… and bathrooms for all

Now I feel bad. At a recent Town Council meeting I clarified to my Nancy Oatescolleagues my view that the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance — the town law that requires subdivision builders to make 15% of the homes affordable based on Area Median Income — does not mean developers must provide luxury housing to people who can’t afford it. I advocated for “value engineering” affordable homes to be able to adhere to the law that some people believe to be onerous. Perhaps an 1,100-square-foot home for a family of four did not have to have three bathrooms, I posited.

To which another council member took umbrage. That CM wondered how parents could raise two children, especially when they become teenagers, in a home with fewer than three bathrooms. At which point, I felt a stab of shame.

You see, I grew up as one of four teenagers, and two parents, in a home with one-and-a-half bathrooms. Oddly, my siblings and I all grew up to be productive members of society, having done well by the markers used to judge success.

Think of what we could have become had we had twice the number of bathrooms.

Then again, maybe family stability doesn’t depend on how many bathrooms are in a house. Maybe parents who have an extra two or three hours a day to pay attention to their kids, rather than enduring long commutes to work and home to their many bathrooms, enjoy life more. Maybe being raised by parents who aren’t stressed and angry pays off in a child’s sense of self and attitude toward the rest of the world. Maybe having to share limited bathroom resources helps children acquire early on the traits of flexibility, forbearance, time management and negotiating skills, respect for others’ needs, and an understanding of boundaries.

Putting aside the snark, my point is that the luxury finishes and amenities a child grows up with mean less than the hard-to-measure factors of the stability engendered by living in a home the family owns, of coming home to a safe neighborhood, of having parents who are home from work in time for dinner and with enough energy to take an interest in their children’s lives.

Families should have the choice of trading a plethora of bathrooms and a large yard for a smaller space but more time to live in it. If builders threaten to not build a subdivision because they say they can’t afford to sell luxury homes at a steep discount to comply with town law, then maybe we should let them know they can build good-enough homes — built to code, with fewer amenities, in a safe neighborhood — priced for people who work modestly paid jobs.

More affordable homes, fewer bathrooms. Better lives for families.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. All the three-bedroom homes in my Chapel Hill neighborhood, which was built in the late 1950s, have 1.5 bathrooms. That apparently was deemed adequate for a middle-class family of four or more persons 60 years ago, and it remains adequate for the families that live here today.

  2. My eight siblings and I shared two bathrooms when I was a teenager and it was not a problem; this was just the way most people lived. I doubt even today most teens have a bathroom to themselves. Sounds a bit entitled.

  3. anon

     /  February 15, 2016

    profit margins are higher on luxury since the pipes , foundation walls roofs cost the same, it’s the extra stuff
    that makes extra profit.

  4. plurimus

     /  February 16, 2016

    I was also unknowingly a victim of low bathroom time abuse. Perhaps we could start a support group.

    Seriously has anyone “shopped” for a house these days? Its more like buying a car used to be, every thing is extra and the model they show you is “fully equipped”. By the time the sales people are done with you the base price has inflated by 200%. It’s a brave new world.

    Additionally when I was a boy, my momma would send me down to a corner store with $1 and I’d come back with 5 potatoes, 2 loaves of bread, 3 bottles of milk, a hunk of cheese, a box of tea and 6 eggs. Can’t do that now…too many security cameras.

  5. Whoever this plurimus is, they ought to have their own blog!

    Oh yes, good post, Nancy! We had two teens and two working parents and two bathrooms and did fine in our little 2000 ft2 house.

  6. Ed Harrison

     /  February 18, 2016

    Somehow we managed with parents and two kids in ~1280 SF (based on recent Zillow specs) and one, yes, one bathroom. We shared a utility room in the basement with the landlord, his mother and uncle. This is/was what’s known as a “two-family home” in Queens, where there thousands upon thousands of such homes, many with at least that many people and that few bathrooms. This one sold for almost $1M in 2013. I vividly recall my mother hollering (when her guys kept walking through the bathroom) as in the 1940s films, “Grand Central Station!!!”

  7. Bruce Springsteen

     /  February 20, 2016

    Here are a couple other things that in my mind increase the price of a house without appreciably increasing the quality of life for the residents.

    1. Trophy Kitchen – These are an indulgence for those that are way into cooking. And in fact, being way into cooking is itself an indulgence. It’s 2016 and we’re wealthy enough that we don’t have to make food preparation a giant production if we don’t want to. Yes, it’s nice when everybody sits around the table together and eats but the vast majority of the “nice” part isn’t from the fancy food but rather is from people sitting around the table together, eating or not. If you think otherwise I challenge you to fix the fanciest meal you can think of and eat it alone and then later sit around a table talking with a bunch of people with no food in sight and tell me which is better. It will be the latter every time.

    2. Fireplace – I don’t know how much a fireplace adds to the cost of a house but in addition to the extra cost, there is the hidden cost of it taking up otherwise usable space (much like a trophy kitchen). A fireplace looks nice but the vast majority of the time it is nothing more then a decoration.

  8. plurimus

     /  February 20, 2016

    I like my fireplaces. I use my fireplaces. I find them both comforting and functional. The vast majority of the time the temperature falls below 32 mine are burning (wood stoves). Fireplaces are best appreciated when the power goes out.

    I don’t know what qualifies as a “trophy kitchen”, but in my life the kitchen has always ended up being the gathering place. So I agree that the people make the difference not the appliances.

    I have been in houses that have bathrooms bigger than my kitchen and many times those bathrooms have fireplaces.

  9. Bruce Springsteen

     /  February 21, 2016

    I’m not saying fireplaces or trophy kitchens aren’t nice if that’s what you’re into but they’re luxuries that jack up the price of a house.

    Maybe people gathering in your kitchen is a chicken and egg thing. Maybe people are gathering there because your house is built such that it encourages it which in turn makes you think that’s a good place to gather.

    Sitting around a table, be it in or near the kitchen is one thing but I’m thinking more in terms of granite countertops and high end appliances and big spaces devoted to food prep itself and all this stuff. People need a kitchen to prepare food but they don’t need all the extras that come with all the extra costs.

    Some people may like it because that is their particular indulgence, but the same goes for anything that is their particular indulgence, like never having to wait to use the bathroom or having a fireplace.

    Lots of things are nice if you can afford them but the point of keeping houses from being not too expensive is to separate the needs from the wants.

  10. plurimus

     /  February 21, 2016


    We agree. Fortunately for us we live in a time and place where most have the means to indulge. As always, separating the needs from wants come back to definitions; what is “poverty” or “affordable” and what context do we wish to define them in?

    Do you think a stripped down house in Chapel Hill would be more attractive to those that need affordable housing than a house with more amenities in a neighboring town?

    Musing on indulgence and your “chicken and egg” reference while listening to Donald Trump crow on the CNN about victory in South Carolina……..fired a synapse or two:

    Henri iV “the good king” said eagerly; “…….une poule dans son pot!”. Henri was assassinated shortly thereafter.

    Less than 200 years later under repression brought on by massive debt, the French people revolted; murdering intellectuals, giving birth to republics and democracies, interrupting the clergy and enabling Napoleon.

    The lesson, I think is that playing politics with reform is a sure way to get the peoples attention. Most times, no one sees the effects of that attention coming.

  11. Nancy

     /  March 27, 2016

    In an article in the N&O on March 22, Stacey Anfindsen, a Cary real estate appraiser who analyzes Triangle MLS data, said: “Demand [for single-family houses] is going to increase because people are moving here and you have people in apartments who are eventually going to get sick of living in apartments.”