Solving the Urban Housing Crisis Requires a Suburban Solution

One of the many annoyances when urban policy is discussed is the conflation of cities with metropolitan areas. Sometimes, commentators will mean the city sensu stricto, while, at other times, city actually means metropolitan area (Richard Florida does this far too often). This isn’t just a semantic issue–how terms are defined can ‘define away’ solutions. Which leads us to this post by Ben Adler (boldface mine):

It would be wonderful if the nation’s problems with sprawl and housing unaffordability could be solved by upzoning in a few cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, those cities are not actually the primary driver of these problems and they cannot solve them on their own.

Take a step back and think about where most Americans actually live versus the elite who write for the national media. Almost three times as many people live in the suburbs of the 51 largest major metro areas than in the inner cities. When young journalists — who are disproportionately likely to live in cities — talk about the high cost of housing in San Francisco and New York, they often conflate the problems of the metropolitan regions and the central cities. Most people in “San Francisco” don’t live in San Francisco. They live in the suburbs of San Francisco, which are hideously expensive: four of the 10 towns with the highest home prices in the U.S. are Bay Area suburbs.

San Francisco’s and New York’s (also very expensive) suburbs have much lower-density zoning restrictions than the cities themselves. New York City is more than 10 times denser than its suburbs. Most suburban areas allow only detached houses with big yards. The suburbs also have more parking-space requirements and segregated uses that make walking unpleasant or impractical and force people to drive. That’s why the average resident of New York’s suburban Great Neck, Long Island has twice the carbon footprint of the average Manhattanite. That’s also why — despite all the hype about gentrification and the high cost of inner-city housing — Manhattan, like New York City’s other boroughs and like San Franciso, has a lower median household income than any of its surrounding suburban counties. The suburbs are just as unaffordable as the inner cities, even more so when you factor in the cost of owning a car and driving everywhere. Metro areas like New York and San Francisco are economically strong and culturally desirable, so even without any market restrictions, it would be hard for housing supply to keep pace with demand. Development restrictions may make it even worse, but that’s an even bigger problem in the suburbs than in the cities.

Long Island is also much more conservative and Republican than New York City is. Liberals are actually better than conservatives about allowing more density in their communities. Polling also shows that liberals are far more likely than conservatives to say they would accept a smaller home in order to live in a walkable urban environment.

As I’ve noted before, the cost of transportation is something that also needs to be considered in housing prices:

While these cities have cheaper housing than San Francisco, much of that cost advantage disappears when you factor in the cost of transportation in car-dependent sprawl. As Derek Thompson noted in The Atlantic in 2012: “Housing in Houston isn’t so bad — it’s the 8th most affordable large city to own a home in. But … factor in transportation, and it’s the 8th least affordable large city to live. On the other hand, dense expensive cities like San Francisco, Boston and New York are considerably more affordable when you add in transportation costs because of their superior public transit.” Insofar as Houston is cheaper than San Francisco, it’s not because Houston hasn’t restricted development. It’s because not as many people want to live in Houston as San Francisco, Houston’s wages are lower, and the cost of driving leaves Houstonians with less income to bid up the price of housing.

While the solution is to increase the density of the inner suburbs, that probably won’t happen, since zoning laws won’t allow that to happen. A cynic might argue these zoning laws exist to prevent the construction of housing that potentially could be used to house the poor (or people who look poor [wink wink]), though there’s compelling evidence that’s not cynicism, but brutal reality.

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1 Response to Solving the Urban Housing Crisis Requires a Suburban Solution

  1. Dan Lynch says:

    Suburbs exist because not everyone wants to live in a city.

    Housing prices would decline if the population declined. Sprawl is not the problem, population is the problem.

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