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Houston as Urban Ideal?

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OK, no one would really say that Houston is an urban utopia. But this op-ed in the Houston Chronicle actually does make some good points, even if it can be read as a defense of low-density, auto-intensive sprawl that many of us, myself included, reject. Because if you look at the dense urban centers exploding in the last twenty years, they are not livable for the working and even the middle classes:

The luxury paradigm has worked for some in some cities, but has failed, critically, in providing ample opportunities for the middle and working classes, much less the poor. Indeed, many of the cities most closely identified with luxury urbanism tend to suffer the most extreme disparities of both class and race. If Manhattan were a country, it would rank sixth-highest in income inequality in the world out of more than 130 countries for which the World Bank reports data. New York’s wealthiest 1 percent earn one-third of the entire municipality’s personal income – almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country.

Indeed, increasingly, New York, as well as San Francisco, London, Paris and other cities where the cost of living has skyrocketed, are no longer places of opportunity for those who lack financial resources or the most elite educations. Instead, they thrive largely by attracting people who are already successful or are living on inherited largesse.

They are becoming, as journalist Simon Kuper puts it, “the vast gated communities where the 1 percent reproduces itself.”

Not surprisingly, the middle class is shrinking rapidly in most luxury cities. A recent analysis of 2010 Census data by the Brookings Institution found that the percentage of middle incomes in metro regions such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago has been in a precipitous decline for the last 30 years, due in part to high housing and business costs.

A more recent 2014 Brookings study found that these generally high-cost luxury cities – with the exception of Atlanta-tend to suffer the most pronounced inequality: San Francisco, Miami, Boston, Washington DC, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In recent years, income inequality has risen most rapidly in the very mecca of luxury progressivism, San Francisco, where the wages of the poorest 20 percent of all households have actually declined amid the dot com billions.

Say what you will about the ideology behind some of this language, the point is something we need to take seriously. Even in cities like Denver, costs are rising so rapidly as to squeeze people out. Are our cities to become places only for the 1%? Where do the poor go who work in New York, Washington, or San Francisco? When good public transportation is built, will it just push out the poor so that the wealthy can take it? And this is hardly just an American problem, as we see here in Barcelona.

This hardly means I think we should all be Houston, Dallas, or Charlotte. But I do think we have to develop housing policies that actually allow everyday people to stay in urban centers. For instance, one way to stop the uber-wealthy from owning 10 luxury apartments in 10 leading cities would be extremely high taxes on second homes, undermining the incentive for extreme luxury apartment building making Manhattan the home of the global elite and no one else. And maybe this isn’t a good idea, I don’t know. But we do need a significantly more robust plan to keep cities livable for everyday people if we want a) to create some level of equity in our urban areas and b) if we want environmentally sustainable urban centers that actually make a difference, as oppose to provide amenities to the 1%.

But don’t tell any of this to the real estate section of the Times, which believes a $1 million apartment is within reach for average buyers.

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  • FormerEditor

    1m might be within reach for the average buyer who reads the real estate section of the Times…

    • NewishLawyer

      I have a lot of friends who hate read the Real Estate section of the Times. It seems to be a progressive activity. The Billfold has a feature called “Good Enough” homes to make fun of the Times.

      That being said I have spent my entire life in the NYC Metro and Bay Areas and it has skewed my concept of real estate.

  • djanyreason

    There’s no real reason a tax needs to be on second homes, instead of property full-stop. Increase property tax, decrease income tax, and you discourage the owning of residences that are not proximate to employment.

    Also, this really is a land-use regulation issue. What Charlotte, Houston, and Dallas all have are a friendly regulatory environment to new construction, which does not exist in New York, San Francisco, Washington, or Los Angeles. In those markets there is a lot of money to be made in creating new housing for sale or rent, and if the regulatory scheme would permit it then investors would build it to capture that profit. Supply would increase until the profit opportunity was gone – which would occur when prices dropped.

    • Ann Outhouse

      There’s no real reason a tax needs to be on second homes, instead of property full-stop. Increase property tax, decrease income tax, and you discourage the owning of residences that are not proximate to employment.

      People who can afford two or more high-priced homes are not going to be deterred by an increased property tax, but they’ll thank you for lowering their already obscenely low income taxes, and you’ll price even more lower- and middle-income buyers out of the market.

      • djanyreason

        So, if I’m understanding you correctly, your contention is that replacing income tax with higher property tax would simultaneously lower the tax burden of high income earners (who are wealthy enough to own two homes, and will not be deterred from doing so), while pricing low and middle income earners out of the homeownership market?

        • Malaclypse

          I can think of two states that scrapped both income and sales taxes, in favor of high property taxes: Texas, and New Hampshire.

          I think the results speak for themselves.

          • mpowell

            Texas doesn’t have enough revenue is the problem, but the higher property tax is great. It keeps the value of property down, limits your leverage comparatively. And, hey, prices in Texas were rather well behaved over the past 10 years.

    • RobertWBoyd

      But Houston already has a high property tax (and no income tax), and that does nothing to encourage people from living near employment. On the contrary, people have very long commutes in Houston because of land-use regulations (parking requirements for new construction that encourage suburban building), lack of quality transit options and massive overbuilding of highways. Right now, Houston seems trapped with expensive neighborhoods, gentrifying neighborhoods and slums close to the center and affordable middle-class neighborhoods far from the center. (There are exceptions to this, but this is the general rule.)

    • CrunchyFrog

      Return to a 91% marginal income tax rate (for all income, no exclusions for non-wage income) and 100% inheritance tax over a basic amount and this problem – and most of the others in the world – go away.

      • liberalrob

        Communist :)

    • ThrottleJockey

      Also, this really is a land-use regulation issue. What Charlotte, Houston, and Dallas all have are a friendly regulatory environment to new construction, which does not exist in New York, San Francisco, Washington, or Los Angeles.

      This. When Houston builds as much housing as the entire state of California, then there’s a problem (with California). When you compare poverty rates in California to those in Texas the single biggest driver of the difference (California’s being much higher) is California’s higher real estate costs. While part of that is demand based, a lot of it is supply based.

      Want to do something for working class people? Reduce their cost of living. It may not be conventional wisdom among progressives, but high density living is simply inconsistent with low cost housing.

      • High density living is not inconsistent with low cost housing. That doesn’t even make sense. It’s about the policies by which housing is implemented.

        • Hogan

          And “cost of housing” isn’t the sum total of “cost of living,” as anyone who has to own a car can tell you.

          • Indeed

          • ThrottleJockey

            But cost of housing is the single biggest cost of living, about 2-3 times more than cost of a car.

            And of course it makes sense that single family housing is cheaper than multi-family housing. The median per square foot build cost of multi-family housing is ~$180. For single-family housing its just $77.

            Hence the only way that multi-family housing is less expensive than single-family housing is when land/pad costs are factored in. If land costs are already cheap, though, why make housing more expensive than necessary?

            Besides density breeds demand, and as retail establishments move in to sell to the “captured market”, land prices go up further still–as do rents.

            • Hogan

              And of course it makes sense that single family housing is cheaper than multi-family housing. The median per square foot build cost of multi-family housing is ~$180. For single-family housing its just $77.

              But the whole point of multi-family housing is that the cost is spread over multiple families . . .

              • mpowell

                Uh, cost per sq foot doesn’t get ‘spread out’.

            • Emma in Sydney

              Spain. France. Germany. Ordinary people living pretty well in high density walkable cities. It’s out there.

            • djw

              Of course, cost of construction is just one input to cost to consumers. Take Ballard, a high-demand, rapidly densifying neighborhood in Seattle with substantial condo growth from upzones in the last 15 years. In 2013, the average cost of condos was 271K, houses 510K. Yes, the condos are on-average smaller, but also much newer; that neighborhood is within the reach of considerable some middle class people is thanks to upzones and the condo boom.

            • Brett

              There’s other reasons you might want to favor higher density housing. It costs less to do the sanitation, electricity, and heating/cooling, and you don’t have to do massive build-outs of roads.

        • altofront

          High density living is not inconsistent with low cost housing.

          Indeed. The places with the biggest housing problems in CA are wealthy places that have severely restricted new, denser building–Santa Barbara is a great example of this. If you work at a 7-11 in Santa Barbara you’re either commuting a couple of hours or spending way too much of your paycheck on rent.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Its about the policies by which its implemented? Doesn’t the policy recommended here make you doubt that? Exorbitantly tax the 1%’s purchase of a 2nd or 3rd home? Assuming the 1% foregoes the extra home because of the tax, the math doesn’t even work on such a proposal, its a negligible increase in the housing stock. The fact that you have to reach that far into the policy grab bag to get so little in return reveals the uphill slog you’ve got here.

      • liberalrob

        Who wants to do anything for working class people? Those moochers…

    • stinapag

      FWIW, Texas has some of the highest property taxes in the country.

  • joe from Lowell

    Where do the poor go who work in New York, Washington, or San Francisco?

    The traditional answer was for new neighborhoods to be built at the city’s edge, sufficient to take up the increase in overall demand. Even if these new neighborhoods were higher-end housing, building them would increase the availability of units in the older neighborhoods around the downtown. Plus additional building in those neighborhoods around the downtown.

    Now, cities can’t grow the way they’re supposed to, because the areas along the edge that should be densified cannot be, owing to sprawl zoning.

    • Vance Maverick

      It’s a bad answer in other ways too. For one thing, it punishes poverty with a transportation tax — getting to one’s job gets progressively harder.

      I love dense cities, and I think they should be great for everybody — the urban amenities like parks, shared space, access to other people ought to be easily maintainable public goods — but we’re screwing it up.

      • joe from Lowell

        What’s a bad answer? Sprawl? Or the traditional growth model I described?

        • ThrottleJockey

          High density living is simply high cost living. Urban amenities are wonderful and at some stages of life its affordable (prior to family, or having raised a family) but having lived in both big old cities and newer suburban ones, I think the latter is undeniably a better choice for most working class families. Even giving the lack of a social net I’d recommend Texas over California (or Chicago or Philly or DC) for most working class families.

          • Malaclypse

            High density living is simply high cost living.

            Not if you factor in the full costs of transportation.

            • ThrottleJockey

              If by full costs of transportation you mean global warming I might buy that, but if you just mean gas, insurance, and time of commute it doesn’t.

              And that doesn’t even factor in other congestion costs you get from high density living–increased crime, etc. I actually prefer urban living over suburban living personally, but there’s a lot more “friction” to urban living than suburban living.

              • Malaclypse

                I mean all the countless ways we subsidize roads.

                And there is a metric shit-ton of property crime in rural areas.

              • There is plenty of evidence showing that crime rates per capita are higher in rural areas than cities.

    • MattF

      Except that the standard wisdom in zoning is to keep urban areas walkable and dense. This means limited in area and height (because ‘towers’ kill off streetlife). Which, in turn, means that in the favored urban areas housing is scarce and expensive.

      I speak from experience here, as I live in downtown Bethesda, MD– a very desirable location, but expensive.

      • Murc

        This means limited in area and height (because ‘towers’ kill off streetlife).

        Manhattan seems to manage.

        • MattF

          Yes, Manhattan seems to manage, but Manhattan is not an example that can be reproduced.

          The important questions are how to manage the urban resources we’ve got and to get them to grow in a way that satisfies social needs. I don’t see that happening.

          • DrDick

            Why not?

            • MattF

              Partly because there’s determined opposition to ‘Manhattanization’– one has to assume that it comes from people who have never actually been in Manhattan.

              Partly because current suburban infrastructure is a huge existing investment that can’t be changed easily. It’s much easier and faster to build out based on current investment and development regimes than to restart and redesign a housing system with an infrastructure based on different basic assumptions.

          • Murc

            Yes, Manhattan seems to manage, but Manhattan is not an example that can be reproduced

            Chicago. Toronto. Tokyo. (Hell, most cities in Japan.) the list goes on.

            Plenty of cities have towers and streetlife happily coexisting.

            • Unemployed_Northeastern

              Hong Kong has substantially more buildings >500 feet tall than NYC, IIRC, and it has plenty of nightlife.

          • catclub

            Yeah, why not. Europe has lots of cities denser than NYC and some denser than Manhattan. The example I remember is Bari, in Italy. Lots of 6-10 story apartment buildings. Sure seemed dense to me.

            • Bruce B.

              This is a digression, but I’m fascinated by your choice. Dad spent time there in WW2, when he flew photo-reconnaissance P-38s. He really liked the town then.

              • catclub

                No reason except I have been there. It struck me that a not famously large city was very dense.
                Florence seemed more spread out on hills, but don’t take my word for it. Bari seems more packed in near a port.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  I have two memories of an afternoon in Bari (day trip from a base of operations in Martina Franca, heart of trulli country): the road signs directing one to “Bari Centro”, and the absolutely gorgeous white stone cathedral right spang at the edge of the sea.

        • Crusty

          Street life in Manhattan amid the office towers of 6th avenue in the 40’s and 50’s is vastly different than streetlife amid the townhouses of Greenwich Village.

          • KmCO

            Absolutely.

          • Apples and oranges. There’s plenty of street life on the residential-high-rise Upper West Side. Sixth Avenue’s problem is commercial towers with not enough retail at the base.

            • joe from Lowell

              I was noticing that the last time I went to Manhattan. The East Side and West side seem to be all residential with no retail.

              What’s the point of living in a city that big if you can’t walk to lots of things?

              • I’m not sure where you’re talking about. Midtown has little residential and a few streets (e.g., Sixth Ave) with not enough retail. The Upper East and Upper West sides have plenty of retail and typically WalkScores in the 95+ range.

                • joe from Lowell

                  I don’t know the names of the areas very well, but I’m talking about the blocks a few streets in, east and west of about halfway up Central Park. Block after block of residential-only towers.

                • One block west of CP is Columbus Ave. Some towers, a lot of converted tenements, mostly with retail. Two blocks west is Amsterdam, some old high-rises, some new, mostly with retail except the godawful urban renewal area. Three blocks west is Broadway (diagonal, but around 3 blocks), all retail, mostly old high-rises. Four blocks west is West End, old high-rises, five west is Riverside, old high-rises, neither with retail because everyone shops on Broadway.

                  Similarly (and shorter), there’s a lot of retail on Madison (one block east) and Lexington (three blocks east) but none on Park (two blocks east) because everyone shops to either side.

                • daveNYC

                  The only avenues on the UES and UWS that don’t have a lot of retail are over on York, West End and Riverside. All of which are a ways off from Central Park.

                  The 50’s on 6th have some street life if you’re willing to include the Halal guys on 53rd.

                • skate

                  N_B, Maybe Joe is talking about the side streets rather than the avenues? On the side streets, of course, the night life mostly consists of dogs and their people out for a stroll.

                • Last time I was in New York, we went to the playground near Fifth Ave. with the big slide set in the rocks (we had seen that there was a big park called Liberty Park or something on the NJ side where we were staying, and promised the 4 year old she could go there, not remembering it was going to be still closed from Sandy–so needed to find a park on the way home, more or less). We walked a really long time to find some retail and restaurants (not counting the ridiculously expensive stores somewhere in between), and ended up eating near what IIRC was a Hunter College campus. Maybe around there is what Joe’s thinking of?

                • I’m not going to argue with anyone’e experience. I’m sure you and Joe saw what you both described. But there’s an enormous amount of somewhat irregularly spaced retail in the residential neighborhoods of the UES and UWS. If you look at google maps or WalkScore you’ll see it. It’s possible to walk a path that would miss a lot of it if you stick to the areas near the big attractions (Fifth Ave in the museum district and Lincoln Center, for example).

                • skate

                  Now that Bianca mentions Hunter College, I’m reminded that Park Ave is pretty barren for retail for a long ways. And if there is anything, it’s probably damn expensive.

                • Yeah, like I said, Park’s retail is on Madison and Lexington.

                • Yeah, maybe we walked from Fifth to Madison, down a few blocks with noplace we were going to go into, then east two blocks and up Lexington, which looked more promising (looking for a diner kind of place, maybe we passed pizza or something on a side street). That’s more than half a mile, which felt like a long time with a four year old in tow, and we were surprised not to find something earlier. Walking up to 72nd might have been a better bet.

                  Sure, there are places, though, where you have to walk several blocks. Near Columbia back in the day, if you wanted a “regular” store, like a supermarket or a hardware store, you had to walk down to 110th or farther, so that could be eleven blocks, half a mile. There was one used record store, in the 1980s, between there and 59th St. There are definitely areas that feel less “in the middle of things” than others.

      • joe from Lowell

        Walkable and dense doesn’t mean no towers. Height means density. Towers with storefronts on the first floor are no different for the street life than five-story buildings with storefronts (except that there will probably be more people on the street if there are 10x as many residential units above those shops). Midtown Manhattan, for example.

        The push for limiting height is not coming from the people working to make street life dense and walkable.

      • liberal

        I speak from experience here, as I live in downtown Bethesda, MD– a very desirable location, but expensive.

        LOL.

        I used to live in Bethesda, and downtown Bethesda is a great example of how limiting height leads to limited supply and high cost.

    • djw

      Now, cities can’t grow the way they’re supposed to, because the areas along the edge that should be densified cannot be, owing to sprawl zoning.

      Right. In some places, nowhere more than NYC,”one percenters parking their money in second (third, fourth, etc) homes” is a real issue that needs to be addressed (and there’s currently a bill to address it that I’m sure Cuomo and/or the Senate will block), but the larger issue is that American cities aren’t zoned for significant urban density much beyond what was there before zoning became a thing, so the new developments are going to be higher-end and the rest of the housing stock isn’t going to get any cheaper either. The increased demand for urban living has jumped out way ahead of the extent to which zoning policies allow anywhere near the number of people who want it to have it.

      It’s a good idea to be wary of Kotkin; he’s made a career out of writing love letters to sun-belt sprawl while supporting policies that will keep the cost of housing very high in dense, high-demand coastal cities. His approach also seems utterly indifferent to climate change. Good critique here.

      • Yeah, I wasn’t familiar with Kotkin before, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was a person to be treated with caution.

        • Brett

          He’s one of those conservatives/libertarians pushing the “elitist rich coastal liberals vs middle-class conservatives” nonsense line, like Victor David Hansen. About the only good piece I ever remember him writing was one where he reminded people that most high technology jobs are not in Silicon Valley, even though it’s become almost synonymous with the computer and software industries.

          Aside from that, it’s “yay everyone wants to live in sprawl!” and “maximum fracking for maximum jobs!”. I can at least understand the latter, considering North Dakota. But the former is just bullshit.

    • PorlockJunior

      Not to mention a place like San Francisco, which on three sides has really effective laws against building of new housing. Laws like Archimedes’ Principle.

      • Brett

        I can understand why they throw so many road-blocks in the way of construction, considering what happened mid-century in terms of the demolition of heavily minority neighborhoods. But right now they’ve got probably the worst housing restriction in any major US city – they’d almost be better off just going full Stockholm-style rent control and making everyone wait in queues for apartments.

      • DocAmazing

        which on three sides has really effective laws against building of new housing.

        Yes, those sides are called the Pacific, the Golden Gate, and the Bay.

        • PorlockJunior

          In which the effects of Archimedes’ Principle are highly relevant, the density of sea water being insufficient to help.

  • joe from Lowell

    And a good start on increasing taxes on second homes would be to phase out the mortgage interest tax credit for non-primary residences.

  • Why does the Devil live in Hell?

    Because God gave him the choice between Hell and Houston.

    • DrDick

      My thought exactly.

      • I will give Houston credit for this–it is incredibly diverse and has a great food scene. Meanwhile, Dallas, which offers nothing positive.

        • Denverite

          There is the George W. Bush library on the campus of Southern Millionaires (Who Couldn’t Get Into Rice or Even UT) University.

          • Linnaeus

            The ESPN 30 for 30 episode on SMU football was really good.

        • ThrottleJockey

          The best way I’ve heard it put is, “Go to Dallas if you like Beer and BBQ, go to Dallas if you like champagne and caviar.”

          I myself am partial to BBQ, but caviar ain’t half bad neither.

          • liberalrob

            “Go to Ft. Worth if you like Beer and BBQ…” ftfy

            Generally correct. Ft. Worth is doing a lot of work on their city center, too. Dallas…not so much.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Cow Town, lol! Actually if you want good BBQ I say to hell with Texas and go to Kansas City!

        • altofront

          Dallas has an absolutely first-rate art museum. Otherwise, you may be right.

    • rea

      Phillip Sheridan famously said that if he owned both Hell and Texas, he’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.

    • AB

      General Philip Sheridan, governor of the military district which included Texas, said “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.”

  • I’ve only been to Houston a few times. What I seem to recall is:

    It has no zoning. They can build anything next to anything.

    It’s so hot you have to sprint from your air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned building before your clothes burst into flames.

    • sparks

      I remember reading about what baseball was like when the Houston Colt .45s were playing at Colt Stadium. Nothing ever sounded so miserable than attending a game there.

      • Jackov

        It has not improved much. Sugary Drink Park is beautiful but 95% humidity means the A/C is fairly ineffective. When I was there, the biggest cheer was for opening the roof.

    • KarenJo12

      And do so blindly because it’s so humid your glasses fog over completely when you get out of the air conditioning.

    • Denverite

      The thing I hate about Houston is when you get out of the shower and you can’t dry off. No matter what you do, you’re still damp.

      • DrDick

        Ah, memories of my childhood in eastern Oklahoma in the summer!

      • KmCO

        I love St. Louis (it’s a very urban-feeling city west of Chicago) and I enjoy visiting my relatives there. However, the humidity….I went jogging one morning last summer during a stay for a family reunion. I couldn’t have been more drenched if I’d jumped into the Mississippi along the way. I got back to the house and wandered through some rooms in pursuit of a shower. One of my relatives had obviously just woken up and was seated at a table nursing a coffee. She glanced at me and said, “Oh good, you found the shower after your run.” I had to explain that I was actually in desperate need of a shower.

        That’s one thing to say about the West’s lack of humidity–out here on the Front Range I can go for a two-hour bike ride even in low summer (or Indian summer, as the case is now) and come back to my apartment dry as a bone.

      • ThrottleJockey

        The humidity in Houston is awful, the smell worse. Smells like wet gym socks. Ughhh… They’re usually among the top 5 for the worst air pollution. The other cities on the list–like St. Charles, La–are petro-chem plants masquerading as cities.

    • DrDick

      Actually, your clothing will not burst into flames beause it is so humid that the flames are smothered. You just steam or boil to death.

    • djw

      It has no zoning.

      This is only true for a very stunted definition of “zoning”–namely, strict separation and regulation of Industrial/Commercial/Residential areas. But much of Houston is subject to many of the same sprawl-inducing land use policies other American cities are–minimum lot size, parking requirements, etc. They were working to allow more density in recent years; I don’t know how much they were able to change.

      I have a friend in Houston looking to buy; he and his wife would happily accept a townhome or condo in one of urban Houston’s few semi-walkable neighborhoods, but the stock is low and the demand high, and he’s probably going to be forced out into the sprawl, which will require far more miles driven and the purchase of a second car they don’t want (a cost to keep in mind when assessing the affordability advantages of sprawl).

      • Atrios

        Right. Sprawl loving supposed “free marketers” point to Houston as evidence that sprawl is just what the people want, but Houston essentially has the same sprawl-requiring land use policies (in most areas) that almost every other place in the US does. And even the pure zoning issue isn’t as true is people think. Deed restrictions actually mean people generally can’t convert their backyard into a pig farm or anything else really.

        • joe from Lowell

          The free-marketeers really give the game away with their adoration of the post-war suburbs. It would be difficult to think of an area of American life so strictly regulated and shaped by the government. You literally have to threaten developers with bulldozers, fines, and jail time to make them build at such a low density; every one of them would jam as many townhouses as they could fit on their lots if you let them.

          But because the ideals behind that design are hostile to public transit and public/shared spaces, the libertarians pretend that it’s unmediated “revealed choice” in action.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Given the low cost of used cars, economically speaking I think most people are better off with cheap (but appreciating) housing than with simply high density, high cost housing (which may be so high a cost that you can only afford to rent).

        • Why does high density automatically imply high cost? If they built more of it presumably the cost would come down.

          The reason it’s high cost is because people want it.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Have you looked at the construction of a house versus an apartment? How much more steel and concrete are necessary for the latter vs the former? How much thicker do walls have to be? How many more bathrooms and plumbing do you have to build? Constructions costs for multi-family housing vs single-family housing run 2 to 1…And, then, you’re right that people want it more. Density drives demand (as retail establishments move in to cater to the high density “captured market”) and then land costs appreciate rapidly too. Working class families can be priced out of housing quite quickly unless the city demands low income set asides (DC does this well but most cities do it poorly).

            The only time multi-family housing is lower cost than single-family homes is when the land itself is expensive. If the land is already cheap why go with high cost construction?

            • Hogan

              You’re equating “lower cost to build” with “lower cost to live in,” and that doesn’t sound right to me.

            • djw

              The only time multi-family housing is lower cost than single-family homes is when the land itself is expensive. If the land is already cheap why go with high cost construction?

              But high demand cities are, pretty much by definition, places where land is expensive, so I’m not sure why you think the cost of construction comparison is relevant here. We’re not talking about building a brand new city in the middle of Nebraska here. Pretty much all expensive cities in the US have a lot of single family houses, many of which can’t be anything else because of zoning. Those tend to be more expensive than condos in the same general area because the land is valuable (as noted above with respect to the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard). Build more condos, more people can afford a lower-cost option than a house on an expensive piece of land.

              • ThrottleJockey

                I thought the question was whether or not we should encourage the same density in the suburbs and exurbs as already exists in the urban core–that is, whether we should reduce suburban sprawl or, rather, emulate Houston’s and Dallas’ model? All I’m saying is that Houston’s model is by far more economical which is why home ownership is high.

            • But how many people can live in that same amount of square footage versus everybody having a single-family home sitting on a 1/2 acre lot?

        • Malaclypse

          I can’t think of anything that can go wrong with 80-year-olds driving beaters 10 miles each way for groceries.

      • skate

        Deleted: Never mind. I see that Atrios made my point about deed restrictions in Houston.

    • Brett

      They don’t have zoning, but they’ve got a ton of other regulatory hand-outs to suburban sprawl, like mandatory parking minimums and (recently) minimum lot sizes. The latter seems like it might be a back-door route for communities to effectively zone out any increasingly dense habitation or serious changes to their neighborhoods.

      The lower you delegate control over zoning and construction, the more you tend to end up with NIMBYism and local opposition to any neighborhood change. The only cities that have dodged it are either the ones where most housing is public housing (like Singapore) or cities where zoning choices are made above the city level (like Tokyo).

  • Murc

    Is it… hmmm.

    Is it wrong that I’ve always been kind of leery on property taxes at all for homes, at least primary homes?

    Because, well. I’ve heard a lot of stories about gentrification. I’ve met, personally, and been related to people who lost apartments, brownstones, and just plain freestanding homes on land that they or their forebears worked their asses off to own completely free and clear because the area suddenly got all fancy-pants and their property tax assessment quadrupled in a decade and they were either on a stagnant or fixed income.

    (This is not, by the way, purely a problem that takes place in cities. A new highway on-ramp can transform a sleepy town into a primo bedroom community.)

    I just feel rather strongly that people with a vested, proven interest in a community or neighborhood shouldn’t be booted out because it actually got nicer, and I also feel that, while property can and should be taxed because we as a society have a vested interest in it not sitting idle, “I live here; this is my home” is really not something that should be taxed, as opposed to “I’m sitting on this vacant corner lot until the market tops out.”

    • djw

      Is it wrong that I’ve always been kind of leery on property taxes at all for homes, at least primary homes?

      Yes.

      • Murc

        Well, that was awfully helpful.

        • Denverite

          I suspect djw’s point is that capping or exempting property tax increases results in a deeply inequitable situation where virtually identical properties are taxed at wildly different rates because one has been owned for decades, whereas the other was recently sold. The caps also result in an absurd situation where the uncapped properties have to make up the shortfall on the capped ones, which exacerbates the difference in tax rates.

          We briefly owned property in a city that capped tax increases at like 5% or whatnot. Our old home was capped. My colleagues that bought similarly-valued new properties literally paid five times as much in property taxes.

        • djw

          I’m sorry but it just seems too obviously foolish to belabor the point. Among the many reasons this is a terrible idea is that it would inevitably result in a massive upward distribution of wealth/opportunities. The huge hole in government budgets would result in service cuts (because replacing all of that revenue with other tax increases wouldn’t fly politically in many places) and increases in taxes that would double the hit on the poor (sales taxes are more politically viable than local income taxes), while also increase climate change-producing sprawl.

          The logic here is more or less identical to the use of family farms to oppose the inheritance tax. The working class guy who can’t afford the taxes on the brownstone his grandfather bought in the 40’s is a terrible reason to give lots of rich and upper middle class people a huge tax cut. Also, this (relatively rare) scenario treats a form of inherited wealth as so special as to be untouchable.

          California has a version of this–Prop. 13–which doesn’t ban property tax, but prevents it from increasing much under the same owner. So you have people in 4 million dollar houses paying a few grand a year in property taxes, free-riding on city services until they die. One of the reasons SF is so unaffordable is that there’s no significant political constitutency for adding much housing stock, because something like 75% of residents either benefit from Prop. 13 or rent control and are therefore immunized from the affordability crisis. The result has been a disaster for local governments, the poor and middle classes, and pretty much all newcomers.

          A better remedy for people who inherit property they can’t afford would be to allow them to do more stuff with it. I know some people who inherited a million dollar house with over 3000 square feet in a desirable Seattle neighborhood; they’re fighting to be allowed to turn it into four apartments. In many SF neighborhoods, including theirs, it’s not allowed.

          • Murc

            Among the many reasons this is a terrible idea is that it would inevitably result in a massive upward distribution of wealth/opportunities.

            … people being able to live in a home they bought without being forced out by gentrification would do that how now?

            The huge hole in government budgets would result in service cuts (because replacing all of that revenue with other tax increases wouldn’t fly politically in many places)

            It should perhaps be taken as a given that I would not support allowing people to live in their homes tax-free without demanding offsetting tax revenue to fund vital services. I am aware that this is something of a pipe dream, yes, but my understanding of the relevant internet traditions is that speculating on our ideal policy preferences is fair game.

            The logic here is more or less identical to the use of family farms to oppose the inheritance tax.

            I would, in fact, oppose people losing longstanding family-owned small-margin agricultural businesses because of inheritance taxes. Fortunately, that happening is basically a lie; there aren’t a lot of small farmers left and such estate taxes as we have are structured with extremely generous carve-outs for them. I consider it a settled policy question, although not of course a settled political one.

            So you have people in 4 million dollar houses paying a few grand a year in property taxes, free-riding on city services until they die.

            If that four million dollar home was one they bought for fifty grand in 1960, spent thirty years making a monthly mortgage payment on assiduously, and would now prefer they die in rather than being forced out because the city decides they have to pay full freight on an income that is composed of their social security check and a shaved-down pension, I am bang on board with that. They are not a “free rider.” They pay tax same as everyone else, and don’t deserve to be forced from their homes because the neighborhood got nice.

            One of the reasons SF is so unaffordable is that there’s no significant political constitutency for adding much housing stock, because something like 75% of residents either benefit from Prop. 13 or rent control and are therefore immunized from the affordability crisis.

            This sounds to me like you are saying that people who own homes should be financially punished in order to force them to vote sensibly.

            A better remedy for people who inherit property they can’t afford would be to allow them to do more stuff with it.

            … what if they don’t want to do more stuff with their home? What if they want to keep living in their home, because it is their home.

          • CrunchyFrog

            Prop 13 brought with it many problems, but all attempts to repeal it have failed. The fear of being forced out of your home because the local town council voted to quadruple your property taxes over a 10 year period to pay for pet projects is strong enough to keep even non-homeowners voting for the present system.

            Of course, it also helps that businesses and certain estates used prop 13 to greatly reduce their property taxes because in California businesses never sell property – they sell a shell corporation that owns the property so thus the tax value of the property is never re-set. So of course any attempt to repeal prop 13 will have a ton of money on the “NO” campaign spreading fear and lies. However, even accounting for that Californians won’t drop prop 13 until they can account for the issue I described above (and probably grandfather in all present property holders).

          • djw

            I would, in fact, oppose people losing longstanding family-owned small-margin agricultural businesses because of inheritance taxes. Fortunately, that happening is basically a lie; there aren’t a lot of small farmers left and such estate taxes as we have are structured with extremely generous carve-outs for them.

            You miss the point of my analogy. What you do here is (whoops, editing to complete sentence) take a sympathetic, sentimental case that constitutes a small minority of actual cases, but is designed to elicit sympathy in the reader, thus inducing them to support a significant upward redistribution of wealth.

            But you are doing here is romanticizing one aspect of human life, home-ownership, and declaring that because it has important non-economic value to people we should construct a tax system that ignores its economic value as well. I don’t see why I couldn’t construct the very same argument for, say, income taxes and consumption taxes. We find important–even essential–value, meaning, and identity-building through both working and consuming. (Some people become so attached to their homes that after 40 years they can’t imagine life without it; others feel the same way about their jobs when facing retirement.) Indeed, those are both more universal to the current human experience than home-ownership, which about half the population never gets to do, and at least some of the other half does not out a desire for the psychological goods of associated with home-ownership, but only because we’ve used public policy to make it the case that for middle class people it’s the most plausible way to build and save wealth. Working and consumption also have social value; we want to encourage and not punish them because they’re necessary to society. I can’t think of a non-romantic reason to exempt property ownership from taxation that wouldn’t also apply to consumption and income taxes. Unless you think an all-Pigovian tax structure is plausible, I don’t see how this is defensible even at abstracting away all the practical problems.

            • Murc

              But you are doing here is romanticizing one aspect of human life, home-ownership, and declaring that because it has important non-economic value to people we should construct a tax system that ignores its economic value as well.

              And you seem to be saying that because homes have economic value, we should construct systems that take that and only that into account.

              I don’t see why I couldn’t construct the very same argument for, say, income taxes and consumption taxes.

              This might be a bad time, but I also am of the opinion that income below a certain threshold should absolutely not be taxed, and in fact if you make below a certain amount tax dollars should be redirected towards you to make up the shortfall. I somehow thought that this was a position you shared.

              I’m also largely against consumption taxes due to their regressive nature, although I support them in some limited circumstances when their purpose is not “raise revenue” but “discourage this behavior that for some reason or another is really hard to simply ban outright.”

              You keep saying I have some “romantic” attachment to the notion of home-ownership. I suppose that’s true, but I’m not sure how being attached to the idea of economic and social justice isn’t equally romantic.

              More to the point, I am in favor of home-ownership because I think people should be, as I’ve said ad nauseam, secure in their dwelling places. How is this a less legitimate policy preference than “people should be secure in their employment” and “people should be secure in their health” and “people should be secure in their bodily autonomy?”

              If you have ways for people to be secure in their homes that doesn’t involve actually owning them, I am all ears.

              but only because we’ve used public policy to make it the case that for middle class people it’s the most plausible way to build and save wealth.

              I could give a damn about homes as stores of value and wealth. I care about them as homes, period. Once they start being treated as piggy banks, I am totally on board with treating them as any other form of property.

              I can’t think of a non-romantic reason to exempt property ownership from taxation

              I can’t think of a non-romantic reason to exempt property ownership from taxation

              People keep using the word “property” when what they mean is “a persons home.” Your home is your property, but it’s primarily your home. I thus find the formulation somewhat odd.

              Again, property in general shouldn’t be exempt from taxation. But a persons home… hmm. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it should be exempt, but it should definitely be based on ability to pay, same way income taxes are. My main concern is avoiding forced dislocations.

              • liberalrob

                You keep saying I have some “romantic” attachment to the notion of home-ownership. I suppose that’s true, but I’m not sure how being attached to the idea of economic and social justice isn’t equally romantic.

                I read djw’s argument as being that home ownership in the sense you are talking about is a sentimental affectation that, while clearly important to those who feel that sense of connection to the historic family home, is of a lower order of priority in terms of public policy because it is not really quantifiable and not universal (not everyone feels that attachment to their dwelling). Also, the “American Dream” of 2.5 kids, 2 cars and a house in the ‘burbs is a Madison Avenue construct intended to separate people from their money; so to the extent that that is driving home ownership, it is a sham.

                I don’t know how feasible it would be to set some kind of criteria for a 100% “homestead exemption” from property taxes based on duration of occupancy. I agree that people shouldn’t be forced out of their homes by gentrification but it’s not a simple issue.

                • djw

                  As atrios notes below, there’s a relatively simple solution that allows people to stay in their home they can’t afford: a lien to be paid off upon sale or death.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  I don’t even think Murc would find that acceptable based on his initial scenario where he cited multiple generations of people living in the same home.

                  While I might tend to lean in favor of your argument, djw, you can’t criticize Murc’s vision just because its not the “average” case. Good public policy isn’t just concerned with what happens “on average” but what also happens to the “special cases”. Sometimes public policy can’t make it work for both, but we should always try–and be honest when we’re failing a special case.

            • DocAmazing

              One of the reasons SF is so unaffordable is that there’s no significant political constitutency for adding much housing stock, because something like 75% of residents either benefit from Prop. 13 or rent control

              a sympathetic, sentimental case that constitutes a small minority of actual cases

              So which is it? Rare, or something like 75%?

    • Katya

      I think there’s something to that. I have family who live in Northern Idaho in an area that has some longstanding residents who have been there, living in very modest homes, since the area was primarily farmland. There is development pressure now to build huge summer homes for wealthy people who aren’t Idaho residents more than two weeks out of the year, and the property taxes (based on market value, which now bears almost no resemblance to purchase price) are driving the year-round residents out. I think property taxes are fine, but they ought to be structured so as not to punish long-term residents.

    • Sadly this is the exact line of reasoning which screwed California. Proposition 13, the statewide law that freezes the property tax assessment at the value of the property at time of purchase, has ended up doing two things, 1. massively underfunding what used to be one of the best schools systems in the country, and 2. fueling the real estate boom that brought down the economy in 2008.

      When property taxes were de-coupled from the current value of the real estate, there was no downside to owning valuable real estate. Real estate owners could own valuable property, and until they sold it, paid pennies on the dollar for it’s actual worth. So as cities grew, and the IT boom fed money into California, property owners could sell their modest two bedroom house, which would fetch $200K in WI for $2 million. Buyers ended up needing interest-only subprime loans to get a loan for a $2 million dollar house, figuring they could make the interest-only payments for 2 or 5 years, until they flipped the house before the higher interest+capital payments began. Some people managed to do that. Many more were left holding the bag when the real estate market collapsed. The people that cashed out before the crash were able to move to other places and grossly inflate housing prices, when they sold their 2 bedroom house near silicon valley to buy a McMansion in Phoenix or Las Vegas thus starting the whole ponzi scheme over again, because now people in other places needed subprime mortgages to afford a boom-priced house.

      So yes gentrification and getting priced out of one’s own neighborhood sucks. but it doesn’t destroy the school system and come within hours of crashing the nation’s and maybe the world’s economy.

      • Murc

        I would like to note that I also find the idea we fund schools, of all things, from property taxes to be appalling mismanagement.

        • CrunchyFrog

          Yes, that is crazy. A sure way to guarantee inequality in schools.

          Of course, California made it worse. At about the same time Prop 13 was passed they also passed a sales tax allocation plan in an attempt to compensate districts without a lot of retail with sales taxes from other districts. Unfortunately, the allocations were set in stone, not variable, so today there is an even greater inequality in sales tax distributions.

        • Schadenboner

          You say “appalling mismanagement” I say “policy choice to entrench and perpetuate educational inequality”, let’s call the whole thing off.

          Hmm, that doesn’t scan quite as well as the original.

    • JR

      And not just taxes. Mrs J has a friend who lives in her Great-Grandfather’s home in a rural town that has become beyond toney, and attracting urban second-home wealthy refugees from the greater DC area.

      The house is a wonderful antique, in an historical district. A neighbor replaced a failing wooden fence with a new identical fence made of Trex – much more expensive than building a wooden fence at first, but never rots never needs paint. They made her tear it down, because it wasn’t historically accurate.

      Friend’s house needs a new roof. But it has to be historically accurate – meaning so expensive she can’t afford it. Slate or Split Cedar singles (and so not fire proof!)

      She will have to sell the house before the roof causes it to be destroyed by damp rot. So sad.

    • Brett

      I’ve heard proposals for a Georgian “land tax” along those lines. It just sets a flat tax on the land without taxing the improvements – it encourages development, but unfortunately tends to hit anyone with a large lot hard (although people squatting on empty land get hit too).

  • Joshua

    I have strong distaste for the current trend of ultra high-end luxury buildings going up in Manhattan. But we are talking about a very very small number of units in the grand scheme of things. I used NYT’s sales database and found that about 600 units over $10M have sold the past 3 years in Manhattan. That is about four per week. Even if you carve up those places for middle income salaries you’re not talking about a lot of units. And what is more likely to happen is that they will be carved up into a few $3 million condos and sold to people who are merely wealthy. Rich people will always want to live in NYC and there will always be places for them to live.

    By all means, the taxes on these ultra high end luxury units should be raised. Most of them are little more than nice money laundering schemes at this point (New York ran an article about that earlier this year). But even if $50 million condo units were not built anymore, the problem of inadequate supply of lower income housing would not be solved.

  • Denverite

    Even in cities like Denver, costs are rising so rapidly as to squeeze people out.

    It’s much more complicated than this. The affluent parts of Denver — neighborhoods like the Highlands, Wash Park, Bonnie Brae, etc. — are getting a lot richer a lot faster. Hell, we live in a neighborhood that’s sort of a “poor” man’s version of Wash Park or Bonnie Brae, we bought in 2007, and we couldn’t afford our house now.

    But the less well off neighborhoods really haven’t appreciated that much in the past decade. There are a few exceptions, to be sure. Downtown has probably gone from affordable to not. I’ve heard that the Santa Fe arts district has skyrocketed. But in general, the neighborhoods where working class or middle class families could live ten years ago, they still can live.

    And you know what? This matches my experience in another big city (Chicago). The nice neighborhoods, where upper middle class or rich people wanted to live in 2000, they still want to live. Prices have gone from really expensive to ludicrously expensive. But there are a ton of less popular neighborhoods that were affordable back then, and they’re affordable now.

    • DrDick

      I was going to say that about Chicago, as well. Have to admit, however, that the gentrified neighborhoods have been spreading, though slowly. Wicker Park in the Near North area was serious gangbanging barrio territory when I moved there and is upper middle class today.

      • Denverite

        Yeah, but places like Rogers Park or Bridgeport or Beverly are still affordable for the middle class.

        • DrDick

          Right and there are many similar neighborhoods in the city. Gentrification has largely concentrated relatively near the lakefront or the major colleges (UC, UIC, Loyola, and DePaul).

        • ThrottleJockey

          Roger’s Park. I have fond memories of that place (mostly because of its proximity to a fabulous BBQ joint) though I remember when it was dirt cheap to live there. Bought my girlfriend her 1st bottle of mace when we moved there :-) I was surprised when I looked at the stats, Chicago seems to be doing housing policy right. The homeownership rate is 58%, about 2 points higher than Houston’s, 11 points higher than LA’s, and miles ahead of NYC’s. I would not have guessed that.

      • CrunchyFrog

        In the early 1980s you wouldn’t dare venture into the immediate area south of the loop. Then a few condos were put in in the late 1980s. Now few could afford the area.

        • DrDick

          I moved there in the late 80s and that area was still pretty sketchy, as was the area around UIC. The UIC neighborhood had already completely gentrified by the time I left in ’98 and the South Loop as well on its way.

    • KmCO

      I live in an area near the Santa Fe Arts distraction that is currently a blend of urban core and gritty industrial, along with some nicely dense, established housing (the Historic Baker District). It’s being gentrified fast, though, and while it’s currently pretty affordable, in 10 years’ time I suspect it will match the East Wash Park area, price-wise.

      • Denverite

        It’s being gentrified fast, though, and while it’s currently pretty affordable, in 10 years’ time I suspect it will match the East Wash Park area, price-wise.

        You might be right. My guess was that schools matter a lot, and neighborhoods like the Highlands with crappy schools will never be as valuable as places like Wash Park with good ones.

        Yeah, I was kind of wrong about that.

        • JL

          The thing is, so frequently, “good” schools mean schools dominated by the children of affluent, educated parents (who will come in already having a leg up, which means higher test scores). The phrase, in its common usage, only rarely has anything to do with teaching quality. Therefore, if enough educated rich people with kids move to a neighborhood and send their kids to the schools, they become “good”.

      • KmCO

        “Arts distraction…” Thanks, Autocorrect.

    • Brett

      I’ve heard the same thing about New York City. Manhattan is ludicrously expensive, but there’s still relatively* affordable apartments in places like Queens and Brooklyn.

      * Meaning still probably expensive compared to the national norm.

      Here in the Salt Lake Valley, you can still find fairly affordable apartments and housing if you’re willing to live on the west side of the valley (or the south).

  • SatanicPanic

    Japan doesn’t have much in the way of zoning laws and I found their cities remarkably convenient. And at least where I lived the rent was cheap. Whether Americans would consent to living in the rabbit hutches full of crap that some big, big city residents live in is another story. I hate to say it, but I’ve come to agree with Libertarians (yikes) that zoning laws are kind of stupid. Obviously don’t put fertilizer factories next to schools, but most zoning sucks.

    • Orbis_Terrarum

      On the contrary, Japan has an extremely strict, nationally mandated zoning law. The other difference between theirs and ours is that each of their zones have a wide array of inclusionary uses, which is probably why it seems like they don’t have much zoning. Here’s a good summary of their system.

      As a sidenote, I believe housing, even in Tokyo, has stayed relatively inexpensive compared to high demand Western cities. That may have a lot to do with the aging of the population and weakness of the economy and lack of demand that follows, though.

      • SatanicPanic

        Well, OK, their zoning isn’t like what we have here and mixed use is pretty much everywhere. Lower rents could be related to aging population. Building pre-fab is probably part of it too. There were lots of small complexes going up all over because they could construct them cheaply and easily.

        EDIT- that’s a great article, BTW. Thanks!

        • Orbis_Terrarum

          Another thing I find interesting: Japan’s zoning law was implemented during a period of massive population growth and urbanization. The whole purpose of zoning in Japan was simply to regulate development rationally and stop the outskirts of cities from becoming shantytowns. In the US, zoning was developed to separate uses, thus protecting valuable property from nuisances.

          So much of the pathology around this issue comes from the fact that the ideals of housing-as-major-source-of-wealth and housing-as-place-for-people-to-actually-live can coexist up to a point. As we’ve seen in the United States and around the Western world, that’s no longer true. In fact, it’s outright contradictory in San Francisco/Vancouver/New York and increasingly in my formerly spacious, well kept secret of a hometown in the Pacific Northwest.

          • SatanicPanic

            Japanese have that thing about not living in a house someone else lived in, so when people buy it’s almost entirely for land value- they’ll tear the house down and built a brand new one. That may have something to do with less restrictions on use- the idea that your neighborhood will be static just isn’t so ingrained. Just throwing out thoughts really. I loved the way cities were constantly changing there.

      • Brett

        Sounds like their zoning is a lot better than ours, though. They’re much more relaxed on multiple uses in a zoning area, more relaxed on height limits, and they fix the types of zones at the national level.

        That fits with my point above about how the higher up urban policy is set in the government, the weaker NIMBYism is.

  • KmCO

    The only major city(pop. over 700,000) I would truly consider to be “urban” in feel, design, and orientation west of Chicago is San Francisco. Granted, I’m an East Coast cities snob (and Chicago–North Coast?) and vastly prefer density and distinct neighborhoods to any of the “conveniences” (such as they are) that western cities offer.

    I’m not actually from the East Coast, mind you, but I know what I like.

    • brugroffil

      Third Coast

      • Linnaeus

        That’s a good beer, too.

    • Schadenboner

      North Coast

      Third Coast.

      • Schadenboner

        Within a minute, I tells ya!

  • Crusty

    I view the problem somewhat differently. I see it as a problem of economic activity concentrated in cities. Or, to put it another way, lack of job opportunities elsewhere.

    If there is affordable housing is built in proximity to good transportation and good schools, the prices will rise and it will no longer be affordable. It just will, and the less well off will be driven further away from the job center. The problem is, that once you get far enough out, there’s nowhere to work except for nail salons and tattoo parlors. It would be nice if someone pushed an hour and a half away from a major job center could head 30 minutes in the other direction to find comparable work.

    • ericblair

      Office parks are a thing. The problem is, they’re not interchangeable for a lot of white collar people, and companies seem to move offices in suburban locations a lot more easily than they do in downtown locations.

      So it’s very easy to get stuck with a long commute (because you may have bought a home near your office just to have it move to the other end of the city for Very Important Reasons) by car (since public transport from one suburban location to another mostly sucks horribly because of the spread out transportation requirements).

      • Denverite

        just to have it move to the other end of the city for Very Important Reasons

        I remember years and years and years ago hearing the CEO of a company straight up admit that they were moving across town because he had bought a new place and didn’t want a bad commute. I remember thinking at the time about what a jerk he was because his dozens of employees were now going to have a bad commute.

        • Hogan

          There was a study in the early ’90s, I think, showing that the single factor that most strongly correlated with office locations was not local tax rates, but proximity to the CEO’s home.

          • ThrottleJockey

            I think I saw something earlier this year that replicated that.

        • KarenJo12

          The state agency I work for did that to me in 2008. For 15 years I commuted with my husband to downtown Austin, until my agency expanded and the division director decided to pick the office option closest to her house, which was farthest from mine.

      • djw

        Yeah, the fact that one of the Puget Sound’s largest high-paying employers is located way out in suburban sprawl hasn’t prevented Seattle from having the highest rent increases in the country lately. (Turns out many Microsoft workers still want to live in the city, despite the horrible commute, because it’s a very desirable place to live.) And there are rational, good, and efficiency-based reasons for businesses to want to be located near each other. There’s no reason our zoning policies should go to war with that fact, especially given the environmental advantages of density.

        • Orbis_Terrarum

          The upzoning and residential/commercial development that Bellevue is doing along the coming East Link corridor is going to be interesting to watch. Some very clever people have figured out that all the land between downtown Seattle and the Microsoft campus is ludicrously underbuilt and underutilized given its value, and it’s not too late to avoid Silicon Valley’s mistakes.

  • KmCO

    This hardly means I think we should all be Houston, Dallas, or Charlotte. But I do think we have to develop housing policies that actually allow everyday people to stay in urban centers.

    Yep.

  • ProgressiveLiberal

    My comment is going to be way too long, I apologize in advance.

    I think most people are looking at this from the wrong direction.

    When a patient comes in puking a ton of blood because of a horrific bacterial infection, you don’t just give medicine to stop the puking and blood to restore the proper amount – these are helpful, yes, but will never solve the problem. You need antibiotics to cure the infection.

    So while I agree with higher taxes on the rich (income, land use, whatever), if they already are rich, its too late. People don’t get “rich” in a normal, competitive market. We have a TON of government policies that some people take advantage of to get rich – patent monopolies, government caused shortage of doctors, artificially high unemployment causing artificially low wages, too low inflation, an overvalued dollar, and a million other smaller policies. Policies that if we changed, would redistribute the gains of productivity to workers instead of the rich. (Note: this is not a libertarian critique.)

    I live in Miami Beach and worry about this topic constantly – the rising rents, the purchased but left vacant investment condos diminishing supply, etc. Rich people are ruining this place too.

    Here is a trivial example: people complain when they go to “the club” that rich people get all the best seats cause they’ll pony up from $1k to $10k a table. It is no longer seen to those in the industry as rich people buying $1k bottles of overpriced Dom, they are buying “real estate” in the club. They can sit there and drink water for all anyone cares – they have the pay the “table minimum” either way.

    I mean, what the hell is that? How does anyone have $5k to spend on a single night in a single club? Yet all the tables are sold – day after day. Increasing the price or taxes on alcohol at clubs isn’t going to do shit to fix this. They have more money than god at this point.

    The point is, as long as we allow people to get rich, they are going to buy the best of everything – they have more money than they can use in their lifetimes, so why not? Get that extra home in every great city (and leave ’em empty), get all the best tables at the best restaurants and clubs, buy useless oversized boats, etc, etc, etc.

    What we really need to concentrate on is getting rid of (or refining, replacing, etc) policies that rich people use to game the system – patents, government caused shortage of doctors, artificially high unemployment causing artificially low wages, inflation, the dollar, trade policy, etc, etc – and not the symptoms of rich people existing. If no one has billions of dollars, then there are no $10 million apartments and $10k tables. If we don’t fight the causes of inequality, we’ll never prevent the effects. Unfortunately, we have about as much of a chance politically as we do of increasing taxes on the wealthy.

    Which is why I have little hope any of this will change. I assume I’ll eventually have to move further away from the best places to live.

    • ProgressiveLiberal

      And here is the bonus example:

      A few weeks ago my wife and I were in Italy and she got a UTI.

      In the US, she would be required to make an appointment with her doctor who would bill her insurance company (all reducing her wages – she pays the premiums which are then redistributed to her doctor, the doctors employees, the insurance companies employees, etc). Then she has to go to the pharmacy (which takes her wages – paying the pharmacist, the drug company who has a patent monopoly on Cipro who can change an artificially high price, and the government refuses to negotiate the price, also pay the insurance people who negotiate/pay the pharmacy, etc). So, dozens of people are involved and are getting paid and it costs several hundred dollars and a lot of wasted effort.

      In Italy she walked into a pharmacy and told them she had a UTI and they handed her a box of Cipro and charged her $13 and that was it. The total cost was $13 of her wages.

      And all of that wasted effort (and redistribution of wages) in the US is because the government will arrest anyone who doesn’t follow their policies (and limits the number of people who can compete for her business too) – the pharmacist, the doctors, drug manufacturers, etc. Obviously there is a lot of room for improvement here.

      • Schadenboner

        Because handing out antibiotics to anyone who asks for them for any reason is great policy.

        Right.

        • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus

          Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

        • ProgressiveLiberal

          These are all really bad arguments and just reflexive argumentation. I get enough of this from conservatives, I think we can do without it here.

          I also think we’d be better off if there was a group of people in this country with open minds who were pushing for better policies so at least there is a chance of them catching on some day. I guess we’re just not there yet.

          • wjts

            You’re just too good for this fallen world, man.

            • ProgressiveLiberal

              No, some people have made good arguments, but these were not them.

              You think antibiotic resistant bacteria are more likely to come from Italy or a farm in the US? I know what my money is on.

              What I’m hearing here is the same you get from conservatives – nothing is perfect, so point out an imperfection that could be addressed while ignoring the major benefits and BOOM! GOTCHA!

              And for the record I went into a pharmacy in Italy and said she needed antibiotics and they told me no, you need a prescription. I went on the internet to search for a solution and found that if you told them what the problem was instead of naming the antibiotic and they were allowed to administer it – ie, it’s like going to your doctor, describing it, getting scrip, going to pharmacy, etc, etc, etc, except without all the etc, etc, etc. So its not just “handing out antibiotics to anyone.” It’s an efficient system.

              Which is why they spend less than 50% of what we do but get the same results.

              • Anna in PDX

                I used to live in Egypt where pharmacists can in essence prescribe if you describe symptoms, much like you were describing your wife’s experience in Italy. Birth control was available over the counter as well. I think that the issue of people taking antibiotics too readily was a real one and a very hard problem to solve, human nature being what it is. I also enjoyed not having to go to the doctor for things like birth control, though.

                • ProgressiveLiberal

                  Yes, but that is solved more by pharmacists not handing out antibiotics for a cold (just like doctors are trained to do here – and still ignore), instead of making women jump through 50 hoops for a UTI and birth control (which is my other example – I can’t believe what my wife goes through). Which is exactly what happened in Italy when I asked for “antibiotics,” compared to telling the next pharmacist my wife has “cystitis.”

                  That said, I would just die if someone once talked about the overprescription of antibiotics to animals instead of humans – seriously, just once. You know, maybe these people who are so concerned with the occasional overprescription to a woman should take some time to contemplate that 80% of antibiotics are given to the animals they eat for food.

                  Their argument can be summed up thusly: your wife needs to make a doctor’s car payment to get an antibiotic my dinner is needlessly injected with daily.

                  PS. My wife and I are vegan so we are reducing the total amount of antibiotics used (her occasional UTI included) because it is an actual problem.

                • wjts

                  You’re a vegan? I had no idea. Please, tell us more.

                • Anna in PDX

                  I try to buy meat that is antibiotic free, etc., and it is really expensive and I agree with you that it’s part of the problem. People not taking their full courses and doctors/pharmacists overprescribing are also part of the problem.

                • DocAmazing

                  Would have been nice to have a urine culture so that someone could see if Cipro was the appropriate antibiotic. Would also have been nice to have your wife’s medical record to confirm that she’s not allergic to Cipro.

      • malraux

        Cipro is available as a generic. Moreover, unless she’s on medicare part d, the price of the medication is negotiated by her insurer and not set by the government.

        • ProgressiveLiberal

          Yes. There are people at hundreds of insurance companies arguing over prices of this and thousands of other drugs. Not to mention how it actually gets billed and paid. Seems like a productive use of time.

      • ThrottleJockey

        I feel you brotha ‘cuz I’ve been you (or your wife rather). Backpacking through Italy I spent the night in a hostel with this guy who spent the entire night hacking up his lungs. Next morning I learn that he and his entourage had been exposed to meningitis. Yikes! The tour group he was traveling with paid for a doctor to treat the party, I was SOL though. Fortunately after I hitchhiked to the nearest hospital it cost me only $5 to get the Cipro I needed.

    • djw

      Some reasonable points are made here, but we have to design urban policy for the flawed world we actually inhabit. Bringing affordability to high-demand urban areas is a hell of tricky policy problem, but it’s child’s play compared to the challenge of halting/reversing massive wealth inequality.

      • ProgressiveLiberal

        Fair enough, but I don’t see how it changes. Rent controls? Doesn’t seem to be fixing it. What else? Like I said, I live in Miami Beach, and there isn’t anything that can happen given our limited amount of land to alleviate the supply/demand reality. My last place went from $2800 to $3400 in one year and we had to move to something smaller. Someone else is paying the $3400 right now as we speak. Meanwhile you drive by building after building, and they’re unoccupied – owned, but left empty. Because they’re “good investments.” Same happens in NYC – about 30% of all apartments from 49th to 70th between Park and Fifth sit vacant at least 10 months of the year. Build all you want, the rich will buy more! Manhattan ain’t getting bigger!

        Cities are the victims of a lot of flawed federal policies – that was my only point. And I don’t see which bandaids are going to fix this.

        It’s like climate change. Miami could decide to replace all of its usage with solar panels, yet the world will still burn. Its bigger than what any single city can solve on its own as far as I can tell. But maybe I’m wrong.

        • skate

          Actually, given climate change, Miami Beach’s problem with limited land is only going to get worse even if construction stopped right now.

          • ProgressiveLiberal

            Well, they’re building everywhere they can, as fast as they can. (Except for the 100ft limit they’ve imposed.) We took a leisurely drive to see what’s up in the neighborhood and counted no fewer than 10 buildings going up right now. There is very little vacant land left and it is hard to get every individual owner in a building to sell to you to tear it down and build something bigger.

            But its too late – various estimates put high tide flooding at 2/3rds of days by 2050. Plus there is no solution to build a “wall” (levy, whatever) around the island because it is built on porous limestone and the water literally comes up through yards, cracks in the sidewalks, etc. We already suffer through construction to put in larger sewers and now pumps to force water back into the bay (which are under-designed with linear estimates, instead of exponential estimates, of climate change). I think its probably a lost cause some day, which is a shame. I don’t know how this place functions if it becomes Venice.

            I imagine some day the rich will no longer want to deal with this and abandon ship. They’ll just move somewhere else that isn’t effected yet.

    • James122

      I’m increasingly convinced that there needs to be a major federal intervention into zoning policy, as state and local political processes are inherently unable to address this problem.

      I live in DC, and like a lot of people here (and in other dense cities), I bought a place in a okay-but-not-great reasonably dense neighborhood years ago. Now my neighborhood is ludicrously expensive to live in, but it has very few high-rise towers and isn’t zoned for truly dense residential structures. So, I have two choices: 1) as a human being who doesn’t want to see other, less-well-off humans made miserable by 2-hour commutes and lack of access to amenities, I can support upzoning in the District to accommodate demand; or 2) as a property-owning DC resident who happens to like his rowhouse-scale neighborhood, I can stick with restrictive zoning, as it suits my economic and aesthetic preferences. I think the choice that a majority of people in that situation will make is obvious.

      In short, local/state political processes will never preference the interests of people who don’t live there, but would if they could, no matter how significant the overall welfare and economic gains would be for the area as a whole.

      • SatanicPanic

        I agree, but then again, Federal policy was part of why are cities can be so terrible. Of course, I’d like to think we wouldn’t enforce segregation at the federal level anymore.

        • Steve LaBonne

          I’d like to think that too- but I don’t. Of course the means would be a bit more subtle this time.

      • ProgressiveLiberal

        I also thought this was a problem. As Atrios says, Gentrifiers against Gentrification. Or, “I got mine.”

      • sharonT

        Ah, DC. I’m a DC native, born in the city raised in the MD suburbs and I’ve spent my adult life living 50 miles to the north in Baltimore.

        That’s the affordable housing program for DC. The one thing that makes that commute tolerable is intercity rail. (Bless you MARC and Amtrak). It is in no way optimal. I spend 4 hours each day on various forms of public transit, but we can’t afford DC and we sure as hell can’t afford the neighborhood where I grew up.

        Baltimore spent a lot of the “aughts” pitching the city to DC residents who were priced out of real estate in the area. My fellow commuters are mostly middle and upper middle professionals, and if they have kids, they usually have enough money to opt out of the not so good public school system. When people ask me why I work in DC, I answer, “There are actual middle class jobs in DC.”

        Baltimore, not so much.

    • Unemployed_Northeastern

      You don’t worry about rising sea levels in Miami Beach?

      • ProgressiveLiberal

        Very much so. I don’t own here though, and I can survive the infrequent flooding so far. But my wife and I are convinced that at some point we will have to leave because of the water, and I don’t think we’d ever bring ourselves to buy here because of this fear. Its sad actually because we love living here.

    • liberal

      What we really need to concentrate on is getting rid of (or refining, replacing, etc) policies that rich people use to game the system – patents, government caused shortage of doctors, artificially high unemployment causing artificially low wages, inflation, the dollar, trade policy, etc, etc – and not the symptoms of rich people existing.

      Agree…but…

      The more abstract way of thinking about this is in terms of economic rents. And the big granddaddy of them all is land rent. Which people (apparently many posting on this thread) don’t understand well. (Even yourself…while I hate patent policy, the rents generated are far less than land rent, which you didn’t mention—one way the rich are parasitic is getting wealthy off real estate.)

      • ProgressiveLiberal

        No, I understand land rent, and am for increased property taxes – if done progressively. However, I am also cognizant that as long as the rich are capturing all the gains from productivity, they will be able to afford the increased taxes and everyone else will just be stuck with a larger tax bill without the larger income to cover it. As a renter I also don’t care if my landlord has to pay more (rents are determined by supply/demand) but I also realize many own their homes.

        At the same time, we have no income tax down here and therefore our real estate taxes are pretty high, and it has done nothing to prevent inequality. Say the rich buy 100% of the land and then pay 100% of the taxes. They still come out ahead because they’re now collecting 100% of the actual rent.

        So yes, any type of economic rent needs dealt with – either beforehand (government policies changed) or after (tax policy). I just think we should try to prevent the problem – that would probably be more efficient.

    • NewishLawyer

      Some thoughts on the club example. I admit this might not be the best of theorizing but I don’t like clubs and find bottle service perplexing.

      1. There are lots of rich people out there and they are largely invisible to us. This is the Paul Krugman thesis.

      2. Friends join together to pool resources. How many people are sitting at the table? Let’s say the table goes for 1K. If you can fit ten people at the table, your cost goes down to 100 per a person. Even if it is 5 people, you are spending 200 per a person.

      3. Young people like to do dumb things with their money to impress people or do things that they think are impressive. So maybe people are just going into credit card debt and then slowly paying it off.

      Otherwise I agree with you but I think djw is correct in saying easier said than done.

      • ProgressiveLiberal

        Unfortunately (fortunately?) my wife and I are friends with the people buying the tables (and she works in the industry) and I can tell you #1 is true to most people (not us because they come down here and become visible to us and they are not who you’d expect) but 2 and 3 are not how it works. As for #1, as I was telling my wife once, if the population is 300+ million here (not including foreigners), that means there are 3+ million in the 1%. That’s an awful lot of people and Miami Beach is very attractive to them. If each one came to Miami once a year, that’s over 8k of JUST the 1% here each day. (Obviously the don’t each come once, but some come more than one day per year, etc.) And we haven’t even gotten to the top 5%!

        Basically the way it works (unfortunately again, we are intimately familiar which is why I used it as an example) is one rich person gets a table then invites all his friends, and if that’s not enough they send the bouncer out trolling for more “people.” (IE, “what kind of girls do you like? Here are 5, I’ll grab them.”) The rich person pays the tab. Everyone else drinks their alcohol. Very few, if any, tables are the “5 share $1k” type. There are plenty of the “$1k ain’t shit” types around here.

        Basically the clubs have turned into rich people buying real estate for a night, conspicuously. They have more money than they know what to do with, and many of them are bored and want entertained.

        • NewishLawyer

          I thought number 1 would be largely correct. It is just a rich person purchase that really perplexes me. Mainly because I dislike a lot of club music and I can’t understand the upcharge for bottle service. And I like going to bars often enough.

          I get the appeal of spending a lot of money on art, a meal at the French Laundry or Per Se or similar restaurant, a Bespoke suit or shoes from Saville Row. I don’t get the appeal of spending 10K to purchase a table for throbbing club music.

          • ProgressiveLiberal

            With 10 hot girls sitting with you that pretend to like you and everyone else looking at you enviously?

            They’re rich and have everything else. Gotta do something on friday night.

            What’s funny is our two good friends have no interest in fancy clothes and neither own a car down here. They wear t-shirts and take taxis/uber. You’d never guess they made more than 50k a year looking at them. But they don’t think twice about dropping 10k on a table multiple times a year. Some people just prefer different types of entertainment – shopping, dinner, clubs, games, fast cars, etc. Why would anyone spend 10k for two floor seats when you could spend 2k for the second row or 500 for the 5th? But if you have more money than god, where else would you sit? Both at the game, and on friday night…

            Don’t get me started on “princes” from the middle east (and the like)…imagine you’ve never had to do anything your entire life and have an unlimited source of funds.

  • Linnaeus

    If I get priced out of Seattle, I suppose I could return to metro Detroit.

  • Jordan

    I lived towards the middle of houston for a while (Montrose). Rent for me and my partner’s (smallish 1 bedroom) apartment was about 500 bucks a month, I could walk to several bars, a grocery store (they let you take the carts home and would drive around and pick them up whenever they felt like it), several of the pretty decent museums and one of the branch public libraries. Mass transit wasn’t so good (I think this may have slightly improved since I left) to U of H (lots of walking and two busses) but ok to Rice and/or downtown (fair bit of walking and the light rail). And at least it was shady.

    Hardly an urban ideal, even ignoring the weather, but it definitely has its good sides.

    • Barry_D

      “I lived towards the middle of houston for a while (Montrose). ”

      When? There are a vast number of places for which that might have been true 30, 20 or even 10 years ago, but not now.

      • Jordan

        I moved east 6 years ago. Montrose may well have changed since then (you could see some signs when I left), although I’d be pretty surprised if there aren’t still a number of places reasonably close to the center of houston that are quite affordable..

        • skate

          Where in Montrose? I had a 1BR on West Alabama back in the early 1990s and was paying, iirc, $350 a month at the end. Across the street from a grocery store and a short bike ride from school (I see you must have been a Rice undergrad), so owning a car was not de rigeur.

          Leaving Houston was one of the happiest days of my life.

          • Jordan

            I was between montrose and shepherd (a little closer to shepherd) and between richmond and alabama (much closer to richmond, but that is all close). We probably had the same grocery store.

            I liked houston a lot, but that is mostly because I moved there (for Rice, yeah, when I was 18) from Boise, Idaho.

            And say what you will about Houston, its way better than Boise. I’d much rather live there than in Princeton (where I live now).

            • skate

              The grocery store was at the corner of Dunlavy. Google Maps tells me that shopping area has been ripped out, and a little searching reveals a 7-story “luxury” apartment complex is replacing it. I also lived in the Richmont Square complex in the late 1980s for a year or so. So, yeah, same neighborhood.

              And say what you will about Boise, it’s better than my hometown… Idaho Falls.

              • Nik

                The Fiesta is gone, driven from business by a brand new HEB. Yep, 7 story town homes (not really affordable, I’m sure) instead. Used to love living in the neighborhood, but every time I go back to visit, it’s just more…bland.

                However, I do wonder how many other Rice grads lurk around the depths of LGM message boards.

                • skate

                  Fiesta? I think the grocery was called Apple Tree when I was there. Hmmm, some Google-fu says Apple Tree went under, and Fiesta bought some of their stores.

                  But, hey, as long as Nan’s Games is still there by the SW Fwy, there’ll be at least one Houston landmark I remember. Well, Nan’s + Valhalla.

                • Jordan

                  Well crap. Ya, the fiesta is the one I was talking about.

        • stinapag

          Montrose has gone insane since then. I bought my bungalow in 2002 for under 170K. In 2012, the refi valued it at 270. Six months ago at 400, and the very similar house next door is on the market for 495. The identical bungalow two houses down from mine was torn down by Urban Living last week so they can build a million dollar 5000 square foot home. Our street is lot size restricted, or I’m sure they’d be putting up town homes.

          I haven’t seen this much development in Houston since the 80s, and Montrose is becoming unrecognizable, and while tons of people want to move here, it’s not affordable anymore. H-E-B, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have moved into Montrose over the last five years. Even the Disco Kroger upgraded. There are mega complexes going up all over the place, and one bedrooms in those places are starting at $1750 (for those not in Houston, that’s outrageous). It’s partially financed by the energy boom. Kids recruited out of school to come work for one of the energy companies and get some sort of housing stipend, which drives up the prices in the “cool” neighborhood.

          There are still garden apartment complexes here and there and street life in Montrose is awesome. But it’s changing. The bars and restaurants are more upscale, polished. The Gay Pride parade announced last month that it’s moving downtown. Eastwood is beginning to feel a lot like the Montrose I moved into 12 years ago. Gay families are moving to Meyerland and Garden Oaks.

          I still LOVE Montrose, and though we could sell the house for more than twice I paid for it, where would we move that is as cool? I had the opportunity to consider moving to the Bay Area last year, and the idea of having to live so far from work (in Palo Alto, which is flat out unaffordable for 99 percent of the population) and the city (San Francisco, which has been going through its own identity crisis over the last four or so years, according to my sister who finally gave up and left the Mission for Austin last year) downright depressed me. In Montrose, I’m 20 minutes from pretty much anywhere I want to be. We do have that luxury city aspect of denser cities, with first class restaurants and an awesome art scene and a thriving economy. But if that’s not your thing, you can live in the sprawl and (god kill me if I ever have to do it) drive in.

    • KarenJo12

      West University is still like that. The schools are good, too.

      • Jordan

        Some parts of West U were like that when I was there (right across the hedges!), but I could never find anything near that cheap. I had friends who did, but it was usually (though not always) because they were friends with people whose parents owned the place or were connected with other similar types. Not always, again, but most of the time. Most of West U was pretty expensive.

        The schools, though, are certainly very very good.

        /ETA: by “when I was there”, I mean when I was when I was living on campus at Rice, not when I was living in Montrose or the 3rd Ward.

        • Jordan

          the computer mixed that up. That /ETA should have gone in a reply to skate, and got truncated. Sorry!

      • skate

        25 years ago the folks west of Rice were freaking out over the McMansions that were replacing the normal sized houses. This may have been more of a Bellaire thing than in West U.

        • Jordan

          I’m way later than you on that, then. There were quite a few McMansions there when I was around there. (That wasn’t all bad for me, of course, ’cause you make lots of rich friends there).

  • NewishLawyer

    Some points as a person who has lived in the NYC-Metro and SF-Bay Areas for his entire life except one year in Tokyo.

    1. New York and San Francisco literally cannot sprawl out like Houston or most other major American cities. San Francisco also has the Earthquake issue.

    2. What is happening in New York is really about most of Manhattan and certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The truth is a bit more complicated. Some neighborhoods in Brooklyn have seen extreme increases in rents and property prices for the past decade to fifteen years. These include Williamsburg, Greenepoint, and the areas known as Brownstone Brooklyn. This gentrification has creeped into other neighborhoods but there are plenty of neighborhoods in deeper Brooklyn where rents have remained the stagnant or decreased. These include neighborhoods that still count as “white-ethnic” like Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst and it also includes neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York which are largely populated by people of color.

    3. Now many of these more affordable neighborhoods are far from the working centers of Manhattan. They might lack the ability to build the amenities that the “creative class” like. It is really interesting but a lot of the urban middle-class or are being chased out of Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, and Park Slope choose to move to towns in Westchester and Rockland counties like Hastings on Hudson, Hudson, and Nyack over going to Bay Ridge. So they feel it is socially better up there or more likely to have the kind of amenities they like.

    4. Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx still have plenty of affordable housing but everyone ignores these areas. The only gentrified neighborhoods in Queens are really Astoria/Long Island City.

    5. You also get into an interesting philosophical issue about what makes a city a city and why do people want to move to certain cities. I suspect that San Francisco, New York, (and now Portland) have a certain intangible social allure to many people. San Francisco is still known for being acceptable and tolerable to people who never fit in anywhere else especially their small towns. You still get a lot of LGBT people who grew up in smalltown USA. People still move to New York because of the culture and art scenes and the idea of Village bohemia (rightly or wrongly), and Portland has a cachet for being a city where you can live decently while working a part-time job (though this is also changing). All are known for being pretty liberal. Has Houston or Dallas ever had this allure? I will grant Austin is a blue-state Oasis. Why do people move to Houston? It seems primarily to be about economics over anything else.

    • KmCO

      Why do people move to Houston? It seems primarily to be about economics over anything else.

      Five or six years ago I was reading something online and stumbled on the fact that Houston has become the fourth largest city in America after Chicago, LA, and New York (in ascending order). I was fairly gobsmacked–Houston? Aside from the population qualifiers, the other three cities had obvious economic and cultural import, but for me, Houston was barely on the map. The only contexts in which Houston had ever come to my attention were in economic (strictly oil) and aeronautic ones.

      But it’s not just Houston (and Dallas). Another city that has been growing pretty rapidly despite a relative lack of allure or national recognition is Oklahoma City. I know very little about OKC’s economy and why it’s growing so fast, but I’d put money on oil.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        Remember, though – Houston is like 600 square miles within the city limits, which is like half the size of Rhode Island. I daresay Houston has one of the biggest geographic footprints of any American city. It’s a LOT easier for Houston to add people than, say, Boston, which is barely 50 square miles if you exclude the water (Boston Harbor, Charles River, etc).

        • NewishLawyer

          Are you talking about proper Boston or a Boston-metro and including Cambridge, Sommerville, etc?

          The interesting thing about the Boston and Chicago subway/ train systems is that they leave the city limits and go into what would count as the burbs. NYC’s subway stays in NYC city limits. You need to get on commuter rail to get into Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            Boston city limits, excluding the ~45 square miles of Boston Harbor that generally is lumped into the total so as to include the few dozen Boston Harbor Islands – which are uninhabited save for a few summer cottages on Peddocks and a few CG employees on Little Brewster, home to the first lighthouse in the US and the only one that is still manned.

            • And Cambridge only adds less than 10 square miles, and Somerville under 4, I think.

              And the annoying thing about the MBTA is that while it stretches way out into the suburbs in a few directions, it leaves stops at the Roslindale border, leaving all of that neighborhood, plus West Roxbury and Hyde Park, which are within the city limits only served by the Commuter Rail and bus. I grew up in Roslindale and this made getting around a lot more time consuming.

        • djw

          It’s a LOT easier for Houston to add people than, say, Boston

          That’s true, but it’s important to note that it’s not mere geography, but a combination of geography and policy that make this true. We know how to build up; it’s not terribly complicated. It’s policy, not geography, that keeps supply limited in places like Boston. If we used public policy to thwart sprawl as the same we do for density, Houston wouldn’t have this advantage over Boston.

          • NewishLawyer

            Is this an argument against architectural preservation in general?

            This again goes into the really tricky philosophical debate about what makes a place a place. Part of the answer might be aesthetics and architecture and then you need to have a very intensive moral and ethical debate about whether people should care about the aesthetics and architecture of a city. The original Brooklyn gentrifiers were priced out of Greenwich Village but discovered Brownstones could be had for cheap in many parts of Brooklyn like Park Slope and Cobble Hill.

            I lived in Cobble Hill from 2006-2008 and living in a Brownstone apartment is primarily one of the reasons I picked said neighborhood. I got lucky because I rented from a family in the triplex above and the wife looked at me and said “you look quite” when I came to see the apartment. It was probably the most romantic apartment I will ever live in. A few weeks ago, a townhouse down the block just sold for 7 million dollars.

            When I lived in Brooklyn it was interesting. One cross street contain restaurants, boutiques and bars that largely catered to upper-middle class bobo Brooklyn. The one exception was a supermarket with mediocre selection but cheap prices. The other cross street contained a massive public housing complex that went on for blocks.

            It seems to me that part of the affordable housing argument is getting people to stop caring but Brownstone Brooklyn and similar historical buildings but that is easier said than done. You could easily raise all of Brownstone Brooklyn and create much denser housing but that would create a riot.

            So to a certain extent or a large extent we are debating whether people should care about aesthetics.

            • djw

              Is this an argument against architectural preservation in general?

              I have no problem with it in theory and sometimes in practice. There’s obviously an important role for some of it in places like Boston.

              The problem is (as with ‘design review’ processes) aesthetic worries often end up being cynically exploited a a handy tool in the toolkit of anti-density forces. I’ve seen, in Seattle, some “historical preservation” arguments floated for some ugly and not particularly historic buildings by people simply grasping for whatever tools they might find to stop a condo development. (Example for Seattle locals: Anti-density activists tried to get The 15th and Market Denny’s certified as a historic landmark.)

              • NewishLawyer

                Yeah it certainly gets abused.

              • Linnaeus

                Anti-density activists tried to get The 15th and Market Denny’s certified as a historic landmark.)

                Meanwhile, a block away, the Sunset Bowl closed down, and is now the site of expensive apartments. Hey, I know we need housing, but I’m still kinda sad that the Sunset Bowl is gone.

                • djw

                  Me too. Particularly because it was a real asset to the community, and a profitable one that the minority owners who actually ran the place had absolutely no interest in selling. But (my understanding is) the majority of the owners had been looking to cash out for a while; eventually there was going to be some land use other than a bowling alley that would have led to a price they found amenable. Once the Seattle economy took off, the writing was on the wall. It was unfortunate, but probably unavoidable.

          • liberal

            We know how to build up…

            That’s funny, because one of our current interlocutors claimed on a thread a few weeks ago (IIRC) that people who knew about these things in the Bay Area said that more than 6 stories is bad/too expensive/whatever. (LOL)

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            In most of the places it would be realistic for Boston to build up – financial district, Beacon Hill, the waterfront – the sheer proximity to Logan imposes a fairly low ceiling. This is particularly true for the Southie waterfront, which I think has a FAA-imposed cap of under 30 floors. The remaining neighborhood with towers – Back Bay – suffers from both absurd NIMBYism (i.e. rich people fear buildings’ shadows) and historical agreements limiting the number of towers that can be erected along the “spine” of Back Bay’s skyline.

      • NewishLawyer

        Houston has some decent art and cultural institutions but not enough for people to move there to be part of the scene unless given a direct job. New York has a sort of embarrassment of riches effects in terms of culture. It has lots of theatres of various budgets and just seems to be where people want to be even if they have to fund their own productions. You are starting to see companies form and get noticed in New Brooklyn. Brooklyn is becoming its own little universe. Plus actors who live in NYC tend to get cast in regional productions more quickly than actors who don’t.

        Otherwise I am like you and mainly hear about Houston from the kind of boosterism above and oil/NASA like you. This is probably going to sound snobby but maybe Houston and OKC can grow because they attract all the people who don’t really care about the art and culture scenes in places like Chicago, NY, and SF.

        • PohranicniStraze

          “This is probably going to sound snobby but maybe Houston and OKC can grow because they attract all the people who don’t really care about the art and culture scenes in places like Chicago, NY, and SF.”

          I don’t care much for Houston or OKC, but I’m guessing you’d probably include my area (Fort Worth). And I think your hypothesis is pretty much dead-on. Personally, I would rather go for three back-to-back root canals than sit through a theater production or opera, and I’d rather go to our (very nice, and free) botanic garden and wander through the rose gardens than go to the Met. So the idea of paying a (very large) cost-of-living premium to live in a tiny apartment near a bunch of theaters is not appealing.

          Plus, I can’t move anywhere unless my favorite pho shop in Haltom City closes down.

      • skate

        Five or six years ago I was reading something online and stumbled on the fact that Houston has become the fourth largest city in America after Chicago, LA, and New York (in ascending order). I was fairly gobsmacked–Houston?

        This is not a new thing. Houston was #4 by 1990 and has been in the top 10 since 1960.

      • stinapag

        (bias: I’m an avowed Houston booster) We have jobs in non-sexy sectors. In addition to the obvious energy sector, we have companies like Waste Management and Services International Corporation headquartered here. Getting rid of trash and burying the dead aren’t the headline grabbing sectors of the economy, but they’re certainly needed pretty much everywhere. I have been in the arts support scene for well over a decade, and it can be challenging to find sponsors for events because oil service corporations don’t really need to market to the general public. There is tons of money here, but it’s not flaunted as much or profiled.

        I work in the health care sector, and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather work than the Med Center, even though other towns have one or two first class institutions. We have so many concentrated in one place.

        And I think a lot of Houston’s low-key-ness has to do with our diversity. It’s a majority minority city, with no one demographic having a really strong dominance, so there’s not really a Houston identity. And it’s not just black, Chicano and Caucasian, though those are the three largest populations. Ballots are in Vietnamese. There’s a huge Indian population, both Chinatowns are massive. Pretty much every country in Latin America has an enclave here, plus anywhere where oil is dug. All this diversity makes for AWESOME food. Ever have Vietnamese Crawfish??? Heavenly.

        I know that so many non-Texans look at Austin as this beacon of blue in Texas, but Houston is so much more interesting in its low-key purple complexity.

    • altofront

      New York and San Francisco literally cannot sprawl out like Houston or most other major American cities.

      Talking only about NYC is comparing apples to watermelons. Greater New York is pretty sprawly: the population density of the Combined Statistical Area is just 1876/sq.m. (The US Census now emphasizes “weighted density”–as I understand it, basically the density for the average resident–rather than average density, which is indeed much higher for Greater New York, but I think for the current discussion the latter is more relevant.)

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        Doesn’t the NYC Combined Statistical Area go into the weeds of Pennsylvania? I mean, the Boston/Providence/Manchester* CSA includes, inter alia, almost 1/3 of New Hampshire, 100% of Rhode Island, all of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, the woods around Worcester, and maybe even bits of northeastern Connecticut and southern Maine. That does not make it an accurate barometer of the population density of Boston/Cambridge/Somerville/Quincy/Newton.

        *That the CSA’s very name includes cities in three states should hint at how expansive its definition is.

        • NewishLawyer

          It can go into Pennsylvania. Years ago I read a New Yorker article about super-commuters and one woman interviewed was a legal secretary who made a low-six figure salary but bought a house in Pennsylvania. I remember her commute was interesting… This article probably came out sometime during the first Bush II term if not the last two years of Clinton.

          I don’t know how often people do these super-commutes. Paul Krugman gave the example of ultra-elites flying in daily in helicopters from estates elsewhere. I have met people who live in a tiny monastic cell of an apartment from Sunday night to Wednesday night and then take a three day weekend to a sprawling farm somewhere like Redding, PA or Western, MA.

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            And certainly large and growing numbers of people commute to Boston/Cambridge and metro-Boston (i.e. companies along 128, 9, 3, 495, the Pike, etc) from Rhode Island, Cape Cod, and New Hampshire; there is a commuter train from Providence to Boston about every 1/2 hour in the morning* – but not as many as who live in or near Boston. For that matter, one of my parents once endured a nearly 80 mile commute in each direction from one part of metro Boston to a particularly far-flung part of metro Boston. Can’t say they would recommend it.

            Herb Chambers, who is one of our two eastern Massachusetts car dealership billionaires (also: a high school dropout), commutes by helicopter from his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut – at the mouth of the Connecticut River on Long Island Sound – to his Mercedes-Benz dealership in Somerville, MA.

            *And NH continuously talks a big game about getting Boston’s northern commuter rail lines to extend past Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, and Newburyport to Nashua, Manchester, and Portsmouth.

            • NewishLawyer

              And there are plenty of people who commute from SF to far down into Silicon Valley or people who commute from the farther edges of the North and East Bays into SF for work every day. I think it is insane but there are lots of issues.

              1. The big issue in SF with building is a big collective action problem. The rich communities on the Penninsula and South Bay do not want to build to accommodate Silicon Valley workers and young Silicon Valley workers would rather live in the city than the burbs. Hence the Goggle Buses and people being priced out of SF and the immediate Bay Area. Some communities in the East Bay are trying to develop quickly like Walnut Creek, Dublin, etc.

              2. Sometimes people just like country living and are willing to commute for it. I meet people who do the Sonoma or Napa into SF commute because it lets them play weekend rancher or vinter. I think this is kind of odd but to each their own. Someone who lives in Solano County is probably commuting into SF because of economics.

              3. Sometimes inner-city bus traffic or subway issues can make commuting just as bad as getting to the burbs. When I work downtown, a rush hour bus ride takes about 40 minutes to travel 3.5 miles. It is clogged for all of Market Street and then some. I could get to Walnut Creek in this time on BART.

        • altofront

          Doesn’t the NYC Combined Statistical Area go into the weeds of Pennsylvania?

          Oh yeah, it’s enormous: it goes as far east as Allentown, and is over 13,000 square miles with over 20 million inhabitants. My point was just that there’s lots of sprawly land use in the Northeast, too: with different zoning practices it would be possible to have many more people living there.

          Of course, NYC has grown a lot, too: from 7 million in 1980 to almost 8.5 million. That’s mostly outer borough growth, as you would expect.

        • You can commute fairly easily to New York from the farther reaches of the Philadelphia suburbs, a short hop over the river and an hour or so on the train. It’s fairly common for actors and other performers based in Philly to also work in New York.

  • altofront

    I wonder how much this phenomenon is about population growth rather than wealth. There are about 100 million more people in the country than in 1980 (about a 44% increase) and they all have to live somewhere. Also, we’ve become a lot more urbanized than in 1980 (over 80% now), which exacerbates the effect.

    That said, I am curious about the degree to which wealth, especially international wealth, affects urban real estate, as rich people look for places to park their money. To take one city I know well, Vancouver has transformed its downtown area over last 30 years by building expensive high-rise condos, and I can’t really believe there was much local demand for that many luxury one- and two-bedroom apartments. It’s a (pretty racist) commonplace among Vancouverites that foreign ownership is driving real estate prices ever upwards, but I don’t know how much it’s actually true; apparently real numbers are hard to come by.

    • ProgressiveLiberal

      Two very good and true points. Living in miami beach, damn near everyone is “foreign” (my wife and I included), and it is absolutely true that many places are being bought by people around the world – many times just to park money. Same is definitely true for NYC. These apartments are like bank accounts that pay interest in the safest bank in the world.

      • JR

        But not the safest bank in the world in Miami!

        The first time the city infrastructure is destroyed by a Spring Tide accompanied by a weather pattern blowing inland, watch those apartments become unsalable.

        If it takes months to get the water and sewer back up, weeks for power, telecoms, look, all the people are leaving!!!

        • ProgressiveLiberal

          I agree that some natural disaster will eventually happen, but everyone else seems to think the “bank” is as sound as bear stearns, citi, countrywide, aig and goldman back in 06. Rich people cannot buy fast enough. I had to put up with my old landlord trying to cash out to an endless stream of people, mainly from south america. People are gobbling up apartments before they’re built, paid for in cash. It’s bubble time all over again.

          Then again, most of these people don’t even live here, so they’re not effected by the weather. You can drive by whole buildings where is only a light or two on at 9pm. 90% dark. And its not because people go to bed early here. Shit just sits vacant except for that week or two a year when they come to vacation (during non-hurricane season of course).

  • liberal

    Murc wrote,

    I’ve met, personally, and been related to people who lost apartments, brownstones, and just plain freestanding homes on land that they or their forebears worked their asses off to own completely free and clear because the area suddenly got all fancy-pants and their property tax assessment quadrupled in a decade and they were either on a stagnant or fixed income.

    What’s this “free and clear” silliness?

    Land is essential to life, and they ain’t making more of it.

    The idea that someone and their descendents have the privilege of owning a particular parcel of land with exclusive use, without the attendant obligation to pay everyone else for that use (aka pay a land tax), is obscene and feudalistic, regardless of whether they “paid it off”.

    Not to mention that plenty of people live as renters and get kicked out of their homes all the time.

    • Murc

      What’s this “free and clear” silliness?

      A commonly understood term used to refer to owning something that is often encumbered with a loan, such as a home, a car, or land, without it being so encumbered?

      The idea that someone and their descendants have the privilege of owning a particular parcel of land with exclusive use, without the attendant obligation to pay everyone else for that use (aka pay a land tax), is obscene and feudalistic, regardless of whether they “paid it off”.

      Except that isn’t what I said. My statements were meant to be exclusive to peoples living space, and in fact I’d go further and say “living space within a reasonably defined footprint.” You don’t need twenty acres of prime woodland to live in, but you probably do need a house, and a lot of people work their asses off and pay their dues to get that house.

      It would indeed be obscene and feudalistic to propose that someone should be able to do whatever the hell they want with any land or property whatsoever just because they inherited it. Thankfully, I made no such claims.

      Not to mention that plenty of people live as renters and get kicked out of their homes all the time.

      And you think I don’t have a problem with that?

      I got nothing against renting, I rent myself. But I think that people should be able to control their own living space. I think that people should be able to buy a home (whether house, condo, apartment, or what have you) and be able to think “I no longer have to worry about my landlord abusing me or arbitrarily raising my rent.” And, yes, I also think that once people secure that home, they should be able to remain in that home barring extraordinary circumstances, and not be forced to sell it to a douchebag house-flipper who natters on about how “charming” the space you raised three kids in is because a lot of rich people move in.

      This is why I think we need lots more housing and it needs to be lots more affordable, so that people can find a home they can afford and then be secure in it. I consider the latter to be as important as the former.

      • ProgressiveLiberal

        If everyone made more money here (and were able to save more for retirement) we wouldn’t be as concerned about paying taxes on houses that were paid off.

        But nothing in life is 100% sure. That’s just the way it is. Whether you own or rent. Both ways you can end up paying more, including more than you can afford.

  • liberal

    Murc wrote,

    If that four million dollar home was one they bought for fifty grand in 1960, spent thirty years making a monthly mortgage payment on assiduously, and would now prefer they die in rather than being forced out because the city decides they have to pay full freight on an income that is composed of their social security check and a shaved-down pension, I am bang on board with that. They are not a “free rider.”

    They’re not paying “full freight” on the income. They’re paying taxes on land that is now very valuable.

    If they can’t afford the taxes, they can move. Just like tenants that can’t afford rent can move.

    Not to mention when they die, their descendants not going to give up all those gains that were completely unearned; they’re going to pocket them.

    It’s very strange that this was all well understood centuries ago, and people like you still don’t understand it.

    John Stuart Mill, for example:

    The ordinary progress of a society which increases in wealth, is at all times tending to augment the incomes of landlords; to give them both a greater amount and a greater proportion of the wealth of the community, independently of any trouble or outlay incurred by themselves. They grow richer, as it were in their sleep, without working, risking, or economizing. What claim have they, on the general principle of social justice, to this accession of riches? In what would they have been wronged if society had, from the beginning, reserved the right of taxing the spontaneous increase of rent, to the highest amount required by financial exigencies?

    Now you might claim that if they’re owning and not letting it out to someone else, they’re not “landlords,” but that’s clearly nonsense. They’re occupying a piece of land that’s become extremely valuable, and not allowing anyone else to use it. For that privilege, they should pay the state.

    • Murc

      If they can’t afford the taxes, they can move. Just like tenants that can’t afford rent can move.

      People should be secure in their homes. They should not be forced out of them because of taxes or rent hikes.

      You keep using terms like “land” as if I’m promulgating some sort of general libertarian philosophy of property rights. I am not.

      Now you might claim that if they’re owning and not letting it out to someone else, they’re not “landlords,” but that’s clearly nonsense.

      It’s not nonsense, it is clearly and manifestly true.

      They’re occupying a piece of land that’s become extremely valuable, and not allowing anyone else to use it. For that privilege, they should pay the state.

      Bullshit. The state exists to serve the people, not the other way around. It should not be a “privilege” to not be financially hounded from your place of residence.

      • Atrios

        I’m all for letting people stay in their long term places of residence if they can’t afford the taxes, but you can simply put liens on the property that get paid out when the owners die or sell.

        • Murc

          Hmm. That’s an idea I hadn’t considered. I’m kinda-sorta skeptical, because I do like the idea of people being able to pass on the family home (so long as people are, you know, actually using it as a home) but that’s sufficiently rare nowadays, and inherited wealth is so pernicious, that that seems like a decent compromise.

          Assuming I’m understanding you, I guess. I’m guessing the function of such a lien is basically “okay, you have two choices. You can cash out now, take the value of your home as property, and live someplace else. If you’re attached to your home as a home, you can stay there, but if you live another twenty years the accumulated lien will wipe out all value; your heirs will need to sell to cover the balance and not end up with much.”

          Which seems like a fair-ish trade.

        • DrDick

          I like that. It is a perfect compromise. I had a landlord in Chicago in the late 80s who owned a brownstone in the River North neighborhood. He constantly complained about his taxes, since he had only paid $30K for in the 1960s. Of course, by then it was worth about $500-$750K (at least $1 million now).

        • ProgressiveLiberal

          I am convinced Atrios says more in fewer words than anyone else who has ever lived.

          It is the perfect compromise.

          • GFW

            I thought this was already a thing. Google “deferred property taxes seniors”

            • Atrios

              Oh yes, not claiming as original idea. Some municipalities have programs, tho no idea how many.

          • Atrios

            Not perfectly perfect. There are some issues with, say, multigenerational households which while not the norm these days do exist. But, yes, a voluntary program which would limit incrases required tax payments to x% per year while tacking the rest+interest on as a lien would take care of most situations.

            • Anna in PDX

              It works pretty well for most people here in Portland, although the deferred taxes do sometimes hit the poorer family heirs kind of hard. One of the suggestions made at a recent community forum was to partially forgive those deferred taxes as an incentive to keep the family members in that home. If they were going to sell it, they would not be eligible for that forgiveness. Not sure whether that would work or not, but it was kind of an intriguing idea.

            • JR

              Reverse Mortgages also too.

              although many sellers of such loans are actually scammers who intend to shaft people based upon tiny words buried deeply in the fine print of some boring language about parties of the third part being payable when demanded under special circumstances…

              We don’t have kids, have a very nice home on around 100 acres of forest. A well-defended reverse mortgage might allow us to travel abroad for the 10 or 15 years we have left. Of course then a bank would own it, rather than relatives or neighbors we wouldn’t want to screw by inviting a vampire bank into the neighborhood

              • djw

                although many sellers of such loans are actually scammers who intend to shaft people based upon tiny words buried deeply in the fine print of some boring language about parties of the third part being payable when demanded under special circumstances…

                Nothing says “we’re here to rip you off” quite like hiring Fred Thompson as a pitchman.

              • Hogan

                Driftwood: Now, it says, uh, “The party of the second part shall be known in this contract as the party of the second part.”

                Fiorello: Well, I don’t know about that…

                Driftwood: Now what’s the matter?

                Fiorello: I no like-a the second party, either.

                Driftwood: Well, you should’ve come to the first party. We didn’t get home ’til around four in the morning. I was blind for three days.

  • Anna in PDX

    I happen to work in a housing department of a local city government, and I sent this op-ed around to my team. My boss wrote back pointing out: “Note how they use data. In making their case about denser metro areas, they cite several data points. As they move into their discussion of the Houston model, data becomes vague, with little or no citations. For example, their explanation of “average annual adjusted wages” doesn’t go into their cost of living assumptions. I wonder how it factors in commute costs, for example.

    The cost of housing (without the externalities) in Texas is extremely low compared to the coasts, and they imply that the “sprawl” model used by Houston is the reason for that and the economic opportunity that they tout by extension. But all metro areas (including the legacy ones they cite) have sprawl. And all have recovered better from the recession than smaller towns:
    http://oregoneconomicanalysis.com/2014/07/23/metro-size-and-growth-an-update/

    Not dismissing the affordability created by overwhelming demand via supply. But you have to add in the externalities of that affordability. And in some places the dynamic of go to where the jobs are is turned on its head: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/20/why-portland-is-growing-its-own-swiss-chard-and-stealing-your-college-grads/

    Thanks for providing this opportunity to have a neat dialogue at work.

  • LeeEsq

    I’m wondering if an alternative twentieth-century American urbanism was possible at times. To a certain extent, the sprawl, strict zoning, and single-family home bias to American urbanism seems just like a freak policy choice made during the mid-20th century. At the same time, the American society had an anti-urban bias since the get-go and a preference for a single family homes over apartment buildings for just as long. The modern American suburb reflects certain tastes that existed in American society since the 18th century that its practically a natural development of it.

    • Murc

      It’s worth noting that some of those tastes you describe aren’t illegitimate or entirely manufactured.

      People really, truly seem to like living in a home where all four walls, your floor, and your ceiling aren’t part of somebody elses home as well. There’s a lot to recommend it! Your noise cap is a lot higher before you disturb people or are disturbed in turn. If you want to do something in green space, like run around with your pets or your kids or just sit in the sun and read a book, you can step out of your door and be there in under a minute. There’s no constant navigation of stairs and elevators. Your washer and dryer are yours and yours alone. You can remodel however you like. If you’re explicitly living in a suburb, you can probably drive wherever the hell you want at any hour of the day or night very rapidly.

      Literally the only reason I’m against our policy bias towards that way of living is because, environmentally and resource-use speaking, it isn’t sustainable, so maybe we’d better all get off the merry-go-round before it catches on fire. If you handed me a source of nonpolluting limitless free energy tomorrow, tho, I would be all “Yes! Bring on the sprawl! You want to live in a city, guys, great, go fucking NUTS, I’ll vote to fund all the transit you want because transit is awesome and useful, but I’m going to live in the suburbs, because fuck other people.”

      (Yglesias was writing about “fuck other people” about a month or so, in fact, I think; he was lamenting how when housing stock goes up and it becomes more affordable it often doesn’t increase the amount of total people living somewhere, because all the people who were roommates get their own place instead, and hand-wringing about how to make them stop doing that. He didn’t seem to get that people really hate being forced to live with other people not of their choosing because of economic necessity and that for many that’s a severe quality of life hit.)

      • LeeEsq

        My biggest problems with the urban-suburban debate is that a lot of pro-urban people treat what happened in mid-20th century as an aberration forced onto the American people rather than something more organic. The modern American suburb as a lot of ancestors in American history. It only assumed its current form because technology and wealth enabled suburbia to become widespread. The reason why American policy favored suburbs and car-based transportation was because they were popular with the voters. They are still popular with lots of Americans.

        Suburbs aren’t environmentally great but democracy means that people do have a right to make some rather dumb decisions.

        • Murc

          This.

          People seem to really, really like suburban living, and I don’t think that can just be chalked up to “brainwashed by Madison Avenue.”

          Now, people merely liking something isn’t a good reason to craft public policy around it, but let’s not kid ourselves that being far from the madding crowd is some kind of delusion people can be cured of.

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