Wrapping up Superstar Cities week: solutionsSo, recapping the first two posts:
- "Superstar cities" have high housing demand and limited supply, leading to high housing prices and ultimately driving out the middle class and some of the poor, leaving a bipolar community of wealthy and poor.
- Employers needing middle class employees leave, creating a gap in the opportunity ladder for the poor trying to move up. This creates growing frustration for the poor and guilt for the wealthy, leading to more welfare state politics and policies.
- A better label would be closed, restricted, limited, or constrained cities to better reflect the mixed bag this status brings, rather than the excessively positive connotations of "superstar".
Another approach is to allow higher density developments inside the city. Mixing these developments with some sort of transit infrastructure helps minimize the traffic impacts (thus the new trend towards transit-oriented development). Neighborhood NIMBYs are a big problem blocking density. This implies too much land use power resides at the local level. Higher level entities - metro, region, state, or federal - have to recognize this problem and create counter-balancing forces/processes/authorities. To give a Houston example, the very important Bayport expansion would never have happened if only residents of Seabrook voted on it, but since it was a Harris County voter referendum, it passed, bringing substantial benefits to the region.
Houston has a pretty unique approach to the NIMBY problem: no zoning, but with voluntary deed restrictions. This gives NIMBYs few paths to block new dense development. Thus our recent townhome boom, plus an abundance of apartments and high-rise condos. This flexibility allows a small old house on a valuable piece of land to get replaced by a few affordable townhomes rather than a single $600K+ McMansion as is (economically) required in zoned/controlled cities like Bellaire and West University. Voila, housing supply keeps in balance with demand.
Other cities are unlikely to eliminate zoning completely, but they might get some of the benefits by aggressively designating free market zones that would be allowed to densify with little permitting or NIMBY interference. Anaheim did exactly this with its downtown, and the results have been impressive. The density answer is not so effective with middle class families (who generally prefer the detached-home suburbs), but can be an effective housing answer for all sorts of other middle class households: young singles or couples as well as empty nesters.
Some cities have tried "inclusionary zoning" to force developers to include affordable housing in their developments. Most studies show this backfires by dramatically reducing overall housing production, while making the new units that are built even more costly. The reality is that every new market-rate unit allows somebody in an older/smaller/lesser home to upgrade, and then somebody can upgrade into their space, and so on - a domino effect that ultimately creates more affordable housing at the bottom. This implies it's probably better to just let the free market work and encourage as much market-rate housing production as possible.
Those are my best suggestions for solutions. Other options welcomed in the comments. To sum up, the United States has worked pretty hard at remaining a nation of opportunity and advancement while avoiding the social welfare-state model of Europe. It would be sad if this were undermined, not by bad federal or state policies, but by local anti-growth decisions made by an increasing number of major cities (even neighborhoods), all seeming to make sense in their local context, but slowly creating a social mobility crisis of national proportions. Truly it would be a "death by a thousand cuts."