The Big Idea: High housing prices in American cities are a symptom of our shortage of great urban neighborhoods. The tried-and-true solution to a shortage is to supply by building new neighborhoods—places where people want to live.
The high and rising rents in many of the nation’s cities are rightly provoking concern in many quarters. In San Francisco this fall, where evictions of lower and middle income tenants has become a hot button issue, a measure on the ballot—backed by tenant advocates and some of the city’s elected officials—would apply a high tax to developers who evict tenants and try to sell a building within five years. Across the country, as urban living has become more popular, many people are rightfully worried about being priced out of the neighborhoods they live in.
But in economic terms, high and rising prices are sending a clear market message: cities are valuable. More people want to access the advantages that cities provide, and in the face of growing demand we have a shortage of great urban spaces. The market is signaling that we need to build more and better city neighborhoods. Instead of discouraging developers from creating new housing, the most effective solution to this problem is to increase the supply of new urban neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, this won’t be easy: new cities and new neighborhoods aren’t built overnight; and those that already exist change even more slowly. In addition, creating great urban neighborhoods depends critically on the right public policy and public investment. Public policy –especially zoning – has to enable and encourage additional density and more mixed use development, not prevent them. In many cities, zoning restrictions, discretionary approval processes and excessive parking requirements—and now, potentially, new taxes on developer–makes new development difficult and expensive. To create livable communities increased density needs to be accompanied by additional public investment, especially in the form of transit and better alternatives to private car travel.
The good news is that there’s lots of opportunity to re-invest in our nation’s cities to create more great urban neighborhoods. Not everyone who values urban living needs—or wants—to live in Brooklyn or San Francisco. The surging demand for urban living creates a market for spaces across the nation. For decades, many central cities have been struggling to develop against the current of market forces, which were drawing people and economic activity out of the center. Today, even in struggling cities—like Detroit—there is a steady stream of migrants and investors, new residents and new businesses putting down roots and committing to place. None of this will be easy or automatic, and it poses important challenges of coping with change and addressing concerns of equity and displacement. But the return of market demand to cities creates a terrific opportunity—if we can realize it.
Rents aren’t rising in American cities because the wealthy want to live there – they’re rising because everyone does. If civic leaders want to attract talent and create more economic opportunities, it’s time they get into the business of creating more great urban neighborhoods.