This weekend I was in Milwaukee with my husband to visit his family.  My brother-in-law had us over for tea and I helped him put up his Christmas tree.  He lives in a one-bedroom apartment on the 3rd floor of an old mansion. That mansion, that was once built for a single wealthy family, was later converted into 4 apartments.  My sister-in-law, who also lives in Milwaukee, recently bought a duplex that was also once an old mansion but was turned into a duplex later.  Milwaukee is full of such buildings in its neighborhoods – single-family mansions turned into multi-level apartments.

You may already know that my husband and I own and live in a duplex called 3 Palms.  We live in one of the units and rent out the other, so we ourselves live in a multi-family situation.  Just one street across from us, we recently noticed a building that is exactly like our duplex.  It took us a while to realize this, a year and a half to be precise, because it’s hard to recognize since it isn’t blue and yellow like ours.  But it recently went up for sale, so we finally noticed it.

Stealthily, we walked up to it, inspected the exterior walls for changes that had been made, and peered inside the windows to try to uncover its story.  We were intrigued enough that we even got our realtor to show us the inside.  Seeing the inside confirmed what we suspected.  This building was once indeed exactly like our duplex but someone went and turned it into a single-family house!  They removed the demising wall and the 2nd kitchen and converted it into a relatively large single-family house.  Judging from the materials they used, i.e. the cabinets, flooring and paint finishes, it looks like this conversion was done in the 80s or 90s.

It turns out the opposite of what was happening in Milwaukee, where they were converting from single-family to multi-family residences, has been happening here.  Multi-family housing, for some reason, is not very well looked upon.  Single-family housing gets all the glory around here,  so much so that it increases the surrounding property values while multi-family residences, which normally mean rentals, decrease property values.

But, this economy may be an impetus to change this way of thinking.  Now that so few people can afford to buy a single-family house, multi-family rentals are becoming more attractive.  And, not to mention, people who have lost their homes through foreclosure or short-sale and simply can’t buy a new single-family house any time soon, are looking to rent multi-family residences.

I’m not a big fan of huge apartment complexes.  Those can feel so impersonal and actually feel a little lonely.  I am, however, a big fan of small multi-family residences though.  Our duplex is a perfect example of such a situation.  I’ve found that I feel safer because I know there is a tenant right next to us if something goes wrong.  I also enjoy the interactions and friendships that have grown out of our proximity to our renters.  Another great example of a lovely multi-family residence is the one my friend Diane lives in.  Her’s is a beautiful mid-century modern 4-plex with an breathtaking shared interior courtyard.  Diane tells me she feels like she lives in a close-knit community, and as a single woman, she feels safe there as well.

Small multi-family clusters may be the way of the future, not only as our economy changes, but our social make-up changes as well.  For one, the definition of family has changed quite a bit, where you might have something like a single mother with kids, or a childless couple or a gay couple living together.  What does a single-family home offer to families like this?  Not much.  But a small multi-family residence offers connection and proximity to others and actually creates the opportunity to expand the definition of family to include your neighbors.

Another reason why small multi-family clusters might be the way of the future is that they are the ideal type of housing for an aging population.  They offer the benefits of living in a community while retaining the independence of living at home.  Cohousing is a very good example of small multi-family living and is a growing trend in the US for senior living.

A third reason to return to the multi-family model is the environment.  Multi-family housing is by far the more sustainable, less wasteful option compared to single-family housing.  It takes up a lot less space for one and it houses many more people in a much more efficient way, sharing electrical, mechanical and plumbing infrastructure for example.

It may just be that our love-affair with the single-family house here in Phoenix, which has led to our crippling sprawl, has lost its luster and the small multi-family residence is becoming more attractive then it’s ever been.

Photo Credit: 3 Palms.  Photo by the author.

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12 Responses

  1. Thomas says:

    I have considered buying a duplex (up/down) in Minneapolis as a summer option that would minimize hassle and headaches during the winter when I am in Phx or other warmer climes. Having another occupant on the property to keep it up and using the utilities, especially keeping the heat going, is a load off ones shoulders so far away.

    As the “chromosome” generations desire more flexibility, are comfortable with sharing semi-private spaces, and prefer to live in urban/walkable neighborhoods, small multifamily has an edge financially and environmentally, even on rather “small” lots (less than 7k square feet).

    The idea of living in a small mutlifamily in an area like Phoenix may come from the economics of SF housing being so affordable to the masses and only those who don’t have the money have to rent. The other side of that are the small multi families that have been developed recently that have a high design flair to them, but were generally to expensive to rent and make work.

    There is so much shift needed in our mindset here in Phoenix to really make what our needs are respected, appreciated, and desired. That’s one reason why so many of us in the creative class leave the area for greener pastures: the amount of time we feel we’d have to invest to see the return is too long for us. We want to be able to experience what we are working for sooner than later.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Thomas, you bring up a good point about cheap available land that made single-family housing so easy to build. And unfortunately, we’ve so long been sold the idea of that owning a single family is the way to go, that Phoenix, with its cheap land, has been a haven for that. Now I think is the time to dream another dream and come back to the center and live in a more dense, close-knit, community-oriented way.

  2. Monna Payne says:

    Taz – love your post. My husband and I live (with kids!) in a small townhome community and love it. More space would be nice at times but we love our neighbors and it’s been a good financial decision for us. We are committed to living within our means.

    Your comments about how multi-family living is viewed hit home too. (Is that just in Phoenix? Maybe it has to do with the myth of the wild, wild west…)

    I can’t tell you how many times someone has said, “Don’t worry, someday you’ll have a ‘real’ house.” LOL. It’s hard for people to understand why we’d choose to live in a smaller space.

    Living in a multi-family environment constantly reminds me that we’re not autonomous and that building good relationships with our neighbors is necessary to ensure the value of our property – and more importantly, a positive home experience for our little family and the larger community.

    Now, if I can only convince everyone that a community garden would be cool… 😉

  3. Great article Taz!

    If I could add my two cents, I think one of the biggest problems with multi-family living in Phoenix is its location, rather than the lifestyle battle between single family and multi-family. Your article does a great job in pointing out the benefits of multi-family and how it works great in other cities. I believe multi-family living’s greatest strength is its density per acre. High density (and proper zoning) supports mixed-use development which then allows multi-family living to compete with single family living, because what it lacks in backyard size or privacy it makes up for in walkability and community/culture. The lack of mixed-use neighborhoods in Phoenix gives all the power to single family homes because it is the best option Phoenix has to provide right now.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Cavin, your point is well taken. I think small multi-family living though might be able to bridge the gap that exists now between single family and larger scale mixed-use development. Small multi-family buildings can be similar to single-family, providing yards (though they will be smaller) and some of the same benefits of single family living, while still providing the community benefits of multi-family living. But I agree that the goal is ultimately to create the density that is needed to make Phoenix a thriving, walkable and diverse city.

  4. Taz, I find myself in a rare moment of at least partial disagreement with your post. Right now, I live in a single family home and wouldn’t have it any other way. Single family homes can be built in sustainable ways, especially if they are in walkable neighborhoods that are served by transit. Just look at many Central Phoenix neighborhoods that originally blossomed as “streetcar suburbs.”

    Nevertheless, I can understand the appeal of multi-housing for many, and it worked for my wife and me for a long time. For me, however, a duplex seems the least desirable situation unless I have the power to choose my neighbors. In a big apartment complex, the impersonal nature of the building minimizes the odds of hearing every last fight, romantic encounter, etc. between my neighbors and knowing exactly which neighbors were involved. Likewise, it gives me a sense of privacy since my neighbors can’t necessarily associate every stray noise they hear with me.

    Maybe this is not an issue in duplexes with thick walls, but I can remember my earliest years in a three-story house in Yonkers NY that had been converted to three apartments — one on each floor. One time the two-year-old version of me was crying so loudly that the downstairs neighbor told my mother she was about to commit suicide due to my incessant noise. Maybe that experience has soured me on small-scale multi-housing for life! In any case, I’m all for community building and knowing one’s neighbors, but I also value the opportunity for anonymity that large apartment buildings can provide.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      David, that’s a funny story about your upstairs neighbor in Yonkers…:-) I agree there are definitely trade offs, such as some loss of privacy that come with small-scale multi-family. But sometimes, these are acceptable tradeoffs for the community-living aspect that is gained. I think though, as you mention, some people will always prefer the single-family detached house and that is ok. I just think multi-family living deserves a second look for people who are looking to have a little more community interaction in their lives.

      On a side note, in our duplex, our demising wall is made from block and does a good job of muting any noise from either side. Rarely do we hear the squabbles of our tenants and hopefully it’s true the other way around.

  5. Wayne Murray says:

    I am a property manager of just the kind of rentals you are refering too. They are small enough to give the sense of community, it is eazy to know your 3 neighbors than your 300. This is great for singles and couples. Shared laundry, and grounds keeping expense keeps them more affordable than single family homes. To have the sense of a single family home, ie three of four people sharing a home,yet separate is great. You keep the flexibility of being able to chase your career across the nation, and not have to worry about selling. You also do not have to deal with the responsibility of maintence and get all the benefits……renting like this is attractive or so we have found to be sucessful for us when you can provide the quality lifestyle to people.

  6. […] translate into many other types of developments, such small multi-family housing that I wrote about yesterday, or public spaces like plazas or parks, some retail environments, entire neighborhoods, and even […]

  7. […] while back, Taz Loomans at Blooming Rock Blog wrote a post about multi-family housing and how while it’s taking off in some parts of the […]

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