Thinking Differently About Housing Opportunities

Rethinking Our Thinking Blog Series

By Aspen Romeyn

Aspen Romeyn shares how her experience looking for housing throughout the different stages of her life has shaped her policy views and displayed the need for mixed housing options, “life-cycle housing”, to build diverse communities in our region.

After graduating from college, I needed a place to live, and had decided I wanted to live on my own. I’d had enough of roommates and shared living situations for the time being. I was working in a small community with a thriving downtown surrounded by beautiful residential neighborhoods. Unfortunately, anything walkable to downtown was a single-family house and way outside of my price range, not to mention simply more house than I needed.  I ended up finding a place to rent in the next big city over, a little duplex on a corner lot in an established neighborhood with mostly single-family homes. It was built in 1950 and had the interior charm of a house from that era – nice hardwood floors, built-in storage, and woodwork details you don’t typically find in homes built today. It was small, just 700 sq. ft., with a bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, and bathroom, but it was very affordable on my young professional’s salary at $600/month (2009 dollars). On the other side of the duplex was Sarah, an older woman who was mostly retired but still worked occasionally as a substitute teacher. She had two dogs who were sweet but also protective.  As a single woman living alone in a new city, I took a lot of comfort in knowing that Sarah and her dogs were on the other side of my kitchen wall if I ever needed anything.

I loved living in an established neighborhood close to downtown. On weekends, friends would come visit and we’d walk to the Farmers’ Market, meeting fellow neighbors along the way. We often walked past a Latina grandma and her three grandchildren. The grandma didn’t speak English very well, but the granddaughter was full of energy and always excited to translate for us. They lived in an apartment complex a few blocks away. The neighbors to one side of me were a young couple who had just gotten married and bought that house as their first home. Across the street lived a single mom and her teenage son in a single-family house. I loved the diversity of the neighborhood and immediately joined the neighborhood listserv, attended neighborhood meetings, and generally tried to get to know my neighbors, some of whom had lived there for over 20 years.

The kind of housing I had found– smaller, more affordable multi-units mixed into residential neighborhoods – is very hard to find and is rarely being built these days. I had lucked out because it was exactly what I needed at that point in my life.

This is what we at TJCOG refer to as “life-cycle housing,” defined as a mix of housing types, styles, locations, and prices that offer both opportunity and choice for a range of potential buyers and renters, and is inclusive to all generations.

Think about your different phases of life, and the kind of housing you have looked for during each. When you finished school, or left the military, what kind of living situation were you looking for? When you found a partner, or adopted a dog, how did that change? Once you had kids, did you desire to move to a different house or a different neighborhood? If your kids have moved out of your house, were you looking for a smaller place to downsize to that doesn’t require quite as much maintenance? Did you get laid off or have a job change that changed your budget significantly? Perhaps your aging parent started to need more care and you decided she should move in with your family. What kind of housing do you need to accommodate that? We all benefit from having housing choices that meet our unique needs at each of these stages of life. Unfortunately, most of our communities in the Triangle region have limited options beyond single-family homes or larger apartment communities.

According to economist Jenny Schuetz, our housing crisis in this country is partly an issue of low incomes and partly an issue of housing supply. But above that, she posits that we actually have a housing policy issue – that local governments are preventing the development of increased housing choices and increased densities that could naturally provide for more affordable housing at all stages of life.

My year in that duplex was the only time in my life I’ve lived alone. I wasn’t truly alone though – I was embraced by my neighbors, and welcomed into the diverse neighborhood around me. That welcome instilled a love for my community that has only deepened over time.  After I left the duplex I moved a few times, usually just a few blocks in one direction or another. Eventually I found a partner, adopted a dog, and we bought a 1100-sq. ft. house not too far from that duplex. And as for Sarah? She moved around a little herself, but eventually ended up buying a house too, a smaller one at 840 sq. ft., just two blocks from us. I love still seeing her walking around the neighborhood with her dogs, and I love living in a neighborhood that can support us both.  

Want to think differently about our region’s challenges with a diverse group of community leaders and advocates? Join TJCOG at our 2019 Regional Summit, Rethinking Our Thinking, on October 10th in Pittsboro, NC.

Registration opens Monday, July 15th. Add your email to be notified.

Want more opportunities to think differently about housing options and opportunities in your community?

Check out more TJCOG’s affordable housing resources and research here.

Check out Jenny Schuetz’s full article here on the housing crisis.

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