My mother-in-law grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Chicago. Even in her later years, she recalled people sitting on their porch stoops talking to each other on summer evenings. And if a stranger set foot in the neighborhood, everyone knew it within minutes.

Can the “neighorhoods” of 100 years ago be revived?

It is some of this spirit that the city’s Texas-based planning consultant is trying to recapture in its chapter on housing in Murfreesboro, The city hired the Texas-based Kendig-Keast Cooperative to help plan for an expected population explosion here that has begun already.
Murfreesboro’s population is expected to grow from 117,044 people in 2013 to about 228,090 by 2035, an increase of 111,046 people. This will require the addition of nearly
42,958 additional housing units by that date

Choice between planning and letting the free market plan for us

Aaron Tuley, the consultant’s point man on this study, will try to convince the city council that planned housing growth is a better option than letting developers plan our city for us. He faces an uphill battle with some councilmen, who contend that the free market always knows best. If left to their own devices, developers will likely continue building neat subdivisions on the fringes of the city where the land is cheapest and city regulations don’t apply.

If the city grows like a weed the quality of life here may well decline

Kendig Keast argues that allowing the free market to meet this population explosion without any human intervention will be disastrous for the city and county.

Tuley says surveys show that many Americans no longer want the suburban American dream and are reviving the old neighborhood idea. But the neighborhood vision he is promoting, bucks the traditional dream of a single-family home in the suburbs with a large lot and a long drive to work.

Not enough high density development

Tuley contends that our current housing inventory is out of step with recent trends and our future needs.

About 27,000 acres, or roughly 70% of the city’s zoned land, permits some form of residential development. Of that total, about 58% is zoned for minimum lots of a little more than a fifth of an acre to quarter of an acre or more.

Already around 57% of Murfreesboro’s housing is single family detached units. Single family attached homes, such as townhouses, comprise around seven percent and the various types of multi-family units (from duplexes to large apartments) make up 34%. While 35% of land zoned for single-family housing is available for future development, only 21% of the land zoned for multi-family uses is still undeveloped.

Subdivision living not an option for many residents

Kendig Keast contends that all of this will have to change. The consultant argues that the traditional single-family subdivision can’t continue to be dominant type for several reasons:

  • First, much of the remaining residential land to be developed is constrained by steep slopes, sinkholes or shallow depth to bedrock, which makes it hard to put in septic tanks or sewer lines. Unless the city moves away from large-lot homes and pursues higher density development, it may not be able to accommodate everyone who is coming here.
  • A housing stock that is weighted heavily toward single-family homes won’t meet the needs of much of the city’s future population.

Household size declining

  • Married couple households have declined sharply since the 1950s, from more than 75% of all households to about 50% now. There is a corresponding rise in “non-family households” consisting of singles or persons not related by birth, marriage or adoption
  • Average household size has fallen from about 3.7persons in 1940 to about 2.6 persons. Unlike married couples with children, many people in these other categories don’t want to own a single-family home.

Throwing out the lawn mower

  • Many seniors, who are tired of cutting the lawn and maintaining a house, want to downsize. Similarly, many of the young urban professionals that the city wants go attract are getting married and having children later in life. They want a simple one-bedroom place or even a loft in the city center where the action is.
  • Many people are tired of long commutes (and paying high fuel bills) to work and of driving into the city constantly to shop. They are looking for neighborhoods near their jobs, where they also can walk to stores, churches, restaurant, parks and entertainment spots. That translates to a desire for neighborhoods with a mix of houses stores and other businesses within an easy walk.
  • Higher density housing by definition is generally lest costly the build and therefore more affordable.

High housing costs hurt the local economy

Making housing more affordable is a key goal of Kendig Keast, as many homeowners and renters here are paying too much for housing.

  • Fifty-two percent of Murfreesboro’s renting households paid more than 30% of their income for rent, and 29% of the owner-occupied households paid more than 30% of their monthly income for a mortgage.

These percentages are too high, according to standards planners and many lenders use. A family spending too much on housing and commuting costs, has little discretionary income to pour into the local economy.

In essence, the large-lot, single-family home is no longer a viable option for many Murfreesboro residents. We need to alter the mix of our housing development to match what many of our current and future residents are looking for.

* In part two, we examine the consultant’s vision of an ideal neighborhood