Overrated and underrated cities

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 18.07.47

 

Which cities did I expect to enjoy visiting, and which ones did I enjoy in reality? Here’s a 111%, completely, utterly, totally subjective look at 57 cities in North America, reduced to a scatterplot. Since the data labels might overlap, a link to the full spreadsheet is here.

Overall, I found that about 75% of cities are about as hyped as they deserve, with the hype being informed mostly by overall population and media buzz. This makes the outliers all the more interesting. The most overrated cities:

  • Austin
  • Miami (tie)
  • Cleveland (tie)
  • Boulder (tie)
  • San Francisco (tie)

Yes, Cleveland (4,2) tied San Francisco (9,7).

Surprisingly, I’ve found more cities are underrated, probably because I had an exceptionally fine experience:

  • Philadelphia
  • Madison
  • Asheville
  • Ottawa
  • Minneapolis
  • Richmond
  • Newark
  • Buffalo
  • Providence

As always, YMMV. Based on visits mostly within the past decade.

Advertisements

Recently: winning the war on sprawl, over-preservation, office to residential, shared streets, tax bill

I’ve recently published several articles over at GGWash.

  • Sprawl is slowing, but that doesn’t have to mean higher housing prices.” The downtown high-rises under construction only tell half the story of Greater Washington’s housing growth story. While all those cranes are easy to see from afar, what isn’t immediately apparent from the airport (but might be from a plane) is that many fewer acres of the countryside around us are being bulldozed for subdivisions–which for the past century has been where most lower-cost, low-rise housing was built. As a result, the region as a whole isn’t building enough housing for our rising population… Not only is supply overall not keeping pace with demand, but a large fraction of the new supply is in the housing market’s priciest segment: expensive high-rise construction, on expensive downtown land.
  • DC has more historic buildings than Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined. Why?” Nearly one in five properties in DC are protected by local historic designation laws. DC is so prolific at handing out historic designations that we have more historic properties than the cities of Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined, which together have almost eight times as many properties as DC. While this policy has ensured harmonious architecture across much of central Washington, it also means that Washingtonians are much more likely than residents of other cities to have their construction plans delayed or denied on subjective grounds by a historic review board.
  • Historic preservation in DC saves the loudest neighbors, not the finest buildings.” DC’s surfeit of historic structures results from several factors, notably the broad application of rather vague criteria for designation. As Roger Lewis has written, “the HPRB decision is inevitably a judgment call because much of the evidence for historic designation is inherently subjective.” Since every resident “squeaky wheel” is invited to request historic designation for just about any site in the District, many do — and overwhelmingly, they succeed.
  • DC’s countless thirtysomething office buildings stare down mid-life crises.” No other region can match Greater Washington’s density of 1980s and 1990s office buildings — we built over a million cubicles’ worth, almost as many as in the much-larger New York and Los Angeles regions. Now, these buildings are facing mid-life crises; many require substantial additional investment, as key building systems (like air-conditioning, plumbing, elevators, and roofs) require overhaul or replacement, just as the office market has changed.
  • Not every obsolete office building is cut out to become apartments.” Some, but not all, of these old offices can become residences, depending on their location, price, and layout. Despite considerable media coverage, office conversion has been comparatively limited in greater Washington for a variety of reasons, including a relatively healthier office market and a lack of specific incentives for the practice. Residential conversion offers some promise, but will not be a panacea for either the over-supply of offices, or the under-supply of affordable homes, because not every obsolete office building can be converted to housing.
  • Metro needs a loop to lasso riders from this growing corner of DC.” The way the District is growing is creating another rail bottleneck on the other side of town that will have to be addressed in the future. The Capitol Riverfront is easily the fastest-growing part of DC right now, and by some accounts one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in America. If all 11,978 new housing units proposed within the Capitol Riverfront get built, the area around Navy Yard station would have the largest household population of any Metro station. Metro’s ridership forecasts, which now factor in development proposals, foresee that the area’s rapid growth might require additional investments, like a new subway line.
  • How are the Wharf’s shared spaces working out?” When the Wharf opened last month, it instantly became the largest expanse of “shared space” streets in the country. Over the past few weeks, it seems like these streets are largely working as they were designed. Even though a few of our commenters were skeptical about whether the approach would work here, so far there haven’t been any major complaints or adjustments needed.
  • The GOP tax plan would make housing and infrastructure more expensive.” Eliminating Private Activity Bonds and New Markets Tax Credits, as the House GOP’s tax code overhaul proposes, would have deep ramifications for funding infrastructure and affordable homes in the region.
  • The latest Republican tax bill changes commuter benefits, but probably not yours.” Tax law will only indirectly affect most area commuters.
  • Added 26 January: “A bold California bill would ease transit oriented development. How would a similar approach affect DC?” A bill recently introduced into the California legislature boldly proposes that every transit corridor in the state be rezoned to permit mid-rise apartments. In Slate, Henry Grabar writes that it’s “just about the most radical attack on California’s [housing] affordability crisis you could imagine.” In the Boston Globe, Dante Ramos writes “the bill may be the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

 

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:

 

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.

Globalization and the truthiness sweatshops

A few years ago, American authors like Winnie Wong and Peter Hessler stumbled across a curious phenomenon: Chinese towns that applied the mindless logic of mass production, backed by China’s unparalleled ability to conjure up entire industrial-scale supply chains from thin air, to an improbable export — schlocky oil paintings, often stroke-for-stroke knock-offs of museum treasures. These towns aren’t the colorful and carefree artists’ colonies of our imaginations (such places have largely been gentrified or touristed into oblivion); instead, they’re still dreary factory towns, complete with migrant peasants being worked to the hilt. Wong profiled the village of Dafen, one of the chengzhongcun (urban villages) embedded within the sprawl of metro Shenzhen. There are certainly fascinating original artists working within China, and zero-talent hacks passing off “art” in the West, but frankly I’m not sure what to make of mass-produced creativity.

It’s a through-the-looking-glass version of the idea that cities can structure their growth around cool “creative class” agglomeration economies that turn out stylish, disruptive innovations. Of course, that assumes that customers want tasteful products — a point Barnum disproved.

Now comes word that painting isn’t the only labor-intensive “creative” industry that’s ripe for export, provided the aesthetic qualities get dumbed down along the way. It turns out that the clickbait that passes for social-media “news” has also been dumbed down to the point where it can also thrive inside a sweatshop, rather than a fancy newsroom. For instance, Macedonian child-labor sweatshops churn out truthy clickbait, according to a report from Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander in Buzzfeed. A few countries to the east in Russia, a cottage industry of basement-dwelling trolls (backed by an army of bot brethren) intentionally lobs multilingual insults around the globe to sow discord and upset democratic consensus.

Globalization didn’t just flood the world’s markets with cheap (and poorly made) toys, clothes, and electronics. Now it’s flooding the world’s markets with cheap (and poorly made) content, as well.

Idle speculation: Where could Uniqlo fit downtown?

Since the earlier edition of Idle Speculation was so popular, here’s another.

The area’s first Uniqlo will open today at Tysons Corner Center. Even though it’s throttled back its expansion plans in the USA, the Japanese apparel retailer says “it will continue to shutter unprofitable stores located in suburban malls and focus on opening more flagship stores in urban centres.” So now that they’re in this market, where could an urban flagship land?

Uniqlo Army

SF Union Square, by Todd Lappin via Flickr

First, how large would the store be? The flagship on Chestnut Street in Center City Philadelphia has 29,000 square feet, mostly on the lower level. By comparison, the Denver Pavilions store (also opening this week) is only 17,000 square feet on two levels. Finding a space that large within downtown DC is tough, especially given that many of the office buildings there were built with office tenants, not retailers, in mind.

However, two storefront museums have or soon will vacate their spaces in tourist-rich area around Gallery Place. How do these stack up?

The more prominent location is the Spy Museum site at 800 F St NW, owned by Douglas Properties. 27,231 square feet will be available, directly opposite the Portrait Gallery and with a prime F Street address (down the street from J. Crew, Anthropologie, Zara, Ann Taylor, H&M, Banana Republic, and others), once the new spy museum opens in late 2018. However, the Spy Museum space has several strikes against it. Not only is it not possible to open a store until 2019, given construction timelines, but the interior was assembled from several rowhouses and thus has many partitions and level changes. While these are easily hid with a museum buildout, they’d result in a costly and complex renovation for a larger-format retailer who wants to keep sight lines more open. The leasing flyer seems to indicate that Douglas agrees, and would rather lease the space as four spaces ranging from 1,871 to 11,401 square feet.

Slightly less prominent, but perhaps more likely, is Terrell Place, the former Hecht’s department store at 7th and F (with Rosa Mexicano at the corner). The space vacated by the Crime Museum is now available, with up to 8,762 square feet available at street level on 7th St. What’s more important is that there’s at least 11,482 square feet available in the basement — potentially expandable to 52,751 square feet by shifting other stuff around the basement.

Which raises another possibility: there might be other office buildings in the area where vacant or underutilized basements or second floors could be added to small ground-floor spaces to yield 20,000 square feet. It used to be that landlords made all the money on offices, and only retailers selling steaks, sandwiches, sundries, or savings accounts were brought in to serve the worker bees. Now, downtown finally has the foot traffic to support real retail, and the supply is beginning to catch up.

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.