The Corner

Energy & Environment

The End of the Urbanist Dream?

A row of Victorian homes known locally as the “Painted Ladies” glow in the early evening sun following a rain shower in San Francisco, California. (Robert Galbraith /Reuters)

It is no secret that states such as California and New York don’t have enough housing to meet demand. But the problem isn’t limited to the coasts. A new report from Up for Growth National Coalitiona new group of real-estate developers and owners, affordable-housing builders, local chambers of commerce, and TechNet, which is made up to tech execs — reveals just how widespread it is.

Between 2000 and 2015, the report finds, 23 states underproduced housing. For example, Nevada, previously famous for its housing booms and busts, is missing 234,801 units. Florida, too, is short by about 719,230. Even Illinois and Michigan underproduced by around 120,000 each. Across the nation, the shortfall totals some 7.3 million units, or about 5.4 percent of U.S. housing stock.

Limited housing supply has pushed up prices beyond what all but the richest can afford. Nationally, home prices jumped over 6 percent between January 2017 and January 2018, which is about double the rise in incomes.

To some extent, what we are seeing is spillover from the country’s Californias and New Yorks. Conor Sen, writing in Bloomberg View, observes that while urbanists press for upzoning in coastal meccas, middle-income families are moving in droves to states such as Idaho. Whereas urbanists envision a denser, more urban future, Sen suggests that we will instead see the continued growth of sprawling, polycentric metropolitan areas that are more suburban in character:

Austin and San Antonio might be the new Houston and Dallas. Nashville and Raleigh might be the new Atlanta. And then a whole new class of midsize metros like Boise, Spokane, Provo and Reno become what Austin and Raleigh used to be.

Let’s assume Sen is right, and that urbanist dreams fizzle out as NIMBYs continue to dominate the coastal political scene. That doesn’t change the fact that the United States needs to break out its hammers and nails. Moreover, as U.S. adults continue to delay childbearing and marriage, there will be an increasing appetite for multi-family development, even in the country’s Boises and Renos. Meeting increasing housing demand with low-density housing would require 600,000 acres of land, Up for Growth argues, which simply isn’t available in the cities where housing is most needed. The group also finds that suburban development would mean about $370 billion in debt for local jurisdictions, an amount that might be hard to sustain in light of rising pension costs. By contrast, development aimed at increasing density, especially in transit corridors, would have lower associated costs, would require less land, and would be more environmentally friendly.


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