the more prosaic question of home size is arguably a bigger deal. When you double your square footage, you’re substantially increasing the energy involved in heating or cooling your home and in most parts of the country those activities are a bigger contributor to climate change than anything transportation-related.