Strength Test #7: Does your town have real housing options?

This article is the second in a series on the Strong Towns Strength Test, a simple method to help determine your town's strength and resilience. This series offers step-by-step guides for giving your town the test along with ideas for actions you can take to help your town grow stronger.  We'll publish one article in this series every week.

The first article we published answered the question, “Take a photo of your main street at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars?” Read the step-by-step guide to answering that question here.

The question we're exploring today is #7 on the Strong Towns Strength Test

Are there neighborhoods where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other?
Photo by  S P Photography

Housing is one of the most basic building blocks for a community. Without adequate housing options, your town will stagnate, excluding new residents and even forcing existing residents to depart when their housing needs change. For this question on the Strong Towns Strength Test, we’re asking you to take a close look at whether your town is truly providing housing options for all of its residents.

This question tells us why a place like San Francisco—where the tiniest studio apartments cost upwards of $2,000 a month—is not truly strong. But it also tells us why a suburban community made up of only single-family homes fails the strength test as well. If your town doesn’t reasonably provide housing options for people of all ages, then you’ll only have residents within a few age groups and your economy will suffer.

This question tells us whether your town is going to experience “brain drain” (by failing to provide enough housing for young people), seniors stranded in their auto-oriented homes (if you lack enough appropriate housing for the elderly) or adults struggling to find affordable residences for their families (if your town is without housing for middle-age people).


1.   First think about the different types of housing people need at three different generations.

  • For seniors, that’s likely a nursing home, a senior independent living facility, or something in between. At a minimum, your town should at least have condominiums and apartments that are accessible for mobility impaired people, and without large yards that need caring for.
  • For parents with children, you’ll need single-family homes, condos, duplexes or larger apartments with multiple bedrooms available. This is a phase of life when many people buy homes so affordable houses for purchase are ideal.
  • For young people, your town will need apartments, duplexes or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) available on a smaller and more affordable scale, likely on a rental basis.
A duplex, suitable for young people or families (Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)

A duplex, suitable for young people or families (Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)

A single family home, ideal for young families and middle age people. (Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

A single family home, ideal for young families and middle age people. (Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Senior apartments in Seattle, WA (Photo by  Brett VA )

Senior apartments in Seattle, WA (Photo by Brett VA)

2.  Now research your city. Senior housing is probably the hardest to find so that’s a good place to start. Look up senior homes in your town. Pick one, then locate it Google Maps and examine a 1/2-1 mile radius around it. Remember, the question asks whether three generations can live within walking distance of one another.

3.  Use Google Streetview or take an actual walk or drive through this neighborhood. Take note of the other housing options near the senior home. Are there apartments? Duplexes? Is there any housing at all? (Many senior homes are located on highway exits near fast food restaurants and big box stores without a home in sight.) See whether you can find the other two types of housing on your three-generation checklist.

4.  Investigate prices. You’re not done yet. Head home and use your city’s property look up, a real estate website (like Zillow or Trulia) and a rental website like Padmapper to check out the prices in this area. Would they be affordable with the median income in your area? This is where the word “reasonably” in the initial Strength Test question comes in (“Are there neighborhoods where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live?”). If you find a neighborhood with senior and single-family housing, but only one really expensive apartment building for younger residents on the edge of the neighborhood, that doesn’t count. It’s ideal if you can locate both rental and purchase options, although this may not be the case in every neighborhood.

5.  Assess. If, at this point, you’re coming up short, head back to your initial senior housing search list and repeat this process with another senior home and surrounding neighborhood. If you've searched several neighborhoods and found nothing, that probably means your town doesn't pass the test. If you've found one neighborhood that works, look for others as well.

Next Steps

This map from mySidewalk shows census tracts in the Milwaukee metropolitan area based on householder age. I looked at the 25-34 age group (green) and the 75-84 age group (pink) to understand where people of various ages reside. Purple areas have the highest concentration of people from both age groups.  Click to view larger.

1.   Check out the census data for some neighborhoods in your town. If you notice neighborhoods where few people of a certain age group live, that probably means housing options are not available to them in that area. Note: The inverse is not necessarily true. Just because people of a certain age live in your neighborhood, that doesn’t mean they are in the housing of their choice. But it can give you an idea of which neighborhoods to investigate further.

2.   Talk to your neighbors. Conduct an informal survey of your friends and neighbors in the area. Ask whether they feel they have appropriate housing options to choose from. Find out how long they've lived here and if they're considering moving. Consider the ages of the people you're talking with and factor that into the research you did in the above exercise.

3.   Use mySidewalk or City-Data to get a better picture of the data. These data-based software programs enable you to locate your city (or any city), then drill down on a wide range of data points including household size, average age of residents, and type of housing. In the map above, I used mySidewalk to look at different age groups and see where they were concentrated in the city. 

4.   Make a plan to create more housing options. Taking steps to create more intergenerational housing options is a challenge and something you’ll need to commit to over the long term. Here are some initial ideas:

  • Set up an Incremental Development Alliance bootcamp to help educate and encourage small scale developers in your area to construct more diverse housing.
  • Push your local government to allow ADUs (if they’re not already legal) in your neighborhood. These can create affordable housing options for both young people and seniors, within a single-family neighborhood. 

How you address the lack of housing options will depend on what sort of housing you lack: If you have many great neighborhoods with options for young people and middle age people, maybe you need to work on attracting a senior home to your area. If you have senior homes and single-family homes, it’s time to encourage the creation of mixed-used and/or multifamily options in your area.

Towns that get generational housing options right

I’m pleased to say that this question on the Strength Test has always been one that I can answer “Yes” to. My own neighborhood on the east side of Milwaukee, WI (pictured at the top of this article) has several senior homes in it, as well as copious apartments, duplexes and condos for young people. And, while a family with children would have a challenge finding a single-family home, I know plenty of people who live with children in nearby duplexes and condos. One could truly spend one’s whole life in this neighborhood and I regularly see people of all ages walking (or wheeling) around my neighborhood.

My grandparents recently moved into a senior home in Minneapolis, MN so I decided to investigate that. I took a look at the neighborhood surrounding their new apartment and found many diverse housing options, from homes for sale in the range of $104,000 all the way up to $1.2 million and apartments for rent from $750 up to $1500 per month for a one-bedroom.

Different housing sizes and options line a street in Ypsilanti, MI (Image from  Google Maps )

Different housing sizes and options line a street in Ypsilanti, MI (Image from Google Maps)

Strong Towns member Richard Murphy also shared the housing diversity in his Riverside neighborhood in the town of Ypsilanti, MI. He describes it as a late 1800s - early 1900s neighborhood with a mix of houses, small apartments, and small commercial / mixed-use, sandwiched between a traditional downtown, a walkable neighborhood center, and a college campus. He writes:

We’ve got a mix of youngish families with kids (like mine), college students, a former high school that's now 110 apartments of senior housing, and in general a variety of housing options from single-room rentals and studios to 3,000 square foot homes. Some of our neighbors meet the test in practice: Grandma has an apartment about 4 blocks away, and walks over a few days a week to watch the 2-year-old while the parents are at work. 

What a beautiful picture of a strong town.

Put your town to this test, then tell us how it goes. Let us know in the comments, by sharing your photos on social media with the hashtag #StrengthTest, or by emailing us.

(Top photo of Milwaukee's east side neighborhood by Jeramey Jannene)

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