Rye’s Endangered Species: Ranch Houses and Split Levels
By Howard Husock
One of the distinctive features of Rye is the diversity of housing: seaside mansions, workingman’s cottages, ranch houses, and split levels. One can find homes of less than 1,000 square feet and some larger than 6,000. Historically, that diversity of homes and neighborhoods made possible a range of household income levels, as well.
That diversity is shrinking. It is no illusion that teardowns are rampant. The City Assessor’s office reports no fewer than 16, completed or planned, in 2020 alone. Teardowns are happening across town — from Grace Church Street to Maple Avenue, from Eve Lane to Thorne Place, from Hill Street to Hunter Lane. Most, according to demolition permits, are being undertaken by contractors.
There’s a profile for a potential teardown: a small house on a large lot. The “dean” of Rye realtors, Coldwell Banker’s Michele Flood, sizes the situation up this way. Asked if ranch homes were particularly targeted because they’ve gone out of style, she said, “It’s not just the ranch homes on decent-size properties that are being purchased, torn down, and replaced by builders. It’s all homes regardless of their style, based on a price of under $1 million on at least .18 of an acre.”
Tax policy plays a role. Small homes are not likely to receive a property tax break because the property — home and land combined — will be assessed based on its value compared to other properties, where homes have been purchased to be demolished and replaced. Our small homes on large lots, in other words, are effectively assessed for their development potential.
All this has implications for the character of Rye, for who can afford to move in and who will be likely to move out. Older homeowners, observes Flood, may choose may decide they are weary of the stress and maintenance costs of homeownership. Their property taxes on ranch houses and split-levels, even if relatively lower, can still be high for those on fixed incomes. At a time when there’s increased interest in older Americans having the chance to age in place — and avoid assisted living — the teardown trend pushes them in another direction.
So, too, do teardowns reduce the inventory of starter homes, which a diverse group of younger couples can afford. A home priced at less than $1 million is less than Rye’s $1.3 million median (according to Census records). As those homes disappear, so do those lower cost-of-entry options, as well as income diversity. That makes it harder for those who have grown up here to stay or return, fraying the bonds of community.
The City might consider simple policy fixes: lower property taxes on small homes, even those on large lots, which might encourage some seniors to stay and thus limit teardowns; tax homes as houses, not as development property.
Trends and styles, of course, change. It might seem far-fetched, but as ranches and split levels grow scarce and are replaced by McMansions, they may come to be viewed as rarities and prices on them bid up! Take it one step further and Rye Gardens, which is replete with such homes, could become an historic district.