What City Observatory did this week
1. When supply catches up to demand, rents go down. While stories about crazy housing markets tend to focus on big, coastal metropolitan areas, it turns out there’s a lot to learn from looking at Williston, ND. That sleepy town began to boom thanks to oil, and its housing market responded the way markets respond to rapidly growing demand: prices spiked. But in Williston, housing supply could also respond, and the number of building permits increased by nearly 1,200 percent between 2009 and 2012. Thanks to a combination of growing supply and falling demand as a result of the fall of oil prices, rents have also dropped dramatically. The lesson is that supply and demand matter—but also that there is a structural lag in supply. Demand can change much more quickly, and until supply can catch up, it will push prices upwards.
2. It’s time for a “big short” in parking. In the popular movie “The Big Short,” investors who predicted the bursting of the housing bubble made a killing by betting against rising housing prices. We think there’s a case to be made that we should be “shorting” investments in parking garages: between changing preferences for urban, car-lite living and the implications of widespread self-driving cars, demand for parking may crash in the near future. That would leave many cities with outstanding bonds backed by parking revenue in a pickle.
3. It’s time for a “big short” in parking. In the popular movie “The Big Short,” investors who predicted the bursting of the housing bubble made a killing by betting against rising housing prices. We think there’s a case to be made that we should be “shorting” investments in parking garages: between changing preferences for urban, car-lite living and the implications of widespread self-driving cars, demand for parking may crash in the near future. That would leave many cities with outstanding bonds backed by parking revenue in a pickle.
4. A field guide to median rent statistics. We’ve written before that journalists and readers should be extremely wary of apartment listing companies claiming to know what median rents are in different cities or neighborhoods. Very often, companies just publish statistics based on their own listings, as a way of generating PR, and not recognizing the strong, if inadvertent, biases in such an approach. As a result, much of what’s published on the web varies wildly, both in terms of rent levels, and how much (or even in what direction) rents are moving.
5. Here’s your definitive field guide to median rent statistics. We break down several of the most common sources for median rent statistics, explaining how they’re created, what they’re good for, and what they aren’t. We end with three questions you can ask as a journalist or a reader when you come across someone claiming to have median rent information: Where is your data from? Is this just an average of your listings? And why is your data different from others’?
6. The beat goes on: More misleading congestion rankings from TomTom. This week, TomTom released another update of its rankings of cities’ traffic congestion, based on readings from the navigation devices it sells to drivers. But, as we’ve pointed out, this data can be deeply misleading. To begin with, there’s the fact that it ignores differences in commute trip lengths between cities, so that Portland can have a higher congestion index than Houston, even though Portland’s more compact development means that people there have shorter (in terms of both time and geography) commutes. But at least, this time, TomTom admits in its report that policymakers shouldn’t expect they can build themselves out of congestion, however it’s measured.
The week’s must reads
1. Let us now praise “low-quality” housing: At Market Urbanism, Emily Washington argues that many of the types of market-rate housing that used to house low-income people without the need for subsidies, like single-room occupancy hotels, have been legislated out of existence. While we disagree that those kinds of housing would ever eliminate the need for subsidies, it’s true that they could dramatically expand the supply of low-cost homes. For another iteration of this argument, see Alan Durning at Slate.
2. “The Baltimore riot of April 27, 2015, started with a shutdown of public transportation,” Alec Macgillis begins his deep dive into how disinvestment in public transit in the Baltimore area has helped define that region’s inequality. It’s a story whose outlines may be well known, but which Macgillis tells in richer detail than you’ll see almost anywhere else. A plan for a three-line subway system for the city was announced at nearly the same time as the plan for the DC Metro—but while Washington has built out an extensive system, Baltimore has only completed a single line.
3. Should urban rail stations have park-and-ride lots? In Seattle, Sound Transit is considering a plan to build 18,000 parking spaces near transit stations—at a cost of nearly a billion dollars. (This might be a good time to remind everyone thatparking garages are incredibly expensive—whether or not you ever see their cost in parking fees.) Seattle’s The Urbanist blog makes a strong case that even if some parking is necessary, public transit dollars should not be spent on large amounts of parking in dense neighborhoods. Housing and other destinations should be built near transit, allowing people to use it without driving; parking lots, where necessary, can be some distance away, with shuttles where demand makes that reasonable.
1. Public input is crucial for good, equitable, democratic planning. But traditional community meetings are not necessarily the best way to get public input.Planetizen’s new series, the Fiasco Files, takes “failed” public meetings and tries to wrest some lessons from them. Up first, Dave Biggs recounts one organized disruption of a meeting he helped lead, and some of the takeaways: multiple paths for comments (including online); clear established rules for communication; and some anonymous input that allows people to vote without being intimidated by louder members of the audience.
2. This week, the Census released its 2015 county-level population estimates. AtCityLab, Jed Kolko breaks down his analysis of the winners and losers, arguing that the new numbers suggest that long-term trends, including growing population in low-density Sun Belt metro areas, are reasserting themselves as the recovery to the Great Recession continues. We wrote our own post about using county-level population figures to infer trends in urban cores, of course—which we think is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
3. News you can use: If you want intelligent birds, go to the city. Researchers from Montreal’s McGill University have concluded that urban birds are smarter than their country bumpkin cousins. The city birds were better at problem-solving tasks, including opening drawers to get food—and were healthier, with stronger immunity systems to boot. Urban humans who have had to deal with overly clever or insistent pigeons might not see this as a benefit, however.
The Week Observed is City Observatory’s weekly newsletter. Every Friday, we give you a quick review of the most important articles, blog posts, and scholarly research on American cities.
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