Ur-New Urbanist Andres Duany bucks some dogma and orthodoxy on the housing crisis.
The following is a lightly-edited extract from a podcast conversation I had with Andres Duany, a principal founder of the New Urbanist movement. In it, Duany proposes the mobile home as an intelligent response to the affordable housing crisisbucking the dogma and the orthodoxies of our horrified New Urbanist colleagues. The full interview can be heard here (no paywall).
Kunstler: I know for a couple of years now youve been studying the mobile home industry, mainly as a way of figuring out how to deliver affordable dwellings to people. This has raised a lot of ire among our fellow New Urbanists, who cant process the idea. What did you learn from all this?
Duany: Its not ire. They think Ive lost my mind. Its like pity. Okay, first of all where does it come from? (And it took me a long time to arrive at this.) Most people dont understand how much subsidized affordable housing Liz [Plater-Zyberk] and I have built, because we never show it. Weve done so much affordable housing for agricultural laborers, for black communities. Its nice-lookingactually weve gotten some prizes. Why dont we show it? I never show it because you might ask me how much it costs. And it actually costs twice as much as regular market housing. With government subsidies everything blows up in expense. Now, I know very well that there will not be money for subsidies any longer, but there are ways to deliver housing that costs much less to build without a subsidy. And the mobile home industry delivers at the most $50 a square foot. Regular market housing is never less than $130 a foot, and when the government gets involved its $300 a foot. I heard today that the affordable housing built in San Francisco is $900,000 a unit. And that cost doesnt include the real estate. So, its absurd.
So, I backed into the mobile home industry and I realized that they had solved the problem technically. They know how to build it. And, by the way, its not like the 1960s mobile homes, the ones that are collapsing. These are much, much better. The codes have improved tremendously. But they still look horrible.
So, what we have is a cultural problem, not a technical problem. Whenever you see new mobile homes, theyre not new parks, theyre old ones being refurbished, switching out the units. You cant get new ones permitted. But what happens is nobody wants them [anywhere near them] because theyre so distinctly for losers. Now, parenthetically, theyre not losers. Theyre actually people who dont make enough money to get any other kind of house, and very often they have jobs and everything else. Many are down on their luck, but theyre not dysfunctional people on the whole. Theyre paying every month for the charges and for the unit and maintaining them. Dont think theyre losers. Theyre just people on a low burn-rate.
But the mobile home industry has cultural problem. The reason is that the mobile home tries desperately to look like conventional housing, with the little pitched roofs, the clapboards, the little shutters. When you compare them to conventional houses, theyre always less good. If you compare them to the 1950s houses by Philip Johnson in Connecticut, the great houses by the chic architects of the 50s for the Houston oil people, which are flat-roofed boxes with sliding glass doorstheyre ultra-chic, particularly these days when everybody loves mid-century modern. So, instead of making my mobile homes look like shotgun houses, we redesign them to look like mid-century modern.
Suddenly theyre so much better! You know how the [shipping] container houses are so popular? Well, those are actually miserable inside. Theyre only eight feet wide and so forth. So, you pick up the aesthetic of the container house in mid-century modern, and suddenly you have a winnerand its $90 a square foot! Its not $50 anymore, but thats still $100, $200, $300 less than stick-built housing. Were hacking the industrys technical abilities, and over-laying on it a very advanced aesthetic. Its no longer the dwellings of losers but the dwellings of winners.
Kunstler: Part of your idea was a way to provide housing in the big corporate parking lots of companies like Google and Apple, that dont pay their tech workers enough to live otherwise in these high-priced places, right?
Duany: The kids at Google are earning, minimum, 150,000, okay? God knows maybe more than that. And theyre still commuting an hour and sharing a ranch house somewhere. The traffic jams are unbelievable. So, we said, why not use the parking lots? The tiny houses that we design meet the standards of the Department of Motor Vehicles. We followed that code, so theyre legal to park in parking lots. You put them there instead of the car, and the kids dont have to commute. And theyre very, very chic. Theyve got leather chairs, theyre finished with Japanese interiors, full baths, queen-sized beds. Theyre definitely not for losers. Theyre cool. Theyre not
a ranch house somewhere! We tried so hard and spent a lot of extra money so that they would not be associated with losers. Theyd be associated with people who have a choice. This housing is for people with masters degrees, okay? I say that not to be cruel to everybody else but just to get the damn things permitted, approved by the neighborhood.