Red vs. Blue State Real EstateVirginia Postrel has an excellent new article in The Atlantic Monthly on how regulation spikes up housing costs and affects the red-blue state divide (her blog has some excerpts if the free link has expired). It starts as a story of two different townhomes she's owned, one in LA and one in Dallas, and how much more the LA one appreciated vs. the Dallas one. It then has this great chart of the cost premium for land-use regulation in various cities. Houston's not on it, but you can safely assume it's somewhere below Dallas at the bottom.Moving on to the excerpts, even though Dallas does have zoning and Houston does not, you could replace "Dallas" with "Houston" throughout the article and still be accurate.
As far as her characterization of superstar cities like LA - "stimulating public activities, arts venues, world-class universities, luxury shopping, restaurants that aren’t kid-friendly" - I'd actually say we score a lot better on these measures than we're given credit for. But the perception still exists in these "superstar" cities that moving to someplace like Houston would be a cultural wasteland on par with the way we think about, say, Amarillo. Sigh. I suppose in one way those outdated perceptions are a good thing: if the secret got out, we'd get mobbed by enough blue-state cost-of-living refugees to require a few dozen post-Katrina Astrodomes...
Dallas and Los Angeles represent two distinct models for successful American cities, which both reflect and reinforce different cultural and political attitudes. One model fosters a family-oriented, middle-class lifestyle—the proverbial home-centered “balanced life.” The other rewards highly productive, work-driven people with a yen for stimulating public activities, for arts venues, world-class universities, luxury shopping, restaurants that aren’t kid-friendly. One makes room for a wide range of incomes, offering most working people a comfortable life. The other, over time, becomes an enclave for the rich. Since day-to-day experience shapes people’s sense of what is typical and normal, these differences in turn lead to contrasting perceptions of economic and social reality. It’s easy to believe the middle class is vanishing when you live in Los Angeles, much harder in Dallas. These differences also reinforce different norms and values—different ideas of what it means to live a good life. Real estate may be as important as religion in explaining the infamous gap between red and blue states.
The Dallas model, prominent in the South and Southwest, sees a growing population as a sign of urban health. Cities liberally permit housing construction to accommodate new residents. The Los Angeles model, common on the West Coast and in the Northeast Corridor, discourages growth by limiting new housing. Instead of inviting newcomers, this approach rewards longtime residents with big capital gains and the political clout to block projects they don’t like.
The direct results of these strategies are predictable: cheap, plentiful housing in some places, and expensive, scarce housing in others. A remodeler working on my L.A. town house a couple of years ago wistfully recalled visiting a cousin in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth. He wanted to move there himself. In Arlington, he said, “you can buy a million-dollar house for $200,000.” According to Coldwell Banker’s annual survey, a 2,200-square-foot, four-bedroom “middle-management” home costs around $141,000 in Arlington (or, for big spenders, $288,000 in Dallas), compared with $1 million or more in the L.A. area. One man’s million-dollar dream home is another’s plain old tract house.
Many people do pack up and move, if not to Arlington, then to Las Vegas or Charlotte. Historically a magnet for educated migrants, California has begun losing college-educated residents, on net, to other states, in large part because of the high cost of housing. Most of the South’s population growth since the 1980s has come from the lure of cheap housing created by liberal permitting policies, according to new research by the Harvard economists Edward Glaeser and Kristina Tobio. By lowering the cost of housing, these policies give residents higher real incomes compared with similarly paid workers elsewhere—a strong incentive to move, even if you don’t like bugs or hot summers. The mobile middle class gravitates to the cities where housing is affordable. “If you’re your basic $85,000-a-year person, you can’t own in Los Angeles. You can’t do it,” says the Wharton School economist Joseph Gyourko. And if you’re your basic $45,000-a-year person, closer to the U.S. median household income, you’d better pack for Texas.
But high-price areas could put many more units on the land they have. Research by Gyourko, Glaeser, and Raven Saks found that the lowest-density areas around expensive cities tend to have the least new construction and the most land-use restrictions.
The right to build was nearly a quarter million dollars less (in Dallas) than in L.A. Hence the huge difference in housing prices. Land is indeed more expensive in superstar cities. But getting permission to build is way, way more expensive. These cities, says Gyourko, “just control the heck out of land use.”
The unintended consequence of these land-use policies is that Americans are sorting themselves geographically by income and lifestyle—not across neighborhoods, as they used to, but across regions. People are more likely to live surrounded by others like themselves, creating a more-polarized cultural map. In the superstar cities, where opinion leaders congregate, the perception is growing that the country no longer has a place for middle-class life. Yet the same urban sophisticates who fret that you can’t live decently on less than $100,000 a year often argue vociferously that increasing density will degrade their quality of life. They may be right—but, like any other luxury good, that quality commands a high price.
Update: Postrel follows up with more on her blog.