As the American Dream evolves, home ownership continues to play a key role. But it is more complex and multifaceted than a white picket fence and two-car garage: as leaders and communities, we must act to ensure that this ideal also encompasses access and affordability.

Overly — and, arguably, unfairly — prescriptive aesthetic standards do not enhance health, safety, or wellbeing. They do, however, place a staggering financial burden on already-stretched essential businesses (i.e. builders) and, more to the point, price thousands of Hoosiers out of homes.

The White Picket Fence

Advocates of aesthetic standards in the construction of new homes argue that these rules serve to “preserve” the character of their communities and protect property values. By exerting control over the design characteristics of their housing stock, zoning boards also control the populations they attract. Purely aesthetic standards lead to more costly housing, limit consumer options, and put home ownership out of reach for thousands.

Restrictive design standards include:

  • Limiting or prohibiting the use of certain exterior materials (e.g. vinyl siding)
  • Requiring the use of specific, and frequently, more expensive exterior materials
  • Prescribing the minimum square footage of a home
  • Requiring architectural details and/or planes on roofs, as well as a specific pitch
  • Prescribing the number and types of rooms within the home
  • Requiring non-structural architectural ornamentation (e.g. porches, balconies)
  • Mandating full basements, size and placements of garages and driveways
  • Requiring specific expanses of windows/doors on front-facing exterior surfaces

In communities, like Springdale, Arkansas, even the iconic white picket fence is verboten. Fencing must be wrought iron.

Putting a Price on the American Dream

Tuttle, Oklahoma banned the use of vinyl siding in 2019, with proponents arguing that the cost of maintaining the material would be “untenable” in the long-term. The stark reality is, though, that this will significantly raise home prices. Mike Means of the Oklahoma Home Builders Association puts these figures into perspective: “For every $1000 increase in the price of a home, we price 1940 families out of the market in Oklahoma.” Here in Indiana, 4,768 households are priced out of homeownership for every $1,000 price increase.

Who are these people, these families? Darrell Beavers of the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency says, “The typical comment we hear from people is, ‘Nobody I know needs affordable housing. Who are these people?’ And it’s a list including our children starting their working careers, hotel maid staff, janitors, medical assistants, teachers, nurses, policemen, firemen…”

Jennifer Miller, former executive director of Indiana’s Hamilton County Area Neighborhood Development (HAND), concurs: “Our lives all interact with people who have different income levels than our own. It takes more than CEOs to run the world.”

This is a point that has been made apparent by the essential workers who have kept the economy chugging as COVID-19 swept across the country. These same people, though, struggle to attain affordable home ownership. In Indiana, the average income is $54,000 per household, meaning homes are affordable to the average buyer at a price point near $200,000. The median new home price is $370,500. To qualify, Hoosiers need an income of $88,007.

Aesthetic standards place an unnecessary barrier in their path. They account for an astonishing 24.3 percent of the final price of a new single-family home built for sale.

The issue of vinyl siding is, again, a prime example. Many Indiana companies manufacture or utilize this material in home construction; ordinances prohibiting vinyl are detrimental to these businesses — and to prospective homeowners. Vinyl has advanced over the years, and it is one of the most durable, low-maintenance, and cost-effective siding materials on the market. It is a desirable product for age-restricted, low-maintenance communities with a growing market segment. Using Hardiplank or brick in place of vinyl would add an estimated $12,000 to $25,000 to the cost of the home.

“Our lives all interact with people who have different income levels than our own. It takes more than CEOs to run the world.”

Taking Local Earnings Into Account

To maintain a balanced market, we must take local earnings into account when evaluating new housing proposals. Indiana residents who earn an average household income will be able to afford homes if purely aesthetic regulations are removed. It’s too our benefit as a state, and as diverse communities, to do so. Not only is affordable housing essential to our economy, it is demonstrably a public health issue and one inextricably linked to issues of equity and equality.

Hard-working Hoosiers must be allowed to make decisions about what their homes look like based on their preferences and what they can reasonably afford. Leave aesthetics to the buyers. Instead, let’s focus our energy, resources, and time in tackling safety, supply, accessibility, and affordability.