For the past few years we have been getting the new “progressive” planners’ “party line” that suburbs are icky and passé, and that enlightened folk are abandoning them and moving back to cities. Alas, much of that appears to be BS. Commentators who track Bureau of census figures, tell us otherwise. As we note in this blog from time to time, that vaunted “return to the cities” is largely a trickle consisting of young, well paid singles, and well-heeled middle aged boomers, both of whom tend to favor hip city neighborhoods, but neither of whom have to contend with the burdens and problems of raising and educating children in today’s shabby American cities.
Now drops the other shoe. Today’s New York Times (front page, below the fold) brings the news that — in the words of the headline — In Many Cities, Rent Is Rising Out of Reach of Middle Class, April 15, 2014, at p. A1. Whereas historically, city residential tenants would pay no more than 30% of their gross income for housing, now it’s more than that, ranging from 47% in — where else? — Los Angeles, down to 35.8% in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. A Zillow study “found 90 cities where the median rent — not including utilities — was more than 30 percent of the median gross income.” Now that may be cool if you are a well-paid techie living in San Francisco and being transported to your Silicon Valley office gratis in a luxury bus owned and operated by your employer, but it’s not so good for lesser folk.
Bottom line, “[f]or many middle- and lower-income people, high rents choke spending on other goods and services, impeding the economic recovery.” Developers are building new city apartments, but as long as their product is being snapped up by the affluent yuppie/boomer market, “there is little incentive to build anything other than expensive units.” But to our thinking, not many people can afford $2000+ per month for a studio or a dinky one bedroom place (CNN.Money says the median rent in LA — which means that half the dwelling rent for more than that — is $2100)? And be careful about what you read in the papers. CNN.Money.com also says that you can buy a home in the San Fernando Valley for $200,000. Our response: Stuff and nonsense. Should you by some miracle find a Valley home at that price, you wouldn’t want to live in it. Trust us.
And so, as the sun sets in the West, be careful, be very careful before you buy the “new” planners’ pitch that cities are where it’s at. It isn’t. At least not yet; not by a long shot. Current data show that in most cases buying a house is a better economic deal than renting. And if you want to save on rents by moving to more remote parts of the city and certainly to the better suburbs, you may discover that commuting to your city job is a pain in the neck, and that transportation costs erode or negate your rent savings. Bummer.
So in our view, there is no solution in sight as long as developers are prevented from building small, modest and inexpensive suburban “starter homes” and garden apartments, like they used to do in the days of yore. Also, as long as a house is looked upon by buyers as a tax-advantaged investment rather than a dwelling, things are not going to get much better. And talk all you want about the fashionably hip foo-foo city scene, its existence is not going to attract middle-class families with children (who are indispensable to a healthy city), but who insist on reasonably safe and effective schools.
So how do the “new urbanist” planner mavens expect young suburbanities to form a city household of their own and settle there permanently when they reach adulthood? They can’t. So they do the only thing they can, which is move to a hip city neighborhood where affordable living space can be, especially if they share an apartment with a roommate or two. In other words, as we noted years ago, the prevailing suburban regulatory climate and its consequent upward pressure on home prices, is creating an economic climate in which — unless they win the lottery, or outlive their parents and inherit the family home — young people simply won’te able to live anywhere near their parents’ homes where they were raised.
Follow up. Today’s L.A. Times (April 17, 2014) notes that the median home price in the San Francisco Bay area has topped a half-million dollars. As we noted, in the desirable parts of cities, rents are soaring out of young people’s reach. So these folks who were raised with the modest comforts of the middle class, may have to climb down the socio-economic ladder, which — we have a sneaky hunch — is just what the “progressive” new urbanists want.