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.Tags: apartments, cohousing, community living, definition of family, mansion, Milwaukee, multi-family housing, phoenix, single-family housing, sprawl, sustainability