The Duplex Next Door Is Normal. The One Not Yet Built Is a Threat.

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Totally Ordinary

For this reason, when I talk about housing reform, I try to push back against the tendency to anchor our sense of normal to the current status quo. The current status quo—monocultural neighborhoods of orderly rows of homes, all at about the same price point, which don’t evolve into anything else over time—is not some state of nature or neutral condition. It’s actually a pretty recent and radical experiment, in the grand scheme of things.

The status quo is also a policy choice, with costs and risks of its own. There are already speculators. There is already displacement. There is already unaffordability. We must measure the risks of change against those harms already being visited on our neighbors.

If you want to change those minds which are changeable, nudge people to anchor to the totally ordinary experiences they have already had with housing that don’t fit neatly into a single-family box with a picket fence. Most of us have these experiences to draw on. I wrote the following paragraphs in 2019 about my own experience with missing middle housing, and they’re worth sharing again:

When I was born, my parents lived in a duplex, in a neighborhood that isn’t supposed to have any duplexes. You can look at the zoning map: “R4—One-Family Residential.” And yet there we were, our home legally nonconforming in planner-speak that evokes the way a 1950s sociologist might have written about “social deviants”: a young couple and a newborn saving up some money to buy a home while renting the upstairs unit from my aunt, who owned the house and lived downstairs (and provided no shortage of free child care). It was the perfect stepping stone for us for a while. For much longer than that, it remained the perfect home and investment vehicle for my aunt, and home for her best friend, who replaced my parents as her tenant.

We moved later to a single-family house with a nice big yard, next door to another duplex that would also be illegal to build today, but that is also grandfathered in because it was built before the prohibition took effect. I grew up next door to a succession of tenants, most of them nice people, that included families with kids my age; working-class roommates sharing the space to make ends meet; and young professional couples not quite ready to buy that starter home. Another duplex down the street was home to multiple generations of one family.

My neighborhood was safe, quiet, had highly-rated schools, and a great regional park with a zoo. Some of those people who were my neighbors could never have afforded the ante of buying a home there, but they could rent—in homes that would be illegal to build today.

These were living arrangements that enriched lives. That they were possible made the whole community better off.

It never occurred to me until I was in college that the duplex next door, or the one my aunt owned and that my parents lived in, would not have been allowed in that neighborhood. And I’m someone who took an interest in how cities are planned and designed. So I’m willing to bet very few of my neighbors knew that either of those buildings was a nonconforming structure. They just were. They were as part of the neighborhood as any of our houses, and no more objectionable.

But they didn’t get that way through immaculate conception. At some point, we had a process that allowed them to be created. And that process produced neighborhoods that were a bit messy, sometimes unpredictable, imperfect, but in service of becoming resilient and high-quality places.

Although living situations that have been part of my life—upstairs from my aunt, or renting a backyard cottage from a retiree—were nonconforming according to the zoning code, I believe that they are viewed by a large majority of Americans today as neither socially deviant nor undesirable. And furthermore, that this includes most of the people you and I have been told are “the NIMBYs” in my community, and yours.

I believe this is the best case to make to the persuadable yet conflicted majority—a number which includes many city councilors and local opinion leaders. We all have lives that don’t fit in a box, and our built environment shouldn’t fit in one, either. But we’ve been forcing it into a box for so long that to change now will mean we need to re-learn to tolerate some uncertainty, and resist the impulse to regulate it out of existence.

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