Only 1 in 5 U.S. Households is a Nuclear Family. Our Housing Stock Hasn't Caught Up.


The popular image of the American household needs updating.

For decades, the predominant American housing type, and certainly the type considered to be most synonymous with the suburban American Dream, has been the single-family home. And just about everything about our world is set up to favor that type of home, from zoning codes to federal financing rules to tax incentives.

And yet something has happened over the past few decades: we mostly don’t live in “single families” anymore. A new, free report by AARP and the National Building Museum sheds light on this fact, and spotlights examples of how we can make our housing options better reflect the diverse range of ways that Americans live and/or want to live.

Las Abuelitas Kinship Housing in Tucson, Arizona, a rental community designed for grandparents and great-grandparents to help each other and provide childcare. Courtesy Poster Frost Mirto, 2015

Making Room: Housing for a Changing America is the latest effort from the AARP Livable Communities initiative. It is adapted from an exhibition of the same name organized by the National Building Museum and the Citizens Housing & Planning Council in partnership with Resource Furniture and Clei. The 84-page publication aims to capture for posterity the examples and information presented in the temporary museum exhibition. It is available for free here (you have to send a quick email to obtain an automatic download link or order a printed copy).

The report begins with an eye-opening look at America’s evolving demographics, including these facts:

  • By 2030, more than 1 in 5 Americans will be age 65 or older.

  • Only about 1% of the nation’s housing is currently equipped to meet the needs of senior citizens.

  • Single adults living alone account for 28% of U.S. households, but more than 80% of the nation’s houses and apartments are built with two or more bedrooms.

  • Households consisting of unrelated adults sharing a home are as numerous as nuclear families (20% each).

A Housing Market That Doesn’t Meet Americans’ Evolving Needs

The mismatch between how we live and how our homes are set up for us to live causes a number of problems, which the report spotlights. For aging Americans, a home that is too large, too geographically isolated, or not ADA compliant can mean the difference between being uprooted from your community and being able to “age in place.” For younger and lower-income Americans, cost of living increases have dramatically outpaced stagnant incomes, and the burden of renting or buying a home falls heaviest on single adults, for whom options are scarcer and competition for housing often intense.

Making Room identifies policy measures that can help address these housing mismatches. One is reforming zoning codes, including such standards as height, lot coverage, density and occupancy maximums, minimum setbacks, and minimum parking requirements, all of which don’t explicitly mandate single-family homes but may make it impossible to build anything else in many locations. Another is broadly legalizing “missing middle” housing types, to provide an alternative to the dichotomy of single-family homes on one end and large, expensive apartment and condo complexes on the other.

Community First! Village outside of Austin, Texas, is a tiny home and RV neighborhood which provides sustainable, affordable housing and supportive services for the chronically disabled and homeless. Photo courtesy Mobile Loaves & Fishes.

Much of the report, however, is dedicated not to policy but to often-ingenious design solutions, including tiny houses, accessory dwelling units, and buildings set up to facilitate various forms of co-housing and home sharing. From a tiny-house neighborhood with on-site support services for the disabled and chronically homeless in Austin, Texas; to “grandparenting”-friendly family housing in Tucson, Arizona; to communal living in Carrboro, North Carolina; Making Room is full of ideas to re-envision what housing in 21st-century America could look like.

And from a Strong Towns perspective, it’s worth noting that this wide range of options might just be what the doctor ordered when it comes to making our communities resilient and financially sound, as well. There’s a reason one of the questions on the Strong Towns Strength Test is “Are there neighborhoods where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other? A place that can answer yes to this question is probably a place that has the flexibility in its zoning and land use to accommodate housing for all the different types of households profiled in Making Room. And because of that, it’s probably a place that is well insulated against decline, as demographics and needs change over time.

(All photos from Making Room: Housing for a Changing America, published by AARP and the National Building Museum)