What do you think of when you think of a house? Is it a safe space, and room to breathe? Or a suburban nightmare? The dream of owning your own home has been ingrained in many cultures as a sign of success and achievement. However, the reality is that the proliferation of single-family houses has had a significant negative impact on the planet and society.
Generally speaking, a single-family house is a detached house on its own piece of land that doesn’t share walls, utilities, or entrances with any other residences. The post-WW II period in the US made the house with a yard and a white picket fence an attainable middle-class fantasy. Millions of veterans had come home from the war, and the government guaranteed generous loans for white families to settle into newly constructed houses outside city centers. Almost overnight, suburbia was born. However, this housing boom was only accessible to white families, leading to a vicious cycle of disinvestment in cities and investment in suburbs.
This phenomenon was not limited to the US. Modernization efforts in many countries in the Global South led to the single-family house becoming a global trademark for wealth and belonging. With nearly 70% of the population living in detached houses, Croatia has the highest percentage of such housing in Europe. In the United States, roughly 85 million out of 140 million housing units are single-family homes.
The construction of single-family houses is carbon-intensive and often inefficient, with studies showing that building a single-family home emits roughly 385 kilos of CO2 per square meter. In contrast, multifamily households use up to 47% less energy than a single-family home. Furthermore, living in a single-family home often requires car use, which adds to the carbon footprint. The equipment and maintenance required for the lawn, garden, and landscaping also contribute to emissions.
The proliferation of single-family houses also reduces land available for other uses and exacerbates social inequality. Many cities are drained of affordable housing, pushing rents to unaffordable rates. Zoning laws, which dictate how land can be used and what can be built where, often create housing scarcity and exclude non-white populations from mortgages. Some cities have already taken steps to address this issue by getting rid of single-family zoning and promoting other types of single-family housing structures like duplexes and townhouses that support walkable communities with local retail and public transportation.
The problem is not just with zoning, however. Housing is deeply political and requires comprehensive solutions. Improving public transportation, investing in schools, and developing underused urban areas to increase density are all important steps. We also have to examine our consumerism and confront systems of oppression that sustain the interests of those in power at the cost of the marginalized.
Some places in the world have managed to minimize urban sprawl by implementing rigid state regulations. The city-state of Singapore, for example, has over 80% of its population living in mostly vertical public housing, with decentralized neighborhoods designed for pedestrians and supported by mass transit. If you want to buy a car, you’ll have to pay huge taxes, discouraging auto ownership. However, these measures were only possible due to Singapore’s unique government ownership of 90% of its land.
In conclusion, the dream of owning a single-family house needs to change, and our social imagination needs to expand. We need to diversify the images of our housing and take a comprehensive approach to housing that takes into account the planet and society. By promoting more sustainable and equitable types of housing, we can create a better future for everyone.