How can we make housing more affordable when we  can’t afford for housing prices to fall?  

Over an image of a neighborhood, are the words "Solutions Sidebar" and "Charles Marohn." There is also an image of the Strong Towns logo and the Escaping the Housing Trap book.
Brick by Brick interviews Charles Marohn, author of Escaping the Housing Trap. He says incremental developers are key to building entry-level housing.

Podcast: Solutions Sidebar: A Building Boom Of Entry Level Housing with Charles Marohn

A recent report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, The State of The Nation’s Housing 2024, finds homeowners and renters are still “struggling with high housing costs.” Both housing prices and the number of renters with cost burdens have hit all-time highs. And the number of households paying more than 30-percent of their income on housing in Greater Cincinnati is 244,000. For Greater Dayton it’s 89,000, according to this report. Here’s a clickable map: 

Cost Burdens High Across the Country | Joint Center for Housing Studies (harvard.edu) 

Due to this crisis of unaffordability, first-time homebuying has dropped.  

Author, engineer and Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn is well aware of the statistics. In his book Escaping the Housing Trap, he recognizes housing is both an investment and a shelter and that creates a problem for Baby Boomers who need to recoup the money they’ve put into their house and Millennials and Gen Zers who are looking to buy an affordable home. 

“We have this tension whereas an investment, housing needs to go up in value but the more housing goes up in price the harder it is for people to get into shelter.” He says, “We need housing prices to fall; we also cannot afford for them to fall. Thus, we are trapped.”

Marohn says it’s time to escape this housing trap. In an interview with Brick by Brick, he laid out doable steps to “restore balance to the housing market.” 

A building boom for every neighborhood 

Marohn says, “Instead of making it easier for people to pay more for a house, we actually need to make housing prices broadly go lower.” How do you do that? The strategy is a nationwide building boom with entry level units. This allows people to either own a 600 sq ft starter house, (about the size of a one-bedroom apartment) which would be added onto over time, or they could rent an empty bedroom in somebody’s house. 

“If we had an abundance of entry level units, there would be a lot of different opportunities. A person who is in their first job, a person who’s just getting started with their family, a couple that has just gotten married,” he says. 

People should be able to move up when they’re ready, says Marohn. 

Who would build this type of housing? 

Big developers aren’t set up to build small housing. But incremental developers are. They are “the person who lives in the house and sees the house across the street going into decline, wants to buy it, fix it up, convert it into a duplex and rent it out,” says Marohn. Or “the schoolteacher who has summers off and would like to spend that time working on a project worthy of their time and investment.” 

Mike Keen is such a person. He is a professor at Indiana University South Bend, teaching urban studies and sustainability. In 2016 he and two partners decided to turn their attention to Northwest South Bend, Indiana, which as Marohn explains, “hadn’t seen a new residential development in over 40 years.” 

Keen became a familiar face in this neighborhood, taking pride in his work and Marohn said it helped speed up all the permits. Fast forward, The Portage Midtown development now includes about 100 properties. 

There used to be a lot of incremental developers but they’ve been squeezed out of the market. “If we can fix the financing in a sense, allow the type of building that we need to be financed locally, there’s actually a whole cadre of people we can get off the sidelines, get them working together in a sense, they are going to be in a competitive marketplace,” says Marohn. 

Local governments can help pay for this housing boom 

Local governments can finance entry level housing. Not middle-class homes, not three- or four-bedroom homes but 600 sq ft homes, Marohn points out. Here’s how they can do it: 

Another idea is the land value tax. It looks at the value of the land and assesses the tax on that, not what you have built on it. Marohn says this rewards people for making their neighborhoods better, but he cautions it’s a tool in a toolbox. “There are a lot of people who look at the land value tax and they’ll say it’s like the solution to every problem, right? It’ll solve Mideast peace, cure cancer and do all these other things.” That’s not true. 

Marohn offers up his hometown of Brainard, Minnesota up as an example of why the status quo doesn’t work in this blog

Marohn’s assessment of Cincinnati 

While in Cincinnati for the Strong Towns and Congress of New Urbanism conferences this spring, Marohn took a walking tour of Over the Rhine for the Active Towns podcast. 

Walk ‘n Talk about Escaping the Housing Trap w/ Chuck Marohn in Cincinnati’s Over The Rhine District

Brick by Brick also asked Marohn about Cincinnati. He says people need to understand where Cincinnati sits in the development landscape of North America, explaining that the farther west you go and further south you go the more the development reflects the post-war pattern. Think single-family ranch-style homes in subdivisions that looked the same. This is different than pre-Great Depression where homes were more ornate like Victorian, Craftsman bungalow and Tudor. 

“So, when I walked around in Over-the-Rhine, what I saw was a pre–Great Depression neighborhood that was in the process of renewing itself. Some of that I know has been renewal that was assisted or facilitated by policy shifts in the local government, but a lot of it has been done just despite the local government really in this style of development.” 

He says there is a huge demand for neighborhoods like this one and it produces a big return on investment. “I think the harder ones are going to be the ones when you get a big further out, these are neighborhoods that were designed where the marketing brochure was ‘buy in this neighborhood. It will never change’ and the neighborhoods themselves are designed not to change.” 

But he says, “Cincinnati is one of the undiscovered gems in this country and if you’re putting a bet on cities that I think will prosper in the next two generations…Cincinnati is going to be at the top of that list. It’s got all the ingredients to be amazing.” 

Limitations 

Marohn calls for a housing boom of entry level homes, but Harvard’s study reports, “While homebuilders are increasingly delivering smaller lower-cost options, construction of entry-level housing is still hampered. Constraints from restrictive zoning and regulatory policies, skilled labor shortages, financing limitations and other challenges increased the costs and reduce the amount of development.” The report suggests greater use of manufactured or pre-fab homes which can be 35-percent cheaper. 

We have the tools to get out of this ‘crisis of unaffordability’ 

Marohn is optimistic we have the tools to address the nationwide housing shortage. But he admits, “I am more than a little bit nervous and more than a little bit pessimistic about the overall broad trends.” 

He says it feels like we’re in the middle of a “housing shakeout and it’s not clear whether housing prices are going to crash or whether our housing prices are going to soar but it kind of feels like we are in an unstable position vis-à-vis inflation and interest rates.” 

Recent reporting from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies does show “a surge in new multifamily rental units is slowing rent growth nationally and increasing single-family construction is starting to lift for-sale inventories.” Despite this, “rents remain up 26-percent nationwide since early 2020 and are rising in three out of every five markets.” 

Marohn is hoping communities across the country will realize there is an increasing body of knowledge and tools they can turn to, to improve the housing market so “they don’t have to be pioneers in this space.” 

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Ann Thompson – Host, Producer

Over the last thirty years in Cincinnati, Ann Thompson has brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported and anchored for WVXU, WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV and Metro Networks and freelanced for NPR, CBS and ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and she has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. She is a former News Director and Operations Manager. Ann has reported from India, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Belgium as part of fellowships. Ann thinks of the Brick by Brick project as “journalism for good.” She serves as host and producer. Ann lives in Anderson Township with her husband Scott. They have two boys. Jake graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2022 and Kurt attends West Point.