Reinventing the Babushka

Reinventing the Babushka

by George Liebmann

We are told that there is a crisis in day care, , but the remedy of massive governmental subsidy espoused by the Children’s Defense Fund is no answer to it, since it also afflicts families of means. Nor is the remedy of the teachers’ unions sensible: lengthening of the schoolday and extension to infancy of the start of kindergarten further empowers public schools, which have not done a brilliant job with their present charges. Society cannot afford to add day care to public budgets already crushed by an extravagant health care system, particularly since there is reason to believe that the unique American skills in public administration that have escalated health care costs would be extended tio this new domain.

What is needed instead is revival of community and renewed respect tor what George Kennan once called “:the golden chain that binds the generations.” Elderly relatives, not government workers, supply the key to resolution of the ‘day care problem.’ Housing is said to be a constraint, since there is little small-unit housing in suburbs, but subsidized construction of more of it, though applauded by the National Association of Home Builders, is highly time-consuming, controversial, and expensive.

The root of the problem is not a gross shortage of housing but mis-allocation of the housing stock, arising from dramatic and unappreciated changes in family structure and rigid zoning regulations. The physical separation of the generations is the product of rigid zoning.

The number of persons over the age of 14 living alone tripled between 1960 and 1985. The number of households with six or more persons declined by approximately half during the same years. The percentage of women over 65 with no living spouse who lived with other relatives declined from 58% in 1950 to 18% in 1980. 18 million housing units had 2.5 rooms per person or more in 1982 and 7.5 million housing units three rooms per person or mor, as compared with a total housing stock in 2020 of 140 million units.. These under-occupied units are the sleeping giant of American housing policy.

Efforts have been made to overcome zoning rigidities by authorizing accessory apartments (apartments with separate kitchens in single-family homes). Since 1982, an ineffective California law known as the Mello Act, recently improved, required localities to authorize at least some accessory apartments. Similar initiatives have been taken in especially high-cost housing areas to give teachers and policemen a place to live, as in Hawaii, Boulder, Colorado and Daly City, California. Some politicians, like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) Have called for federal mandates, sure to be resisted and ineffective, to foster change in local zoning.

Each new accessory unit, by a process of trickling down, liberates or reduces over-crowding in an existing housing unit elsewhere, and the cost of installing an additional kitchen in a thinly-used house is a minute fraction of the cost of new construction.

This movement has been fostered by a corporal’s guard of students of urban problems, including the late Prof. Martin Gellen of Berkeley; Patrick Hare, a planner and fomer HUD official; and the New Democratic Party in Ontario. However it will not gain forde unless fostered by national and state administrations through the provision of small tax credits along the lines of those used in Germany and Japan, where the duplex house with a small accessory apartment has been a major component of hosing policy since the Second World War. A Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing presided over by former Governor Thomas Kean recommended thast “localities permit accessory apartments as of right in any single family residential zone, subject to appropriate design, density, and other occupancy standards.” Tax credits are needed, however, to generate political pressure from citizens to liberalize local zoning.

Accessory apartments open the suburbs to older relatives of families with children who desire private living quarters. The babushka is a major part of the answer to the ‘day care problem.’ Fears about neighborhood change can be alleviated by requiring that new units be created only in houses that are owner-occupied.

If restrictions on accessory apartments are relaxed, restrictions on home occupations should be relaxed also. Many states have legislated in favor of small day care centers in residential neighborhoods, and the advent of telecommuting has rendered restrictions on clerical and professional occupations unenforcable. Small shops authorized or operated by neighborhood or residential community associations, and even one-room restaurants, have a role to play in making the suburbs more hospitable to both the young and the old, where these can be conducted without generating substantial new auto and truck traffic.

This appeal for ‘thinking small’ and accomodating through a myriad of individually initiated changes the social needs of the suburbs and of society will not appeal to those ideologically disposed to grander federal solutions, or to those who regard any change in the status quo as a threat to property interests. But such changes forestall social conflict and demands for costlier and more divisive solutions.

The writer, President of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, is the author of numerous works on law and public policy, including Neighborhood Futures (Routledge)

Posted in: Markets and Privatization, Regulation, State and Local Politics, Urban Affairs, Welfare and Other Social

Tags: , , , , , , , ,