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  • Writer's pictureBrett Campbell

Evolution of Housing in the Southeast: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of the Classic Ranch Home

In the idyllic suburbs of the Southeast United States, the 3/1 ranch home once epitomized post-war American prosperity and simplicity. These homes were the hallmark of affordable housing in the 1950s and 1960s. However, as the decades progressed, politics and consumer preferences shifted builders and developers towards larger and larger homes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the median home value in several Southeastern states was approximately $5,400, which, adjusted for inflation, translates to around $61,000-$62,000 today​​. These ranch homes, typically offering three bedrooms and one bathroom, were affordable, practical, and aligned with the average family income of the era. By the 1960s, a mere 22% of homes had more than one story, and amenities like two-car garages were found in only 17% of the most expensive homes​​.

The disparity between wage growth and housing costs became increasingly apparent in the years to follow. In 1960, the median home cost was $11,900 with a median income of $5,600, yielding a price-to-income ratio of 2.1. Fast forward to 2019, and the median home cost soared to $240,500 against a median income of $68,703, pushing the ratio to 3.5. This data indicates that housing costs have increased by 229% compared to a 140% rise in median household income from 1960 to 2020​​.

In addition to a consumer desire for larger homes, the evolution was supercharged by the introduction of municipal zoning and development regulations. The idea behind development regulations was to separate commercial/industrial areas from residential zones, and to create middle-class homes outside of cities. Post-WWII, a substantial portion of residential land was zoned for single-family homes, often with the encouragement of the federal government. Over time, this led to a situation where a disproportionate percentage of land in many American cities, including those in North Carolina, is zoned exclusively for single-family use​​.

Zoning and development regulations in North Carolina and elsewhere often require minimum lot sizes, floor area ratios, setbacks, and parking regulations, which can significantly increase the cost and complexity of housing development. These regulations have been found to decrease housing supply and increase prices, as they limit the types of housing that can be built and often contribute to lower housing density​​​​.

In high-value areas, such as those near transit stations, zoning regulations have often led to the inefficient use of land, with single-family detached homes occupying expansive plots that are better suited for high density housing. This has become such a problem in some parts of the United States that “upzoning” (changing the zoning code to allow for denser development) has been the only way to address the continuously growing shortage of affordable housing.  

North Carolina has seen legislative efforts to address these zoning issues. Failed Senate Bill 349, for example, was an ambitious zoning reform bill that attempted to legalize 'middle housing' statewide. This would have allowed duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, and townhouses on any parcel zoned for single family use, thereby pre-empting local zoning restrictions. The bill also included provisions for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which provide homeowners more flexibility to build and rent out additional living spaces like in-law apartments or backyard cottages​​.

To encourage the development of smaller, more affordable housing units, including ranch-style homes, zoning reforms should focus on reducing minimum lot size requirements, easing restrictions on multi-family housing, and allowing for more diverse housing types. Additionally, comprehensive plans and land-use plans, which are required for zoning in North Carolina, should be used to guide development decisions towards more inclusive and affordable housing options​​​​.

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