The Uniqueness of Detroit: A Housing Stock Analysis

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Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

Last week, as part of my series on planning reasons behind Detroit’s decline, part 2 of the nine-part series was about the city’s poor housing stock. I started to play with some numbers to see if there was any validity to my opinions about the city’s housing, and I found some very intriguing things. Detroit’s housing stock is definitely unique among its Midwestern and Rust Belt peer cities, and perhaps among cities nationwide. Let’s examine.

Grouping the cities by population figures from the 2013 U.S. Census population estimates, and housing data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, I looked at housing age and single family detached housing data for 15 Midwest/Rust Belt cities with populations above 250,000. One city I typically include in an analysis like this, Louisville, was not included due to a lack of ACS data. Data for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were aggregated into one (sorry, Minneapolis and St. Paul) because they jointly function as the core city for their region. Here’s the big table with all the data:

Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

That’s a lot to digest, so I’ll take the data piece by piece. First, let’s look at the cities ranked by their percentage of housing units built in 1969 or earlier:

Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

You’ll see here that, perhaps following the general national perception of Detroit housing, the Motor City has an older housing stock. Only Buffalo has a higher percentage of older housing. Generally speaking, the cities at the top half of this list have older housing because they lack redevelopment activity that replaces older housing, while cities at the bottom half consists of cities with decent levels of redevelopment activity, or more recently built housing that’s been annexed into the city in recent decades. Here, Detroit does seem to fit the pattern.

But does it really? If you look at the Census’ earliest category for age of structure, 1939 or earlier, Detroit drops considerably on the list:

Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

Instead of ranking second as in the earlier table, Detroit falls to tenth. The rest generally hold the same spots they occupied from the previous table as well. The only ones ranking lower than Detroit here are smaller cities (Omaha, Ft. Wayne) and the cities that annexed large amounts of land post 1970 (Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus).

Next, let’s look at how the cities rank in terms of their concentrations of single family detached homes:

Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

Detroit shows up here with the second highest percentage of single family detached homes, comprising nearly two-thirds of the city’s housing stock. Once again, the only comparable cities are the smaller cities and the big annexers. Clearly, most observers believe Detroit has more in common with Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh than with Ft. Wayne, Kansas City and Indianapolis. What happened to Detroit’s housing stock that gave it such an odd profile?

To understand, let’s pull out a specific category on the age of structure table, the 1950-1959 category:

Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

Here, we find that Detroit has, by far, the highest concentration of housing units built between 1950-59 of all its peer cities. Nearly one in four homes in Detroit were built during this period. In fact, Detroit, along with Milwaukee and Toledo, occupies a strange space among Midwestern/Rust Belt cities. (Side note: the more I study Detroit against other Midwestern cities, the more I find that Detroit and Milwaukee are virtually the same city. And it doesn’t surprise me that Toledo, just 75 miles from Detroit, would share its characteristics as well).

Detroit, Milwaukee and Toledo all added their greatest numbers of housing at the outset of the modern suburban development period, what I’ve called the Levittown Period in my so-called Big Theory of American Urban Development. This supports my thinking that if anyone was ever interested in establishing a Levittown-style national historic district, Detroit would be a good candidate. The Motor City has perhaps more small Cape Cod-style, three-bedroom, one-bath single family homes than any city in the nation.

How did Detroit get this way? Housing demolition likely had some role in a city that lost so much. Detroit likely lost older single family homes and multifamily buildings over the last few decades, leading to skewed numbers. The same is also true of Indianapolis, Kansas City and Columbus, cities that annexed large undeveloped areas after 1970 and built new housing there. Keep in mind, though, that Milwaukee and Toledo, Detroit’s comparables, may not have had the same level of demolition loss that Detroit had, yet they still match the Motor City well. That leads me to believe that a concentration of housing development at a unique time is a crucial piece in understanding Detroit’s housing stock.

Here’s another way of looking at this. I grouped the cities by age and single family home concentration and came up with interesting groupings:

Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

Here it becomes clearer that Detroit and Toledo stand alone as locations for old or moderately old structures that are largely single family. Also, Milwaukee’s greater mix of single family and multifamily units begins to set it apart from Detroit and Toledo, even when it has a similar concentration of Levittown-style housing.

Finally, let’s consider housing adaptability as part of the housing stock analysis. Chicago, the region’s largest city and lone “global city” member of the group, comfortably rests in the middle of all tables except for the single family detached table, where it shows the lowest concentration of single family homes. My guess is that Chicago’s continued desirability means more newer housing has been built, and that its lower single family housing numbers mean that other housing types (lofts, condos and the ubiquitous 2-flat and 3-flat) created a more flexible and adaptable housing development landscape.

Assuming that younger structures are more often suitable to renovation for adaptability, moderately old structures require more intense rehabs, and older types are more often subject to demolition and rebuilding, I reorganized the previous table in terms of housing adaptability:

Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

And if I put in the cities next to this adaptability scale, it’s easy to see the magnitude of Detroit’s housing challenges:

Pete Saunders - Detroit story images

Detroit is such a unique city in so many ways. The Motor City needs more research and analysis that highlights its uniqueness and adds to our understanding of the what led to its downfall, and less of our ire and contempt. The more I study Detroit, the more I see the seeds of a similar downfall in other cities nationwide.

*this post first appeared on Pete’s excellent blog The Corner Side Yard - check it out

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  • Alex Ihnen

    Thanks to Pete for allowing us to repost his item here. It’s an interesting look at Detroit’s challenges. Housing stock has long been seen a primary challenge, and significant asset for St. Louis. Perhaps, one reason STL is not Detroit is the housing stock. Perhaps the historic buildings of Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland and St. Louis are finally more asset than challenge. Or rather, not having a large concentration of 1950s homes could be an advantage moving forward. Of course, our city limits complicate these measurements. If one considered the larger urbanized area, the northern part of University City and other large swaths of St. Louis County would be included, and the numbers for St. Louis would likely be nearer to Detroit. This points to increasing challenges for the County, perhaps to the relative benefit of St. Louis City.

    • onecity

      In my opinion, he’s dead on with his analysis. I’ve been reading Virginia Savage McAlester’s book on American houses, and there is a very clear break in housing quality after WW2, distinctly characterized by the modern minimalist homes that popped up in Levittown, and evidently Detroit. No basements, usually sub-100 sf, inferior construction methods, no neighborhood amenities, large lots, lack of connectivity, feeder stroads. A recipe for failure. A recipe that will continue to be felt in progressively newer developments built on a similar template in the rest of culdesacland as they age. I think these places will become magnets for poverty. There are real, infrastructure-based reasons that U-City north of Ahern or Olive is such a different place than the rest of U-City, and it’s all about development patterns.

      • onecity

        ^sub-1100 sf, typo.

  • matimal

    Is this municipal or MSA data?

    • Alex Ihnen

      This article uses municipal data. For whatever limits this puts on analysis, it is interesting to see how cities compare to one another.

      • matimal

        I think using metro data, if that exists, would reveal something quite different about some of these metros.

  • Steve Kluth

    I’m not surprised at the similarities of Detroit to Ft Wayne and Toledo. Both other cities, especially Toledo, were also highly dependent on the auto industry. Factories in SE Michigan, NE Indiana, and NW Ohio supplied the parts for the assembly plants around Detroit. (The NBA Detroit Pistons were originally the Ft Wayne Pistons.) All three cities bloomed about the same time and have had trouble replacing those jobs. I don’t think the housing issue isn’t so much a factor here as it is a symptom of a non-diverse employment base. While St Louis was somewhat dependent on the auto industry, it also had enough other industry (chemicals, food products, aerospace) that spread out the pain as heavy industry jobs disappeared (shoes and steel along with auto).

    One other factor is many of the post WWII housing stock in all these cities is wood frame vs brick exterior. (I believe the standard Levittown Cape Cod is also wood frame.) When wood frame homes burn, they are usually a total loss. Brick home often leave a good exterior even the home itself is gutted by fire, leaving a shell that can be the foundation for many of the incredible rehabs seen in St Louis. I think a comparison of building types might also be of use in these cities.

  • Adam

    How did the author determine adaptability as a function of type/age? Percentage of structures adapted? Construction quality?

    • Alex Ihnen

      I believe that he simply places these on a continuum, assuming (logically) that smaller and newer structures are more “adaptable”. From the post, “Assuming that younger structures are more often suitable to renovation for adaptability, moderately old structures require more intense rehabs, and older types are more often subject to demolition and rebuilding, I reorganized the previous table in terms of housing adaptability:”

      This isn’t without questions as well. Smaller homes are certainly more easily rehabbed due simply to cost. The many 3,000-5,000sf St. Louis historic homes are difficult to renovate, while smaller homes are finding new life. But, is an 1890 brick home more desirable (therefore adaptable) than a 1950s ranch? I think we may be seeing this in St. Louis. However, it’s hard to escape the (relatively high) costs and complexity of an 1890 rehab versus a 1950s ranch. This is all part of what makes looking at housing stock very interesting.

      • Adam

        Oh, man. I’m the guy that didn’t bother to read carefully. Sorry about that.

        I can definitely see how a 1950s ranch would be easier to rehab than a turn-of-the-century home. With a lot of contemporary stuff (Aventura for example) I wonder if poor construction and crap materials won’t undermine future adaptability.

  • JohnThomas52

    Housing stock is only a facade. Dig a little deeper and hone in on the real issues that matter. The important factors that have contributed to Detroit’s demise were population loss, poor schools, low job skills, lack of job opportunities, poverty, crime, un-diversified economy, etc. This is why I say that Detroit is the future of STL. We share similarities on these non-physical structure factors that are the important drivers for a city’s growth or demise.

    Cities that have large aging populations have low economic growth. No surprise. STL (specifically STL county) falls into this category.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/joelkotkin/2012/12/14/aging-america-the-cities-that-are-going-gray-the-fastest/

    STL also has problems with poverty, poor schools, high drop out rates, low skills and education–these are factors important for employers deciding to set up their company in a location or not. They look for talent in the workforce.

    http://video.ketc.org/video/2365257635/

    So much is focused on the city of STL but keep in mind that STL city only represents 11% of the metro region’s population–which is small. Both STL city and STL county put together represent 50% of the metro region’s population. When taken together, issues of economic activity, poverty, school accreditation and quality, workforce skill level, etc. are being driven by what is happening in the county. County matters. The ketc video is very eye opening to what is happening in the suburbs and it is downright scary if you are not aware. Consider watching the ketc video referenced above, which has intelligent discussion about our region. Again, I think you will find it very informative.

    • matt

      john, st louis is – in my opinion – the future of detroit, once it stabilizes. st. louis was in a decline before detroit even stopped booming. st. louis was a gilded era industrial behemoth, detroit followed *us.*

      • Alex Ihnen

        St. Louis was also for a long time the second largest center for auto manufacturing outside of Detroit. In many ways we have already transitioned, somewhat successfully, to a new economy. Pittsburgh gets a lot of credit for its transition from the steel industry. It’s a relatively easy and clear narrative. St. Louis was never as dependent on a single industry and has escaped the narrative, but if you look at Pittsburgh and St. Louis, there are many parallels today.

  • pete_rock

    First, I’d like to thank Alex for reposting this here. I love getting some feedback from people removed from the Detroit situation.

    This was not intended to be the be-all and end-all for Detroit’s downfall. I fully recognize that a number of factors contributed to the Motor City’s current condition. But I wanted to call attention to things most observers don’t take into account. The general narrative about Detroit is, “auto job loss + crime + racial tension = horrible city”, when the truth is much more complex and nuanced. There are many subtle factors that played a role, and have so for more than a century. Yes, Detroit’s downfall is a century in the making.

    I’m of the opinion that the historic – and adaptable – structures of Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and St. Louis will work to their advantage, relative to their suburbs and to other cities nationwide. This is a strength that should be played up.

    Lastly, the question of housing adaptability is something I’m still working on. One of the big problems with 1950s ranch or Cape Cod-style homes is that they were often built to be disposable, as upwardly mobile workers moved up the income chain. It’s not easy to upgrade them to contemporary standards, even when compared to structures built before World War II. Kitchens and bedrooms are often tiny; closet space and storage space is lacking (by today’s standards), to name just a few issues. For whatever reason, older brick or frame buildings have bones that make them easier to adapt, even if it means gut rehab. Too often the solution for small Levittown-style homes is demo.

    Thanks once again for reading this here, and I hope you stop by the Corner Side Yard. http://www.cornersideyard.blogspot.com

    • John R

      Enjoyed your post. I have a question about why (and where) so much was built in Detroit during the 50s… was this essentially people moving away from the old core to the edges of the city? In Saint Louis, we only have 62 sq. miles and Pittsburgh even less, so a post-war jump for a family from old house to new usually meant winding up in a suburb. Was there more “room to grow” so to speak in Detroit?

      • pete_rock

        Thanks for asking. The short answer is Detroit is bigger than St. Louis and Pittsburgh, with about 140 sq. mi. total. More than half of that was annexed into the city during the ’20s, but was never built up due to the Depression and WWII. There was a lot of pent up housing demand immediately following the war, as the auto industry returned to and surpassed pre-war production levels and needed the workers. Most of the homes built during this period is located on the northwest and northeast sides of the city.

        There are a few other places where this “annex/don’t build for decades/building explosion” pattern happened that I’m aware of. Large parts of the South Side of Chicago fits this, so does Gary, IN, and I mention in my piece that Detroit compares with Milwaukee and Toledo.

        • Alex Ihnen

          The same thing happened in St. Louis, but outside the long fixed city limits. Outside older parts of communities like Clayton, University City, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, etc., development like this boomed in the 1950s. The reality is that University City is the equivalent of the same era of development in Detroit. I’m probably being quite redundant at this point, but thought I’d highlight the impact of political boundaries on measurements like this.

    • Ann Wimsatt

      Having designed renovations for dozens of mid-century houses as well as renovations for dozens of pre-war houses and apartments in Saint Louis and Manhattan, I do not agree with your assessment that pre-war housing is ‘better’. Neither housing type fits the contemporary lifestyle of larger living spaces.
      The parlor spaces of the pre-war stock were designed to segregate women and protect their virtue at all costs. The confining spaces are too small to accommodate large groups–or large, comfy sofas. The kitchens were designed for another type of cooking and are notoriously difficult to expand. It is also very difficult to add a master bedroom addition to a typical pre-war (town)house.

      Mid-century ranch houses usually have larger living spaces which are fairly easy to convert to contemporary, combined living spaces. They also have trussed ceilings which can be easily raised and redesigned. The original bedrooms were small but mid-century ranches in Saint Louis were built on larger lots and it is relatively inexpensive to add ground floor master bedrooms to them, solving the problem of small bedrooms.

      • pete_rock

        Ann, thanks for the comment. I think you might have misread my point. I wasn’t trying to make a judgement on pre-war vs. post-war housing at all. I wasn’t making one out to be “better” than the other. What I meant to describe was adaptability. What I didn’t talk about at all was preference. There seems to be a greater preference for pre-war home renovations because people will pay for that style of home, while the preference for mid-century homes might not measure up to that yet. When it does, that could be the saving grace for a city like Detroit as I describe it.

        • Ann Wimsatt

          Pete; I understood your point but I disagree that pre-war houses are more adaptable for the reasons I listed, based on 30 years of doing renovation design for both types.

          • Alex Ihnen

            It will be interesting to ultimately see if post-war housing is remodeled/converted/retained (proves more or less desirable) than c. 1890-1920 housing. Ann – you have the experience, but isn’t simply the quality of building materials one reason why older homes are more “adaptable”? Many in STL were vacant (or severely neglected) prior to rehab. Could a 50s ranch in Ferguson survive 5yrs of vacancy? My opinion is that there is something substantive about the architecture, materials and craftsmanship that make a 1910 home more likely to be rehabbed than a 1950 home. I’m entirely aware I could be completely wrong about this. The older rehabs are highly visible and noticed. Perhaps tracking building permits across a swatch of post-war housing could give some insight into the macro trends here.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            In Clayton Gardens, the mix of mid-century and post-war 2 story colonials is about even. The purchase cost per square foot is nearly equal and the rate of rehabbing is nearly equal. If anything, the mid-century moderns were renovated first because they were easier to ‘adapt’ to contemporary life.

            On the other hand, the renovation of pre-war STL South City is part of a gentrification trend. In my opinion, the gentrification is happens when the crime rates fall and the purchase costs fall to a low enough level to allow pioneer gentrifiers to buy and renovate them. Although there is a lot of affection for the lovely pre-war craftsmanship, many early adopters move out when they have children. I argue that they move partly for schools and partly because the interior spatial quality of these homes stifle modern life.

            It’s not materials that make the biggest difference in day to day life, it’s the quality of space.

            This is not an anti-preservation theory but rather a call to take a more balanced view of the limitations of pre-war homes.

  • dempster holland

    In my study of 1960s population loss in seven midwestern cities, I found a direct
    relationship between the per cent of each central city built before 1920 and its
    population loss. Generally, the higher percent of a city built before 1920, the
    greater its population per cent loss. Further analysis indicated that much of each city’s
    population loss was in their pre-1920s areas, attributable to a loss in rental units
    in multi-family bulldings. In other words, population loss was generally directly re-
    lated to small rental units in old buildings, that is, to what an older generation
    would call slums. Those who had previously lived in these areas moved up the
    housing chain and those in other areas moved further up the chain. As larger
    units replaced smaller units, and single family homes replaced apartments, the
    net effect was an increase in the urbanized area, which we call “urban sprawl.”
    Thus old areas are abandoned and new areas developed on the periphery.
    Academics and urbanists decried these developments.but: the people who moved
    from slums to better housing were grateful. In few other areas of American life
    is there such a divergence of viewpoint between the intelligentsia and the average
    person

  • Ann Wimsatt

    The article is very interesting. These cities are on different gentrification trajectories. It might be interesting to compare this group to highly-gentrified cities with comparable housing stock. Boston and San Francisco come to mind. I wonder what the ratio of single family to multi-family is in those cities.

    • Mathew Chandler

      San Francisco is one of Americas densest cities, with a large amount of multifamily structures. Im assuming housing stock plays a part in the speed and pattern of gentrification, it seems there is a pattern of rehabs and reuse of building in gentrified areas.

      • Ann Wimsatt

        It’s true that San Francisco is the 20th densest cities in the US (not in the top ten), but compared to Manhattan, Paris and Beijing, it is a low density city. I’ve walked the streets of San Francisco a few times recently and the vast majority of the city feels relatively low-scale and low density.

        Saint Louis and Detroit may be at a fraction of their highest densities, but the list below shows that reaching the density levels of Boston, Chicago or London may not that be that far away.

        66,940 people per square mile, Manhattan
        61,000 people per square mile, Beijing
        55,000 people per square mile, Paris
        17,867 people per square mile, SF
        13,321 people per square mile, Boston
        13,180 people per square mile, Brooklyn
        11,868 people per square mile, Chicago
        11,760 people per square mile, London
        5,158 people per square mile, Saint Louis
        5,142 people per square mile, Detroit

        • Mathew Chandler

          San Francisco is the second most dense city in america. Yes other villages and neighborhoods may be denser but cities as a whole i believe SF is 2nd. We must hang out in different parts of the city of SF, most housing stock is multi-family, but up against each other, multi-stories.

          Beijing and other Asian countries are playing a major roll in a new phenomena: Hyper density which was not know to cities development patterns until recently.

          • Ann Wimsatt
          • John R

            And Joe Blow is leading the National League in hitting through the All Star break because he got two hits in four at bats. San Fran is the second most dense city of more than 4.11 sq. mi.

            Also, St. Louis and Detroit would have to more than double their densities to reach Chicago and Boston. That won’t happen for generations.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            Let’s define ‘dense’ by global standards. SF is not a densely populated city by Manhattan or world standards. It’s only three times more dense than sparsely populated Saint Louis. Except in central pockets, the streets are not crowded with pedestrians. The majority of the city is fairly low scale, low density.

            Hyper-density has been around since the early 1960s when tower block living was expanded around the globe. It’s a modern phenomena, but it’s not that recent. By 1983, Singapore had a population of 2M living on a 2 mile wide island; mostly living in tower blocks.

            Doubling the density of STL will happen within the next few decades if the trends toward urban living continue.

          • John R

            That would be amazing but I doubt any professional demographer would forecast that. Let’s say we somehow manage to gain 20K residents by 2020 and reach a population of 340,000. Do you really think we can gain an average of 100K residents in each of the following decades to reach 640,000 people (double the 2010 population) by 2050?

          • Ann Wimsatt

            Good point. I’ve revised my statement.

          • Mathew Chandler

            Cities have been around since Ancient times, look how long ago Rome hit one million people, id say hyper density (and the 1960’s) is a relatively new in the pattern of development. id say i always see a large amount of pedestrians on the street in san francisco, and i stand by that comment.

    • John R

      A quick check of census quickfacts shows the share of multi-family units as:
      52% Saint Louis
      67% San Francisco
      70% Chicago
      82% Boston
      Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were interesting. I wasn’t surprised to see Pitt had a slightly higher density despite a lower share of multi-family housing units (40%)but what really stood out was Philly; it roughly has the same density as Chicago yet multi-family only accounts for 1/3 of the city’s housing units.

      • Ann Wimsatt

        There’s multi-family and then there’s multi-family high-rise. The tower units make the difference in population density per square mile. SF has a preponderance of three and four story multi-family residential units and the city’s residents have historically resisted new tower blocks.

        • John R

          Well sure, they want to keep their views and aesthetic.

          • Ann Wimsatt

            And they want to preserve their moderate density. They don’t want to become another Manhattan.