That’s what the NY Times would have us believe anyway*. Yes, cities right now are suffering some revenue shortfalls–though why the NYT led with D.C., when D.C. will be immune to declines in income tax revenues due to people working from home**, is unclear. Downtown business districts, which count on commuting office workers, are in trouble, though, as the Boston Globe recently observed, the business district in Boston that also has an attached residential neighborhood (Back Bay) is thriving. Dedicating too much real estate to office space and not to housing was a problem pre-pandemic (all the way back in 2016!).
But if cities are really in trouble, then why did my rent increase eight percent this year? If people are fleeing, it’s not showing up in housing prices in most places.
When cities collapsed in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, it was a combination of vanishing federal money and vanishing people (and it wasn’t just white flight either). No, cities aren’t growing as fast as they once were, but that’s a function of the lack of housing (leading to high housing prices) as much as anything else. For context, between 1960 and 2000, D.C.’s population cratered, falling from 767,000 to 572,000. While that did keep housing prices down, that’s a major collapse in population. There is nothing to suggest that’s happening now–slower population growth is not a decline.
What the NYT completely neglects, however, is that the bill is coming due in suburbs too, and expanding ever-outward is becoming less of an option. A ton of deferred maintenance will have to be paid for–and it’s expensive.
So do cities have problems? Sure. Always have and always will. But enough Americans still want to live in them, so it’s not time to panic yet.
*Our major dailies appear to be affected by an outbreak of ninniness. My guess is this is, in part, displacement behavior from the pandemic, but, regardless, they need to calm the fuck down.
**D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have a compact (which is essentially forced on the mainland colony of D.C.) in which income taxes are paid in the state (or colonial territory) in which you reside, not in which you work, so, from an income tax perspective, much of the D.C. workforce was already working remotely. That said, there will be lost business revenues in part of the city.
JFYI, infrastructure in outlying development is roughly twice as expensive to maintain as compact, infill development. This makes sense since the water lines, roads, sewer lines, police trips, etc. are all longer for outlying development.
The political calculation of what to do with homelessness under the rug isn’t necessary for suburbia since pedestrians can inhabit compact infill, but autos are absolutely required for sprawl. As cities figure out this infrastructure cost calculation, infill and compact development is going to be more prevalent, and the costs of handling the homeless will come to the fore.
The current method of handling the unhoused: incarceration. As George Santayana says “Americans are a primitive people, disguised by the latest inventions.”