Home ownership; THE GRASS MIGHT BE GREENER IF IT'S SHARED
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Behind the shrinking size of new houses is the shrinking size of the family. As the postwar baby-boom generation comes into home-buying age, it is grouping into smaller families than previous generations. More singles, more single parents, fewer children, and often the same big, free-standing houses.Skip to next paragraph
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If housing space in the US were divivied up according to the bigger family standards of the 1950s, says William Baer, dean of USC's School of Urban and Regional Planning, there wouldn't be a housing shortage.
And that, roughly speaking, is what many are doing:
Older people in big suburban houses are teaming up as housemates, both for splitting costs and for company. Young families are looking to the rowhouses and mobile homes that their parents often scorned. Inner cities are rejuvenated by professionals moving in from the outskirts, a trend many think will grow. Even well-heeled young couples are sharing houses -- shopping for two master bedrooms and big kitchens.
There are very positive sides to the move toward density. With households shrinking, remarks Catherine Berheide, assistant professor of sociology at Skidmore College, "people are becoming terribly isolated in their homes." She thinks denser living arrangements can help overcome some of that isolation.
"People rebel against that notion," Dr. Berheide says. They tend to hold to the ideal of a single-family dream house out in the woods. "But if you want your children to have friends to play with, get to violin lessons, be near parks and schools," she explains, "It's easier to be around other people."
Single parents especially, she says, prefer condominiums to houses. The upkeep is lighter and there are familiar neighbors around to help with whatever problems might arise.
Some think housing costs could lead to a revival of the three-generation family, as married children and their parents set up house together. The outcome could be more children who understand their grandparents, and fewer grandparents who, somehow, don't like children. It's not always an easy household to manage, but such extended families are generally considered to be a healthy improvement on the nuclear family.
Most economists say that the United States -- and not just California -- is headed toward a more European-style housing market in another way, too. More people rent, or buy only with government help.
"We're going back to the old way of doing things where if 50 percent of the people own, that's good. The rest rent," Case projects.
Those who do buy houses will buy under different conditions. Many buyers will either share their house with another family or split equity with an outside lender. At Stanford University, for example, the school lends mortgage money to incoming faculty for a stake in the investment. This kind of arrangement may spread.
But chiefly, homeowners will carry the risks of shifting inflation and interest rates, not lenders. So while 10 years ago the average family could hardly afford notm to buy a house, high interest and the new, variable mortgage rates are already making real estate more of a high-risk investment. Renting becomes more attractive.
"Rentng," Dr. Tarantello of USC says simply, "isn't so bad."
But the question of renting or owning, as President Reagan's comment indicates, rings up a major national ideal.
The drive to own a house is so deeply enmeshed in the "American fabric," as Kate Smith, chairman of the Housing and Interior Design at the University of Missouri, puts it, that renting may never be the answer, especially in Middle America.
She recently asked a class of 60, all of whom grew up in suburban, free-standing houses, how many would consider living in an apartment. Three people raised their hands. The rest wanted to repeat their background.
"It will be a dream that's hard to kill," Dr. Rogers says.
Ironically, the ideal is almost as new as it is ingrained. It wasn't until the late 1940s that the single-family home of one's own became a national goal. In the 1920s and '30s, the US was largely a nation of renters.