HQ2 search is still about talent, above all else

Last September, I pointed out that the Amazon HQ2 RFP was almost entirely about site readiness and talent. On the latter topic, one excellent resource was a 2017 report from commercial real estate broker CBRE that ranked metro areas based on “tech talent” — the number of people employed as “software developers and programmers; computer support, database and systems; technology and engineering related; and computer and information system managers.”

Not too surprisingly, eight of the top 10 from that particular ranking ended up as finalists for Amazon’s HQ2. The other two are Seattle (HQ1) and the Bay Area, which is currently Amazon’s second largest location.

cbre tech talent 1

Top 10 (minus SF) circled in blue; cities officially ruled out for talent reasons in red; shortlist cities with even smaller talent pools ruled out in blue. Source: BLS, via CBRE.

A single theme keeps showing up in the “thanks, but no thanks” feedback interviews. “Talent was the most important factor out of everything they looked at,” said Ed Loyd of Cincinnati. Charlotte’s “pool of tech talent is lacking compared to other markets.” “We weren’t good enough on the talent front,” said Sandy Baruah of Detroit. Amazon “really emphasized that they put a high weighting on talent,” says Mary Moran of Calgary. “Talent that could be hired immediately… ‘it was clear from the earliest stage of the RFP that it was the top priority,” says Tom Geddes of Baltimore. The feedback got more specific in one instance: “Prince George’s county doesn’t have a large enough pool of senior-level software engineers.”

Now that we know that Detroit and Baltimore don’t have enough local software engineers, who does? Helpfully, CBRE also looked specifically at the software engineer labor pool.

cbre tech talent 2

HQ2 candidates are in blue, Seattle and the Bay Area are in black, Detroit and Baltimore are shown in red. Click to enlarge.

There’s a substantial gulf between the top 10 and the latter 10, with Los Angeles having about 50% more local programmers than Denver. More importantly, if Detroit was rejected because they don’t have enough programmers, how can Philadelphia or Raleigh say otherwise? This puts the smaller labor markets on the shortlist at a steep disadvantage. Only Newark can make a case that it could pull commuters across the Hudson (though not for long).

Shallow talent pools also explain why “turnaround” sentiment wasn’t enough to save bids from Rust Belt cities. The only Midwestern cities that made the cut are either Sunbelt-era cities that happen to be north of the Ohio, like Columbus and Indianapolis, or the classic turnaround success stories of Chicago and Pittsburgh (even if both have deeper post-industrial legacies than the coastal cities).

A bit less confidently, recent large office leases in Boston and Manhattan are probably best thought of as consolation prizes, given that the locations chosen don’t have much in the way of expansion options. Leases being negotiated now would reflect planning work that was underway before the HQ2 search got going. Recent warehouse and data center leases or openings, of course, have zero bearing on future office locations.

The Boston move also has implications for cities 5-10 in the above chart, all of which have ~45,000 programmers. Quality of local talent is also important, and proximity to MIT gives Boston an edge over others in this group. If Boston and NYC are only worthy of consolation prizes, who’s left?

Hint: it’s also the metro where not just the number of programmers most closely matches that of Seattle’s, but their skill sets do, too.

Other thoughts:

  • Reporters are so desperate to write anything about this story that they’re making mountains out of molehills, especially given the paucity of public information. Don’t read too much into:
    • Paddy Power betting odds, which explicitly exclude the Americans who might know anything about the cities. I don’t see British newspapers breathlessly tracking every movement in how Vegas bookies view the English Premier League.
    • Hiring a lobbyist in Georgia. They have lobbyists in other states (e.g., two listed in Virginia, five in Kentucky, three in Tennessee).
  • Amazon really does seem to prefer working with single developers. Just one developer (COPT) has a four million square foot portfolio of Amazon data centers in NoVA.
  • The already-tight timing is now getting a little ridiculous. The decision will be announced sometime in 2018, presumably not in the next few months — but occupancy is still supposed to be in 2019? That essentially limits the search to existing buildings.
  • Given that fact, I’m going to give a Top Three that combine the right site, the right workforce, and the right time:
    • Arlington – Crystal City, the only move-in-ready location with access to as many programmers as Seattle has
    • Chicago – Old Post Office, the perfect building with great access and aggressive leadership but more iffy growth potential
    • Dallas – Union Station, although the buildings require considerable work. (Not that Amazon’s RFP mentions this topic, but: right-wingers love to harp on Chicago’s fiscal woes even though Dallas isn’t far behind.)
  • Expanding to a Top Five adds:
    • Toronto, great workforce but no new buildings opening until 2020, and not enough adjacent space
    • Atlanta, the AT&T and BofA towers have vacancies between downtown and Tech Square, but land/building ownership is fragmented; also concerns over “cultural fit”
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Idle speculation: podium apartments, floating above a parking lot

Podium construction: if it's good enough for these guys, it's good enough for you

As of 2015, the IBC now permits multi-story concrete podiums. At first, this was mostly of interest because it permitted even taller “double podium” apartment buildings, with up to eight stories framed mostly in wood.

This diagram (by Nadel, Inc. for Multifamily Executive) shows the effect between The Podium and The (Double) Podium: you can squeeze an additional floor in above grade, and because it’s concrete (heavy line) it can be used for residential, retail, or parking.

Yet using that magical concrete-framed second floor for residential (which could just as easily be wood-framed) seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Instead, the second floor could be a mezzanine parking level for the wood-framed residential above — as was done in the mixed-use Grey House at River Oaks District pictured above, or in this mixed-use development on LA’s Olympic Blvd.

The real breakthrough possibility for the parking mezzanine isn’t atop retail, though: it’s atop yet more parking.

It just so happens that a 65-75′ wide module fits either a double-loaded apartment building or a double-loaded parking aisle. Therefore, a four-story building (three floors of Type V residential, one level of parking) can be stacked atop an existing aisle of parking — without diminishing the existing parking lot, and without excavating any parking.

It’s the suburban infill version of “have your cake and eat it, too”: keep your parking and add infill housing, too.

3 over 2

Developing these air-rights infill parcels used to require some pretty tremendous trade-offs. The first such projects that I saw were designed by Gary Reddick, a Portland architect who won a CNU Charter Award in 2004 for two such projects. Jury chair Ellen Dunham-Jones subsequently wrote about these in HDM:

In Seattle and Portland, where there are very good markets for residential development, Sienna convinced a variety of non-residential building owners to sell the air rights over their parking lots or roofs for housing. In Portland’s desirable and compact Northwest neighborhood, Sienna saw the parking lot of a specialized medical center as a potential housing site. After producing a pro forma, the firm approached the owners and showed that it could provide them with a covered, forty-three-space parking lot (with only three fewer spaces than before) and a million-dollar profit in exchange for stacking an additional layer of parking (with a separate entry) and two stories of condominiums. The built project, Northrup Commons, screens the parking with duplexes entered from the streets and adds two floors of apartments.

This turns out to be tough to replicate elsewhere. Because the residential comes with its own parking requirement, fully replacing the on-site parking requires adding parking somewhere else — either building a new parking lot elsewhere, or digging underground, at super-high cost ($11 million at one Seattle project). Most of the Sienna projects, including Northrup, used sloping sites (common in the Northwest) to tuck one parking level partially or fully underground.

tyson

Since the resulting buildings would block visibility and doesn’t result in an active ground-floor frontage, this particular infill seems best for infilling around Class B offices that currently sit adrift in a moat of parking — such as the above complex on Old Courthouse Road, at the southern fringe of Tysons Corner (image from Bing Maps). Or, many properties along this stretch of the infamous Executive Boulevard near White Flint (image from Google Earth):

exec

* A rough assumption here is that each 1,000 sq. ft. apartment would have one parking space, which works out to about 3:1 residential:parking floor space. The ratio seems to work for the Houston example, which promises its residents the ability to park in-building rather than having to venture outdoors. Sufficient parking for rich Houstonians is probably enough for anyone.

Recently: instant neighborhoods, unmasking institutional capital, dockless bikeshares compared

Cranes around Navy Yard, from roof of 100 M SE

Three things I’ve written elsewhere this week, the first two inspired by the mechanics of my neighborhood’s growth:

1. “Instant neighborhoods” don’t make for great cities, but DC insists on them in GGWash. I really do relish living in a neighborhood that’s growing and changing quickly, but it’s a little bit unnerving to think that we may be repeating the biggest mistake of Southwest’s past — the hubristic assumption that our best-laid urban plans can anticipate every need, for all time.

2. Meet the everyday people who own these iconic Washington-area buildings in  GGWash. Amidst a lot of dark insinuations about outside money, it’s kind of funny to uncover the rather more quotidian reality of who’s paying for all these new buildings.

3. I wrote a Twitter thread about riding all four of the new, dock-less bike sharing systems that have launched in DC this past week. Click through for the reviews:

 

Amazon’s HQ2 RFP prioritizes site readiness and talent, not incentives

Parking crater at Spooky Park, Yards

Site availability, not incentives, are of “paramount importance” to Amazon.

A lot of the early press around the Amazon HQ2 announcement zeroed in on the usual economic-development narrative of a company shopping around for incentives. Yet a close reading of the RFP reveals that incentives are actually a middling concern for Amazon.

The RFP reveals (as Benjamin Romano also writes) that Amazon feels that it’s outgrown Seattle; they feel as if they’ve hired everyone in Seattle who could work for them, and growth requires tapping into a new labor pool. The company isn’t hungry for cash; it needs people, space, and speed.

I’ve plucked out the various considerations listed in the RFP and rearranged them roughly in order of urgency:

“Paramount importance”

  • “Finding suitable buildings/sites,” i.e., initial size of 500,000+ (up to 1.0 MSF) available in 2019, expandable nearby to 3.5 – 6 MSF over three phases and potentially up to 8 MSF beyond 2027
    • Keep in mind that a high-rise office building takes about a year to build, so groundbreaking should occur by mid-2018
    • For perspective: the TSA just awarded a build-to-suit contract for a 625,000 sq. ft. headquarters on a greenfield site in Springfield, Virginia, where the buildings are drawn, the developer has cash in the bank, the land is already cleared, and the office will open in late 2020
  • “Optimal fiber connectivity”

“Must be” or “required”

  • Close to a significant population center that can fill 50,000 jobs (many of them technical)… Direct access to significant population centers with eligible employment pools
  • Strong university system
  • Compatible cultural and community environment, diverse population, higher ed, officials eager to work with company

“Critical”

  • Highly educated labor pool
  • Initial and ongoing costs
  • Travel/logistics for employees and to other facilities
  • Site has access, utilities, zoning

“High-priority considerations”

  • Stable and business-friendly environment and tax structure

“Key factor”

  • Travel time to major highways and arterial roadway capacity

“Significant factors”

  • Incentives offered by state/province, local communities

“Important”

  • Near airport with daily flights to SEA, NYC, QSF, WAS
  • Stable and consistent business climate (demonstrated via testimonials from other large companies)

“Ideally”

  • <30 miles to major city
  • <45 minutes to international airport
  • <1-2 miles to highways
  • 0 miles to mass transit (rail or bus)

“Preference for”

  • Metro with 1M+ people
  • Urban or suburban location to retain/attract technical talent
  • Communities that think big

“Want to”

  • Employees will enjoy living there, recreation, education, high quality of life

“Could be, but does not have to be”

  • Urban/downtown
  • Similar layout to Seattle campus
  • Development-prepped site

Site-specific statistics that must be provided, and therefore will be considered:

  • General site information
  • Ownership structure, notably if government owned
  • Current zoning
  • Utilities present
  • Total incentives offered and terms, if legislation is needed, estimate uncertainty thereof, timeline
  • Highway, airport travel
  • Transit options, including bike and pedestrian

Regional statistics that must be provided, and therefore will be considered:

  • Labor pool information
  • Ability to attract talent regionally
  • Opportunities to hire software engineers
  • Recurring sourcing for software engineers
  • “All levels of talent”
  • Executive labor pool
  • Existing and potential university-employer partnerships
  • List of higher ed institutions with relevant degrees
  • Number of recent grads
  • K-12 computer science programs
  • Transit and transportation options
  • Traffic congestion ranking
  • Quality of life
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Diversity of housing options
  • Availability of housing locally
  • Housing prices
  • Crime data (“also”)
  • Cost of living (“also”)

So, what locations make sense on the East Coast?

The RFP only calls out two criteria as “of paramount importance”: fiber data service, and having a shovel-ready site of 0.5-1.0 million sq ft, with on-site or adjacent expansion to 8 MSF.

The site not only should be zoned already, it needs to have utility capacity in place. The 2019 timeline leaves zero time for rezonings, public hearings, geological surprises, soil contamination, lease buy-outs, tenant relocation, wish-upon-a-star transit lines, etc. It means either clean dirt that’s ready to go, or a monster of a cold-shell building that already has construction crews hard at work.

It’s hard to overstate how enormous this project is. It’s more than the total commercial (retail, office, hotel) space that now exists at National Harbor. It’s more than the total commercial space contemplated in the long-range plans for Downtown Columbia or White Flint — much less what’s already gone through zoning approvals. It’s bigger than the entire Capital One campus plan at the McLean Metro, or Under Armour’s Port Covington campus plan in Baltimore. It’s more office space than even what could be built under the Navy Yard area’s zoning. It’s twice as big as the Pentagon.

The Greater Washington office market is the country’s third biggest, after NY and Chicago (other large cities’ employment bases are more industrial). This is one of a few regions in America where developers regularly propose 1+ MSF office sites — largely hoping for giant federal leases. (Granted, cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas often give away zoning for the asking; Toyota doubled its Plano campus’ size during negotiations.)

Most local sites might have shovel-ready space for Phase 1, but not necessarily plans in place to accommodate phases 2-3-4. Only two come to mind: Tysons Corner and Crystal City-Pentagon City.

  • Tysons: 50,000 jobs is a 50% increase on Tysons Corner’s current employment, and 25% of the 2050 “buildout” number there. As far as I can tell, no one owner at Tysons can accommodate the full 8 MSF buildout, but sites could be combined at two locations:
    • McLean station: Scotts Run, next to Cap One, is the largest single project at Tysons with approvals for about 4.5 MSF of office. Another 0.5 MSF has been approved in two parcels to its southwest, and the Mitre campus can also expand.
    • Tysons Corner station: Lerner has entitlements for an additional 2.3 MSF of office south of the Galleria, Arbor Row has approvals for another 1.1 MSF to its north, and Macerich has approval for another 0.5 MSF office tower south of the station. The Galleria itself hasn’t been rezoned yet, although one idea that’s been presented adds about 1 MSF of office; there are also sites to its west (closer to Greensboro station) that would still be within walking distance.
  • Crystal and Pentagon City have seen 20,000+ federal jobs in defense and homeland security depart since BRAC; there’s over 2 MSF of vacant office available today. What’s especially notable is that most of the offices are already controlled by one very interested  landlord (JBGS). There aren’t many closer analogues anywhere in America to their partnership with Vulcan in South Lake Union: one deep-pocketed owner, one neighborhood, and a placemaking/planning framework that forecasts tremendous growth.
    • [Updated 13 March 2018] From a JBGS filing: “Our holdings alone can accommodate Amazon’s entire long-term space requirement and we have a cost advantage over our competitors given the existing in-place parking and substantial infrastructure. Crystal City has plenty of capacity to accommodate Amazon or any large user looking for a sizeable home in an urban market.”
    • Crystal City has long-term plans to renew the existing buildings and expand office space by about 5 MSF net, including active or expired plans for 0.7 MSF at the vacant 1900 Crystal and 0.65 MSF at 223 23rd St. There’s also about 1 MSF vacant today, and over 1 MSF in 2018-2019 lease expirations that could free up sites for incremental additions.
    • Pentagon City has an entitled site for 2 MSF at the shovel-ready PenPlace, and two adjacent sites are also approved for ~1 MSF of office apiece: Brookfield’s TSA/DEA block (leases are up in 2018-2019) and Kimco’s Costco site.
    • Potomac Yard has a power center to redevelop, where JBG is a partner and could build 1.9 – 5.3 MSF of office after the new Metro station opens after 2020. (There’s vacant land in Arlington, too, but it’s owned by Lidl’s headquarters.)

These sites compare favorably to other leading East Coast contenders: Schuylkill Yards or UCity Square in Philadelphia and Seaport Square in Boston are by far those cities’ largest sites, with superior access to intercity transport and higher ed, but both are approved for only ~3 MSF of office. (The Philadelphia sites are adjacent to air-rights parcels that may be available later, and for which plans have been floated, but the metro area has a considerably smaller technical talent pool.) The Boston submission ended up focusing on the Suffolk Downs racetrack, which is centrally located within the region but clear across downtown from the region’s plush suburbs and educational institutions.

The obvious sites in downtown Atlanta, like the Gulch, are still visions rather than plans, with fragmented ownership and poor infrastructure/access. It appears 2 MSF of Class A office is vacant downtown, but by far the largest and highest-profile block is Bank of America Center, a mile north — and much closer to Tech and Midtown. Too bad the Gulch isn’t on the other side of downtown.

Colossal loft conversions might fit the bill elsewhere, as with the warm shell of Chicago‘s Old Main Post Office — one of the country’s biggest buildings at 2.5M sq. ft., and so impossibly huge that its size had been the stumbling block to several previous plans. It happens to sit astride a subway line, highway, and fiber lines, and within a block are three approved plans for five new build-to-suit office towers.

It could also spread across a few six-figure spaces on the Brooklyn waterfront; although the area’s comparatively small office market isn’t promising, industrial space is relatively plentiful.

The Dallas Morning News’ old printing plant and the mostly-empty Dallas Union Station building have a combined 425,000 square feet, and happen to sit next to not just many empty lots but also an iconic sphere thing.

Which locations have a deep enough talent pool to draw from?

A large labor force, primarily technical but also executive, is another “required” factor. Crain’s Detroit points out that “Amazon’s biggest business impediment is labor”: it has over 6,000 current vacancies in Seattle, 75% of which are technical. Real estate brokerage CBRE recently published a report, based on BLS data, comparing cities’ “tech talent” (“software developers and programmers; computer support, database and systems; technology and engineering related; and computer and information system managers”).

Three of CBRE’s charts stood out to me:

  1. 50,000 Amazon employees will include tens of thousands of software engineers, yet only 10 metro areas have more than 100,000 tech employees to begin with. For context, consider Amazon’s current need for 4,500 technical employees: hiring those people in Pittsburgh today would require poaching 11% of its tech workforce, 9% in St. Louis, or 7% in Raleigh. In Toronto or New York, you’d only have to convince 2% to leave their jobs, and in the Bay Area or Washington-Baltimore it’d be less than 1.5%.
  2. A key advantage for DC, Boston, or LA is that only these three regions export CS graduates in large numbers. Seattle, Atlanta, DFW, and the Bay Area already have to import thousands of tech employees a year; since there’s only a limited pool willing to pick up and move, recruiting thousands more every year could be that much more difficult. (The RFP specifically asks about university hiring partnerships.)
  3. Regarding costs, CBRE did an interesting analysis looking at the cost of running a 500-employee technology office. DC, Boston, and Seattle all come in at about the same price; SF is about 20% more. The big winner in that table is Toronto, with its large workforce and low wages — which more than offsets the relatively high cost of real estate there.

 

The problem is inequality, not speculation

Need homes? Build homes (even the Communist youth thought so in 1946)

In 1946, even the Communist Party USA agreed that the obvious solution to a housing shortage was to build housing. Why is that controversial now?

In a recent fit of contrarian cutesiness (which I partly responded to earlier, here), Chuck Marohn wrote about out-of-control housing prices: “The simple answer is downzoning.”

That’s as dishonest an answer to the question as Tommy Lasorda, in those vintage Ultra Slim Fast commercials, saying that the secret to out-of-control weight is spaghetti-and-meatball dinners — the daily treat, rather than the three calorie-restricted, high-fiber shakes that you choke down the rest of the day.

Marohn balances his call for downzoning with a casual mention of his previous “floating height limit” idea — allowing, across all zones, somewhat bigger buildings than the norm. This would, in essence, upzone the vast majority of metropolitan American land that’s currently zoned solely for low-rise single-family residential, while lowering allowable heights in the much smaller proportion that’s subject to more-lenient commercial zoning. (Of course, in his contrarian telling, a call for raising allowable building heights for 90% of America is titled “the case for height restrictions.”)

He pins the blame for metro Portland’s housing affordability crisis — and, by extension, the broader housing-affordability crisis afflicting bicoastal Blue America — on property speculation, saying that developers are bidding up residential land prices around transit in hopes of winning rezoning to build multifamily TOD. Thus, his call for downzoning, to frighten off those vile speculators. There certainly exist a few situations where transit-oriented speculation distorts markets — I’ve written about these pretty extensively in GGWash, pointing to why “parking craters” surround Metro stations instead of 8-story high-rises.

But these are fringe situations, affecting only a few square miles across the entire country. Even when I lived in the highly desirable, transit-accessible neighborhood of Bucktown, where zoning was infamously corrupt, the upzones that the local alderman brazenly sold did not result in the dumpy single family houses being replaced with parking-light apartments, as Chuck’s hypothesis holds. In fact, the exact opposite occurred: dumpy, parking-light apartments were replaced with swanky single-family houses! In countless other areas which have been downzoned, housing prices have increased regardless of speculation.

Why? Because the price increases in Bucktown, and on Portland’s east side or Los Angeles’ west side, have little to do with transportation (Chuck’s bailiwick) — and much more to do with rising income and wealth inequality, both within and between regions, combined with a largely static land-regulation regime that hasn’t adapted. The gains accruing to the wealthiest means that the wealthy can bid up housing prices, substantially raising housing prices in high-income regions where both demand and barriers to entry are high. As I wrote earlier, this imbalance has held on for decades in some cities, particularly in coastal California, and the political dynamic that sustains it appears to be utterly implacable.

As I also wrote earlier, the economies in different regions have diverged in a way that has fed this dynamic. Economists Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh and Pierre-Olivier Weill found that “house price dispersion” between regions increased much faster than income inequality between regions (which has also been increasing): their statistical measure of the variation in house prices increased by 38 percentage points, vs. 8.6 points for wages, from 1975-2007. As their paper explains,

The increase in productivity dispersion creates flows of workers towards high-productivity metropolitan areas, driving local house prices up because of limited housing supply. Conversely, households flow out of low-productivity areas, driving local house prices down. This increases house price dispersion.

The situation has gotten even worse since the 2007 crisis, with housing prices in wealthy Census tracts increasing almost twice as fast as those in more modest areas.

Just to be sure, the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies examined metro-level data about the uneven recovery in house prices more closely and observed:

a strong case for the gap between recent changes in supply and demand exerting a strong upward pressure on house prices… the overriding importance of the imbalance between population growth and housing stock growth in explaining trends in prices…

Sure, pointing the finger at transit, multifamily, and TOD burnishes Chuck’s prickly-independent bona fides, a long tradition in Upper Midwest politics. But he’s searching only within his narrow sphere of expertise (transportation) to find the cause of problems that have much larger global causes — and which don’t lend themselves to his hyper-local bootstraps approach.

Update: Portlanders have already studied and diagnosed their problem — as in Bucktown, it’s inequality and McMansions, not multifamily zoning. Their solution is not downzoning, but rather to switch up the zoning in lower-density neighborhoods, increasing the number of units allowed while reducing FAR allowed.

How housing supply/demand imbalance remained for an entire generation

Chuck Marohn puzzled a bit over housing costs over at Strong Towns last week, writing that “You can’t sustain increasing demand while also sustaining increasing prices and increasing supply.”

Wiltberger St NW

Would you pay $700/sq. ft. for this 2-bedroom alley house? Somebody did, paying 170% above its 2006 tax value. Sure, valuation growth like that isn’t sustainable, but what about our cities is?

You can if (1) demand grows just a bit faster than supply, or if (2) incomes are growing, or if (3) slightly more income can go towards housing — and certainly so if all three occur. Indeed, all three of these dynamics have sustained housing price inflation in gateway cities over the past generation.

This inflation has been politically possible because many existing residents (and thus voters) are sheltered from the resulting affordability crisis. Only a minority of people are exposed to housing affordability; most current residents are sheltered from price increases, having purchased or rented their housing at yesterday’s market prices. It’s pretty much only in-migrants who have to pay today’s housing prices, and since they’re migrants, they don’t vote. In-migrants are also a surprisingly small share of Americans: in any given year, fewer than 3% of Americans move across state or national borders.

1. Between job growth, smaller households, and natural growth, housing demand is increasing faster than population (and construction) in many metro areas. This has been the case in California for decades; the LAO’s 2015 paper estimates that since 1980 (my entire lifetime!), California has built 100,000 fewer units every year than it should, and yet (a) demand to live in California continues, although definitely abated; (b) prices have skyrocketed; (c) construction has added some new supply.

2. Median incomes nationally have been flat for the past generation, but macroeconomic shifts have led incomes in the richest gateway cities to soar (also see this Economist briefing). This is especially true at the top of the distribution, due to rising overall inequality. The minority of households that are exposed to high prices may very well be able to afford those prices in these cities, explain Gyourko, Mayer, and Sinai in their paper on ‘superstar cities’: “Recent movers into superstar cities are more likely to have high incomes and less likely to be poor, than recent movers into other cities… In short, residence in superstar cities and towns has become a luxury good. The cities’ increases in housing price appear to outstrip known productivity increases and the value of any additional amenities.”

Since only a small proportion of housing units trade hands each year (only 1-2% of households move into brand-new housing in any given year), “superstar cities” with rising incomes at the top and relatively few houses available see “new money” outbidding others for those few units, pulling prices up. Because house prices are based on comps, prices for other houses also rise. As Matlack and Vigdor write, “In tight housing markets, the poor do worse when the rich get richer.”

I know this seems insane, but income inequality has gotten so far out of hand that in many cities super-luxury housing is under-supplied, with tremendous consequences all the way down the housing ladder. There are over a thousand Bay Area households with million-dollar bank accounts for every single house that came on the market last year in Atherton, the choicest of Bay Area towns. Hence, house prices in Atherton have doubled in four years.*

3. Metro economies have evolved in lots of small ways to cope with higher housing prices at the margin. At first glance, “the poor will always be with us,” but in reality metro areas differ very substantially in terms of their economic makeup. Having moved from low-cost Chicago to high-cost DC, I’ve noticed that this slowly-accumulating, giant gift to high-cost-regions’ landlords has been cobbled together by squeezing a few dollars here and there from other sectors:
– Higher labor costs: the minimum wage here is about 15% higher, and high-labor-input services (like haircuts) cost substantially more here, because the staff earn more.
– A shift towards higher-wage work and reduced labor inputs (see #2 above). There are, of course, lots of well-paid jobs in DC; nearly half of households here earn over $100K. Many dual-income “power couples” who have no problem with the local cost of living. But there are surprisingly few on-site support staff for them, and instead there’s often off-site help. Even in labor-intensive industries like restaurants, on-site prep work can be minimized by relying on commissaries and distributors based in cheaper cities. (You can forget about Jacobsean “import substitution.”) Anecdotally, I’ve heard that employers are willing to make do with thinner staffing here than elsewhere.
– People work more; DC’s female labor force participation rate is 15% higher than Chicago’s.
– Housing itself can’t be substituted (everyone needs somewhere to live), but houses can be. People downgrade their locations or living standards, living in smaller or lower-quality housing units in less desirable neighborhoods than they otherwise would. They also “pay” for housing with long commutes, often from what are technically other metro areas.
– People borrow more. DC has more mortgages and higher student-loan bills than any other metro.
– People spend more on housing, and less on other goods and services. Brookings’ Natalie Holmes notes that the 20th-percentile unit in DC costs 48% of a 20th-percentile income, vs. 38% for a 20th-percentile individual in Denver.

That these coping mechanisms exist by no means implies that high prices are benign. From a local economic development standpoint, high housing prices don’t just deter potential employers, but also vacuum up dollars that could be more useful elsewhere in the local economy. Rent checks, unlike haircuts or restaurant meals, don’t have big job multipliers. As a Global Cities Business Alliance report puts it:

Citizens are spending money on accommodation that they would readily divert to goods and services if their housing costs were lower… the money ‘trapped’ in the housing market runs to billions… Unleashing this spending would in turn boost business revenues and create more jobs. Assuming that businesses were to channel all additional revenue into employment, we estimate that Beijing could generate more than 400,000 new jobs, Mexico City more than 200,000, São Paulo more than 143,000, and Hong Kong nearly 148,000.

* Chuck’s follow-up post posits that property owners are speculating on upzoning. This line of reasoning is beloved by so-called “SF progressives,” who relish pinning the blame for everything upon evil, greedy developers and the obnoxious “kids these days” who inevitably fill their apartments. Yet this densification/speculation theory cannot explain the skyrocketing housing prices that are at the very epicenter of America’s metro affordable housing crisis — in places that have zero multifamily growth and zero transit investment, but LOTS of high-wage jobs, like Atherton, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, or Chevy Chase in Maryland, or the Hamptons. Atherton is the most extreme example: the town banned all multifamily housing and sued to stop transit, and yet house prices have doubled in four years.

Perhaps, instead of transit-oriented speculation, exclusionary, single-family-only snob zoning has left supply and demand imbalanced. Believe it or not, the demand for $3M houses in Atherton vastly exceeds the supply of $3M houses, so the $3M houses have been bid up to become $6M houses. I know this seems insane, but there are over a thousand Bay Area households with million-dollar bank accounts for every single Atherton house that came on the market last year.

There are also many fashionable urban neighborhoods where housing prices have spiraled even while housing unit density is declining: the demand for mansions is so high that humble apartment buildings get demolished for glamorous single-family houses. (Once again, life imitates the Onion.) This was even the case in my onetime home of Bucktown in Chicago, where the ward boss infamously handed out spot rezonings upon “request”; in theory, these could have been used to add units, but in practice the McMansions just got fatter.

Some guesses as to implications of autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles, driverless cars: ask two people what they think, and it seems like you’ll get three opinions. Here are my reactions to four recent publications on the topic — keeping in mind that previous reports of distance’s death were an exaggeration. (As CBRE’s Revathi Greenwood notes, vehicle speeds won’t change, and so Marchetti’s Wall still remains. Even if the drudgework of driving is taken away, travel time still has a cost, and we’d rather be at our destinations already — e.g., “are we there yet?”)

WSJ (columnist Christopher Mims):

  • AVs will be limited to small areas for the foreseeable future. “We’re likely to see vehicles that don’t require drivers but can only operate on a fixed, well-mapped route in cities with fair weather… the consensus of those I interviewed is that it will be many years before we get cars that can truly go anywhere.”
  • Existing trials (Singapore, Pittsburgh, Babcock Ranch), which are limited to relatively small, intensively researched areas that are frequently remapped. Level 2/3 autonomy will remain limited to expressways, which have a protected ROW.
  • Echoes some of Recode’s timeline (perhaps similar sources were interviewed).
  • Takeaway: Autonomous shuttles will appear within campuses, urban districts, and planned communities, initially as “walk extenders.” “Robot valets” will enable more remote parking and reduced parking footprints. Freeway driving may shift to autonomy, but uptake is limited by consumer acceptance (see next).

Kelley Blue Book consumer survey:

  • Americans are still broadly uncomfortable with the idea of Level 5 autonomy.
  • Level 4 autonomy is most popular with current US consumers, who still want to be able to take the wheel. Level 3 seems less comfortable than Level 2.
  • However, key early-adopter groups feel more comfortable with complete autonomy: luxury car buyers, consumers with experience with Level 2 AVs, and people used to the backseat: ride-hailing customers and teenagers.
  • Takeaway: The transition to AVs is dependent upon social acceptance, and currently many Americans want to maintain the status quo. The transition might take a while (more Americans will have to try AVs), but may be steep once it happens.

Rocky Mountain Institute forecast:

  • Mobility services in major US metros are a potential $120 billion annual market by 2025, including $60 billion just in large Sunbelt metros.
  • Because AV and EV technologies reduce operating costs and increase capital costs, they will find broad acceptance in high-utilization fleets first, where their low costs will subvert the individual-car-ownership paradigm. (2017’s EVs will be cheaper for fleets than gas cars.)
  • AVs will cut the cost of rides by 60% to be cost-competitive with car ownership by 2018, with another 60% decline in costs as economies of scale are realized. The switch from personal cars to AV fleets will occur between 2020-2025, with long-term demand for cars falling to ~6 million.
  • Lower mobility costs will result in a $1 trillion annual consumer surplus to be spent on other sectors. (Keep in mind that spending on autos has a low multiplier effect.)
  • Even if VMT doubles and more power plants are built, these two technologies will result in sharply lower CO2 emissions (nearly -1 GT CO2E by 2040 = ~13% cut in today’s emissions).
  • Takeaway: Parking demand may sharply decline, but what parking is left will need significant EV infrastructure. Loading/valet zones will quickly need to be implemented. Consumer spending on cars could be pivoted to other spending, like higher-quality real estate.

City Observatory (Joe Cortright) [part 1] [part 2]:

  • RMI’s cost estimates of <$0.50/mile are roughly in line with other published estimates, with lower costs associated with smaller/lighter vehicles. This is lower than the per-mile cost of not just driving, but even short transit trips.
  • However, $0.50/mile is much higher than the perceived $0.15-$0.20/mile marginal cost that most Americans assume for private-auto trips. (Most Americans only consider the cost of gas when driving; costs such as depreciation/wear, insurance, repairs, monthly parking, and wasted time are all considered sunk.)
  • “Pay by the slice” mobility, like car-sharing, tends to encourage shorter trips. Pricing will probably be more, not less complex, with various “surge” surcharges that use information to optimize the balance between travel demand and supply.
  • Rush-hour capacity will still be an issue, especially in high-density downtowns. Rail transit, walking, and cycling will still move more people in less space.
  • Takeaway: Mobility won’t be “too cheap to meter,” as optimists once said of nuclear electricity. As such, central locations will still matter, even if price differentials flatten somewhat. (TNCs are already “filling in the lines” between transit corridors and increasing the value of secondary urban locations.) Whether dense downtowns built around rail/walking remain useful is an open question.

What everyone agrees upon is that this is the first huge shift in metropolitan mobility since the 1940s-1980s shift towards mass car ownership. It’s important to remember that American suburbia is a political and social construct, not a fact of life, and that policies put into place immense structural supports for American suburbs.