8 Ways to Make Cities (and Buildings) Better for Families

Birth rates are dropping precipitously. Is the way we build and run cities to blame?

Feb 20, 2024
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Cities are increasingly child-free zones. San Francisco now has more dogs than kids and suffers from rapidly declining public school enrollment. Collectively, the US had 300,000 fewer kids living in cities in 2020 than in 2010, a trend that has only accelerated since. Faced with declining enrollment, urban districts are increasingly closing schools and consolidating resources.

Childless cities are neither a good thing nor an immutable fact of nature. Done right, cities can be great places to raise kids. Adjusting for income, kids raised in cities have greater economic mobility and lower suicide rates than their suburban or rural peers. Many parents also view decamping to the suburbs as a difficult but necessary choice, a sacrifice of lifestyle and convenience at the altar of good schools and spacious housing. This has likely weighed on birth rates, which have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years even as the number of children families want has increased.

It doesn’t have to be this way—making cities hard for families is a policy choice, and real estate developers have a role to play as well. Today’s letter will outline a number of things that need to change to make cities more welcoming to families. Some will be policy recommendations, while others are ways housing developers could make their projects more family-friendly.

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  1. Move beyond the "conventional unit mix"

The biggest barrier to encouraging families to stay in cities is simply the lack of family-sized units. And the few family-sized units that do exist are typically (a) expensive and (b) embedded within buildings primarily inhabited by either the young and childless or empty nesters. And the problem has gotten worse, with average apartment sizes decreasing dramatically over the past ten years. The shrinkage accelerated in 2022 with the average new apartment coming in at under 900 square feet.

Source; RentCafe

While some of this is simply due to supply and demand—young, childless people need less space and can often pay more per square foot—developers rarely think through demographic trends from first principles. Rather, they use out-of-the-box "conventional unit mixes" that are somewhat tailored to their building’s location and desired pricing but tend to stay fairly consistent. In a coastal hub city, a conventional unit mix might look like this:

  • 35% studios;

  • 40% one-bedrooms;

  • 20% two-bedrooms;

  • 5% three-bedrooms

Perhaps a younger-indexed building may have 10% more studios, or a higher-end building would have 10% more two-bedrooms. But diverging much more than that risks raising red flags with the developer’s limited partners or—worse—construction lender. Lenders like to check the box, and a conventional unit mix like the one above checks the box.

Unfortunately, this mix leaves families in a difficult position. A 100-unit new-build tower may have only 20 two-bedrooms, a number of which will be occupied by roommates, not families—more on that below. So it’s unlikely that kids will find many peers on their floor, and the developer probably won’t see the need to build a playroom or tailor any amenities for families.

Bucking this trend—and the conventional unit mix—requires that developers have hard conversations with their lenders. Some developers are doing this, and we featured several of them in a Thesis Driven letter last year. Proving that family-sized units can lease with the same velocity as studios will go a long way in paving the way for future developers to buck the conventional unit mix.

  1. Design bigger units for families, not roommates

Even when buildings do include larger units, those units are often designed to balance the needs of roommates and families. We wrote about this at length last year when we covered developers building family-oriented apartments:

While shifting demographics may provide a tailwind for family-sized apartments, some developers and analysts point to a different problem at the root of those units’ poor historical performance: their design. Specifically, larger "family-sized" units in urban developments are often designed to solve for the needs of roommates and families simultaneously. It goes without saying that those two demographics have very different preferences, and it’s difficult to satisfy both use cases with a single unit. Specifically, roommate- and family-oriented units have a few key differences:

  • Family-oriented units have more, smaller bedrooms, and windowless bedrooms / dens are appropriate;

  • Family-oriented units have larger living rooms;

  • Family-oriented units don’t need a 1:1 bedroom:bathroom ratio, and not all bedrooms need en-suite bathrooms and walk-in closets;

  • Family-oriented units have baths rather than showers in the secondary bedrooms;

Example of a 3BR apartment designed for (high-end) roommates over families. Each bedroom has a dedicated bathroom and walk-in closet. Courtesy @bobbyfijan on Twitter

Ironically, buildings that are purpose-built for single people like coliving and micro-apartment communities can actually help the problem. By giving singles a purpose-built place to live, it stops them from outbidding families to live in the small number of large apartments in traditional residential buildings.

  1. Legalize—and build—windowless bedrooms

Many US cities have tight restrictions on what qualifies as a "bedroom." Specifically, most require that every bedroom has direct access to light and air in the form of an openable window at least a certain number of feet away from the closest opposing wall.

While these regulations are well-meaning, they make it more difficult for developers to build larger units that work well for families—especially in combination with the multi-stair requirements we’ll discuss in the next section. And while adults may enjoy rising with the morning sun, any guide to getting a baby to sleep will recommend parents make their little one’s room as dark and quiet as possible. (Our younger child slept in a Manhattan walk-in closet for his first year, and he slept better for it.)

Interior rooms are also key for making office-to-residential conversions work. Given offices’ deeper floor plates, some windowless rooms are inevitable—rooms that would work well as nurseries or home offices. While these layouts won’t be a fit for everyone—roommates, for example—the government shouldn’t be in the business of outlawing them outright.

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  1. Legalize point access block apartments

While a windowless bedroom would be fine for many families, some architects argue that they should be unnecessary, and other code reforms could make it far easier for developers to include direct light and air in every room. Foremost among those reforms is dropping the two-stair requirement, a proposal that has gained steam in recent months and we recently featured in Thesis Driven. From that letter:

Despite the questionable effect on fire safety outcomes, North America’s unusual second stair requirements have an outsized impact on the design of multifamily buildings. The rules make it almost impossible to efficiently recreate the traditional design of apartment buildings, termed "point access blocks" by Seattle architect Michael Eliason—a few units around a single stair, with maybe an elevator. The common hallway that must connect the two stairs in a modern American code-compliant building cuts the structure in two, cutting off the possibility of floor-through apartments found in traditional American multifamily architecture like the New York City tenement or the Los Angeles dingbat.


Without the requirement for a second stair, buildings can be laid out in a fundamentally more efficient way. With less vertical circulation, the circulation core can simply be repeated a few different times, with apartments of different sizes arrayed off of each core, potentially stretching from the front of the building to the back. If planners redraw zoning envelopes to accommodate thinner buildings, more bedrooms can be packed in less square footage, offering more affordable and competitive family-sized designs.

Typical European single-stair floor plan. Drawing by Michael Eliason at Larch Lab.
  1. Legalize smaller elevators

Strollers and stairs do not mix well. From a quality-of-life standpoint, elevators are essential for making city living viable for families with young kids.

Unfortunately, US developers building small multifamily buildings do everything in their power to avoid triggering elevator requirements. One major reason is another well-intentioned regulation with predictably poor outcomes: In the US, building code typically requires elevators to be large enough to fit a fully extended medical stretcher. Europe and much of the rest of the world, on the other hand, allows much smaller elevators sufficient for a wheelchair or stroller but not much more.

As a result, US elevators end up being much more expensive and space-eating than their international peers. For small multifamily projects, the difference in elevator size and cost can have a significant impact on building layout and financials, so developers try to avoid building them whenever possible. This leads, predictably, to the US having far fewer elevators per capita—on par with Turkey and China rather than western Europe.

This is bad for families, as it means the options for urban living are a ground-floor unit—which isn’t for everyone—or an apartment in a high-rise building with an elevator. Low-rise apartment buildings, which tend to be less expensive, simply aren’t built with elevators.

And finally, three things that aren’t strictly real estate but would go a long way to making cities more livable for children and parents…

  1. Embrace traffic calming

Assuming you keep your guns locked away, cars present by far the highest threat to children’s lives, killing over 1,000 kids every year. And after years of improving safety standards and fewer deaths, the recent trend toward heavier cars with higher hoods and worse visibility has reversed some of the gains.

The problem is particularly acute among pedestrians, the most vulnerable road users. Pedestrian deaths have skyrocketed in the United States in recent years, erasing two decades of gains.

Fortunately, the path to reversing this trend is fairly well-understood. Road and signal design that encourages conflicts between different road users—think right-turn-on-red and walk signals that conflict with left turns—is a particular culprit. Overly wide roads also encourage speeding and place the burden on enforcement. Bulb-outs, daylighting, and raised intersections are all proven methods of slowing drivers and saving children’s lives in urban areas.

Bulb-outs like these slow down drivers and save pedestrian lives
  1. Enforce quality-of-life laws

At some point in 2020, many cities—particularly left-leaning, coastal hubs—decided to stop enforcing many of the laws that keep public spaces nice and welcoming to all citizens but particularly families with kids. What was a San Francisco problem ten years ago now pervades major cities nationwide: drug dealing happens publicly and abundantly, zombified addicts pass out on sidewalks and stoops, people smoke on trains and buses, and fencers selling stolen goods set up tables with their wares along major thoroughfares. The public realm has been ceded to the most antisocial among us.

A decade ago, many advocates—myself included—pushed for a more European model of managing drug abuse that was centered on rehabilitation rather than punishment. But what we got would be alien to even the most liberal European. Even in Portugal, long lauded as a model for progressive drug policies, public drug use is verboten and chronic users are involuntarily placed into rehabilitation programs. The US version looks more like anarcho-libertarianism than social democracy.

Our lack of enforcement of quality-of-life issues also extends to traffic violations, reinforcing the problems of vehicular carnage we covered in the last point. In some cities, the police have simply stopped enforcing traffic laws whatsoever, giving a free pass to the most aggressive speeders and red light runners.

Traffic citations issued in San Francisco. Source: https://sfgov.org/scorecards/transportation/percentage-citations-top-five-causes-collisions

The outcome here is not that families buckle down to the do the hard work of fixing their cities’ policies. The ones with means simply leave, decamping to the suburbs or friendlier locales in the Sunbelt. If we want cities to be welcoming to families with kids, we have to fix quality-of-life problems.

  1. Allow remote participation in community meetings—or abolish them entirely

Taking a few hours out of an evening to attend a community meeting and voice an opinion on a new residential project, bike lane, or street improvement is painful for anyone. But it’s almost impossible for families with young children who find spending hours away from home at night incompatible with a reasonable kids’ bedtime, and only the wealthiest parents can afford hiring a babysitter to attend a community meeting.

In my view, community meetings are fundamentally undemocratic and should be abolished, as they favor the voices of the rich and retired over essential workers, parents, and others who can’t easily carve out time to attend. Instead, decisions should be made at the ballot box, and elected officials should be empowered to make decisions on behalf of their constituencies—and be held accountable for those decisions.

Sadly, many of the things that make cities unfriendly to families are self-reinforcing. The harder cities are for families, the fewer of them choose to live there. And fewer families means that elected officials are less likely to prioritize families’ needs, as parents aren’t a major voting bloc.

Having fewer urban families also means that it’s more difficult for real estate developers to make the case to their LPs and lenders that families are a viable target market. When parents pack up and leave as soon as their first child hits two, it reinforces the notion that "families don’t want to live in cities"—rather than cities simply being unwelcoming to families.

The US faces a crisis of fertility, with birth rates declining more than 15% from 2010 to 2022. When having kids often means uprooting one’s life, leaving friends, and embracing a longer commute, it’s no surprise that more parents are choosing to delay or forgo kids. If we want to turn this around, it’ll require policy changes as well as new perspectives from real estate developers and investors alike.

—Brad Hargreaves

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1 Comment

Great article, Brad. All good points. I’ve been thinking about family focused apartments for the past 10 years and am still struggling to figure it out. On the policy side, I would also say education is a huge issue for families with school aged children.

I’m an apartment asset manager and have quite a number of 2 and 3 bedroom units in urban buildings in Boston and NYC. The challenge we run into is that the renter pool for those units is not deep and is highly seasonal. Families with school aged children typically want to move during summer before the school year starts. When we get these units back in the off season, it can sometimes take 3-4 months and slashing rents to get them filled and it’s crushes your vacancy. $5 psf on a 1,000sf unit for 4 months has a huge impact on the rent roll. We obviously try to shore up our expiration schedule on those units but that doesn’t always protect you. I think the other challenge is that families tend to be the contingent moving out to buy homes so you can’t necessarily depend on them to be there for more than a couple of years.

Anither interesting development we’ve seen in our portfolio is the 2 and 3 bed units conducive to families in the suburbs throughout the Southeast have gotten extremely challenging to keep full because of the competition from SFR.

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