A solution for attainable housing—or housing within reach of people earning an area’s median income—has eluded our industry for the past several years. There are multiple causes—the cost of land, city requirements on zoning and home site footage, and NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard)—but often it simply comes down to making a project pencil out … which is increasingly challenging and often not achievable.
In a recent meeting, a client questioned why so many industries can find ways to create more affordable solutions but the housing industry can’t. Most people can’t afford a Tesla, but there are attainable alternatives such as the Nissan Leaf or the Hyundai Kona. The new iPhone costs nearly $800, but a good quality smartphone is accessible for around $200. Why not housing? We don’t have the answer yet, but I believe it starts by rethinking the starter home.
The concept of the starter home originated in the United States after World War II, when young families wanted to buy a home as part of the American Dream. These homes differed in form over the years, from mill workers’ cottages, shotgun homes, bungalows, and split levels, and some buyers decided on brick rowhouses or duplexes for their first home.
As the starter home of old—likely detached, reasonably sized, and probably with a small yard—has become unattainable for most first-time homebuyers, new housing types have emerged to bridge the gap. Build-to-rent, modern multigenerational living, and density with dignity are three opportunities to deliver attainable starter homes today, even if they don’t exactly fit the old mold.
More people are choosing single-family build-to-rent homes—including attached—as an alternative to purchasing a home, simply because the down payment on a for-sale “starter” home is too big a financial hurdle to overcome.
Life circumstances also play a role. Consumer research we conducted in 2021 among 1,242 homeowners with a net worth of $100,000-plus (excluding those who never plan to move) shows that one in four respondents would prefer to rent if it allowed them to live in a home that met their exact needs.
Today’s BTR homes are durable, well-appointed, and easier to get into than their for-sale counterparts, which is a big reason why the following projects have performed so well.
The Villas at Nexton
With 282 attached and detached homes ranging from 576 to 1,440 square feet, The Villas at Nexton by Capstone Communities, in Summerville, S.C.,experiences high demand from young recent college grads who are looking to rent their first place but don’t want an apartment.
Not only did the developer focus on designing great homes, but the Capstone team also wanted to build a sense of community so neighbors could connect with one another. Residents have access to amenities within the Villas neighborhood, and also enjoy the benefits of being part of the larger Nexton Master Plan.
Since their grand opening in November 2022, the Villas are currently 63% pre-leased.
This 142-unit project by AHV Communities features a collection of 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom duplex rental homes ranging from 1,134 to 1,645 square feet with leases starting just under $2,000 a month. Each home has a two-car garage, as well as spacious bedrooms, walk-in closets, and a fenced yard.
Located in a prime infill location in San Antonio, Farm Haus offers quality amenities including a pool, a fire pit, and a dog wash station. AHV continued their focus on quality design with four-sided architecture that embraced older San Antonio styles with a modern twist.
The result? An appealing community of modern farmhouse-styled homes that was 85% leased as of early June.
Communal living is expected to rise, both in the form of co-living and multigenerational living. Nearly one-third of Americans aged 18 to 25 live at home with parents or other relatives, and the number of skipped-generation households where grandparents and their adult grandchildren cohabitate (coined “grand-mates” by The New York Times) is increasing.
The housing industry needs to think beyond the classic multigenerational suite with private entry and separate living area and get creative, as the following projects prove.
Lofts at Haven
This is one of my favorite examples of an outside-the-box multigenerational opportunity.
This high-density collection of 106 single-family detached units in Chandler, Ariz., by Mattamy Homeswas designed to appeal to professional singles and couples without kids, as well as young families who are looking for a more urban lifestyle.
On lots averaging 2,030 square feet, the design team played around with options for the ground floor to enhance the livability and opportunities in these dense, three-story homes. The optional ground floor suite has a full bathroom and walk-in closet and can also include an optional kitchenette, which provides more autonomy for the space. A popular upgrade, the option even has direct access to the small yard, providing a private connection to the outdoors. What a great place for a grand-mate to live on the ground floor while their grandchildren live above!
The collection, which opened in late 2018 and has since sold out, has many lessons that can be applied to new projects today.
Bounty Series at RainDance
I love it when a city, a developer, and a builder come together to create the opportunity for something great.
While carriage houses (what we now commonly refer to as accessory dwelling units or ADUs) are an appealing addition to a community for multiple reasons, they can be a challenge to include in new builds.
The Bounty series by Brightland Homesis a collection of 53 single-family, detached unitsin the master planned community of RainDance.
The RainDance developer was able to include carriage houses in the community—and enable Brightland to afford to build them—thanks to theforward-thinking municipal leadership of Windsor, Colo.,that allowed for an exception to a rule requiring a separate water tap for a carriage house.
The Daphne planis the only home in the seriesallowed to offeran optional detached garage with a 529-square-foot, one-bedroom carriage house above.The garage option has been popular, says Brightland,and occupants who got the detached garage option most often elect to include the ADU, which could easily function as a separate multigenerational suite.
One of the ways builders have been trying to create more attainable homes is to go smaller and denser. While this solution runs into its own issues with municipal zoning and density requirements, some builders have found clever solutions to create small homes that live large and provide attractive amenities that quickly sell out.
Chatham Park Cottages
Have you ever found a collection or home that made you want to drop everything and move to another state? The Chatham Park Cottages, in Pittsboro, N.C., by Fresh Paint by Garman Homes—and especially the 826-square-foot model Hot Chocolate plan—did that for me.
Not only does this collection offer 30 right-sized, single-family detached single-level and two-story homes, the units and site plan are designed to create a sense of community with shared green spaces and front-porch living. The lesson: We can’t just lean into packing as many homes on a site as possible. We must think about how to support the people moving into them.
Not surprisingly, the Chatham Park Cottages sold out within a year of opening in April 2021.
While all of the homes are detached, they are not technically plotted on individual home sites but instead as condos. This arrangement allows the homes to obtain a net density of 10 units per acre and to provide the low-maintenance, lock-and-leave lifestyle that attracts its buyers.
The collection also prove that attainable homes can be very appealing, with lots of light and charming exteriors. They are as colorful and eclectic as many of Austin’s older (and popular) urban communities. The alley-loaded homes are all less than 1,500 square feet and put the focus on front-porch living, with shared open spaces as opposed to private rear yards.
As of May 2023, Brookfield has sold 413 out of 436 homes.
Building to Suit Current Needs and Budgets
While these three trends don’t solve our industry’s attainability issue, they can help us consider alternatives and explore homes that we can build to better suit consumer needs.
So, think beyond the program or “throw out the script,” as my friend and architect Don Ruthroff, founding principal of Design Story Spaces, likes to say. Let’s create spaces that cater to consumer preferences with homes they can afford.
With more than 15 years of experience in the housing industry, Jenni Nichols, VP of DesignLens, co-founded the New Home Trends Institute at John Burns Research & Consulting. She scouts and analyzes the best housing collections and master planned communities from across the country to feature in the DesignLens database. Jenni serves as chair of NHTI’s Housing Design Trends council. Along with supporting clients with their design and trend inquiries, she also consults with developers and builders planning their communities and fine-tuning their home designs. To reach Jenni or learn more about NHTI, email her at email@example.com or go to newhometrendsinstitute.com.