Cities Haven’t Figured Out How to Accomodate the Upper-Middle Class (Yet?)

I recently discussed yet another person who makes more than most of us would ever think imaginable and who, nonetheless, believes he is in dire straits. What’s interesting is that, based on my anecdotal perusal of these complaints, they seem to be largely confined to urban areas. Which brings us to an interesting point that Yves Smith raises about the upper-middle class and urban living (boldface mine):

…what Salmon and Schiff miss is that someone “middle class” in the 1980s would have been very unlikely to raise kids in the five boroughs (Schiff and Salmon really mean upper middle class). The city was not considered safe for children. When I first came to Manhattan, pretty much everyone I knew who did not live in a doorman building had had an apartment break-in. I had my wallet stolen on two occasions in 1987. The subways were gross and no woman would dare ride them wearing real or real-looking jewelry (gold chain snatchings were a regular occurrence). I was a member of the 1% then (although not in terms of Manhattan incomes, trust me, there was a huge amount of headroom between me and them) and I lived in a 1100 square foot apartment on 69th Street between Park and Madison, which is a nice block (yes this was a glam apartment, a wreck I had renovated, long shaggy story as to why I no longer have it). I’d be the first out of the building in the morning. The townhouse kept the inner door locked and the outer door unlocked. I’d always have to step over a homeless man sleeping between the two doors.

So in the 1980s and even into the early 1990s, only the comfortably affluent (those who lived in large apartments in doorman buildings or could afford an entire townhouse, which in those days were cheaper than the bigger apartments in good addresses) expected to stay in the city if they had kids. Everyone else moved to the ‘burbs either as soon as the arrival of a child made their living arrangements unduly cramped or no later than when the young ‘un was going to go to elementary school. And that family would have gone to a nice suburb, ideally one where the children could have gone to public school till at least 6th or 8th grade, and gotten a home with a decent sized yard and would not have spent on a summer rental, but on a nice summer vacation and maybe a winter or spring break getaway….

So the pressure on real estate prices wasn’t simply due to rising Wall Street incomes, although that has been the biggest driver. It has also come from more couples in all professions being more likely to stay in the city once they have kids.

good quality public education has become more scarce, leading to escalating real estate prices in districts seen as having good schools

I think, for the most part, cities have dealt with the crime problem in middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods (lower-income households still have it rough). But the challenge for cities is an educational one: parents have to be convinced that public schools perform well, otherwise they will feel the need to spend large sums on private schooling (or, of course, leave the city). That’s going to be very hard to accomplish as long as so many lower-income families* are concentrated in cities due to suburban zoning policies that exclude lower-income families.

*I’m using lower-income very broadly, not just to describe the poor.

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