Americans increasingly want bigger houses in less-walkable communities

Society-level social distancing

Here’s another datapoint that dovetails nicely with the findings from yesterday’s (paid subscriber-only) newsletter: the share of Americans who say they prefer bigger houses that are farther apart is growing in the wake of the pandemic.

Polling in 2014 and 2017 showed that people were evenly split on whether they favored bigger houses over smaller ones with nearby amenities. But by 2019 there was a marked shift toward a preference for suburban-style living, and now in 2021, after a year and a half of lockdown, 57 people say they’d opt for a bigger home over a smaller, more walkable neighborhood setup, with just 42 percent preferring the latter.

Those figures come from a just-released report by the Survey Center on American Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute. AEI is a conservative think tank, but they’re not a far-right partisan outfit like say, the Heritage Foundation. They’re generally interested in good-faith inquiry over political score-settling. The guy who runs the Survey Center on American Life is Dan Cox, who (full disclosure) I used to work with at the Pew Research Center. He runs a pretty tight ship data-wise and I trust his work. These particular figures, moreover, line up pretty closely with similar data recently released by Pew, which is perhaps the most aggressively non-partisan outfit in all of DC.

The data underscores how in the current moment, many Americans are turning away from the public square and putting a greater emphasis on their lives at home. They’re questioning their obligations to society, with some rebelling against they idea that they live in a society at all. You take this line of thought far enough and you end up at the sovereign citizen movement, which somewhat insanely holds that individuals can declare themselves above the laws of the land.

A preference for the individual over the collective has long been a characteristic of politics on the right. It’s usually expressed in areas like tax policy, with Republicans often opposing individual taxes to pay for the common good. But during the Covid era many conservatives have taken it to the extreme by undermining collective efforts to reduce transmission, fighting vaccine mandates and championing the “freedom” to die from a preventable disease.

The data on housing, however, show a shift toward individualism across the board. Republicans and Democrats; old and young; white and black; college-educated or not: all demographics moved toward a preference for bigger, more widely-spaced homes over walkable communities between 2019 and 2021.

There’s a common complaint on the right that while conservatives have consolidated power in legislatures and courthouses in recent years, liberals have won a decisive victory in the cultural battles over the types of speech permissible in the public square. That premise is debatable enough as it is — plenty of liberals are getting fired and disinvited from events — but the housing preference data further suggests we’re overlooking one big cultural battlefield where conservative ideas are ascendant: the question of an individual’s place in her community.

More and more Americans seem to be envisioning a future for themselves where they’re the ruler of their own household kingdom, spacious and set apart from their neighbors’ fiefdoms. Having traveled halfway across the country in search of something like this for my own family I certainly understand the appeal. But if this shift holds in the post-Covid era I wonder what it will entail for the Democratic project of convincing Americans to support the common good in their communities.