Thursday, March 24, 2005

High housing costs driving out young families

The NY Times has an article today on one of the negative side-effects of out-of-control housing costs: the loss of young families. The article has a lot of good points, and as much as I tried to pare them down, the remaining excerpts are still extensive (sorry):

Portland is one of the nation's top draws for the kind of educated, self-starting urbanites that midsize cities are competing to attract. But as these cities are remodeled to match the tastes of people living well in neighborhoods that were nearly abandoned a generation ago, they are struggling to hold on to enough children to keep schools running and parks alive with young voices.

San Francisco, where the median house price is now about $700,000, had the lowest percentage of people under 18 of any large city in the nation, 14.5 percent, compared with 25.7 percent nationwide, the 2000 census reported. Seattle, where there are more dogs than children, was a close second. Boston, Honolulu, Portland, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin and Atlanta, all considered, healthy, vibrant urban areas, were not far behind. The problem is not just that American women are having fewer children, reflected in the lowest birth rate ever recorded in the country.

Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize a city - dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops and mass transit that makes a car unnecessary - are driving out children by making the neighborhoods too expensive for young families.

Other cities have tried and failed to curb family flight... "We can't let Portland become a retirement city or a city without neighborhood schools," [the mayor] said.
The problem is not that children are leaving for private schools, officials said. It is that new people attracted to the city tend to have higher incomes, having already raised a family; are retiring; or are single and unlikely to have children. After interviewing 300 parents who had left the city, researchers at Portland State found that high housing costs and a desire for space were the top reasons.
The pool of school-age children is shrinking so fast that Portland will have to close the equivalent of three or four elementary schools a year over the next decade, according to school district projections.

"I don't think we're going to become a nearly childless city like San Francisco, but the age structure is really changing," said Barry Edmonston, an urban studies professor at Portland State, who does demographic projections for the school district. "People are not turning over the houses like they used to. They're aging in place, at the same time that prices are really going up, making it hard for young families to move into the city."
Mr. Longman said a decline in children not only takes away "human capital" needed to sustain an aging population, but "having fewer children really diminishes the quality of life in a city."

Most city leaders seem to agree. Even in San Francisco, where officials are preparing for another round of school closings amid a projected decline of 4,000 students in the next five years, city officials are aggressively marketing the city and its schools to young families.

But what they cannot do, especially after the failure last year of a ballot measure sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce to encourage affordable housing, is bring housing prices down.

"It's a real challenge trying to raise a kid in San Francisco," said Jim Armstrong, a father of two who is active in Little League in the city and rents a home. "It takes a degree of fortitude for a parent to stay with the city."
But now the school will be shuttered, and improvements from Portland's beloved light rail line have contributed to rising real estate prices, defeating the broad goals of the mayor's effort to bring and keep young families in the city.

"Portland is a great city that attracts a lot of educated people," she said. "But the real estate is becoming outrageously expensive. And then you get wealthy singles and wealthy retirees. What's missing are kids. And that feels really sterile to me."

Virginia Postrel also has a few insightful comments here and here.

Lessons for Houston? Well, the lesson is not that we shouldn't develop these types of urban neighborhoods. People want them, and we should try to offer them as long as there is demand. One lesson is that trying to force an urban density/transit model on an entire region - using tools like urban boundaries - is a bad idea. Young families need an affordable, suburban periphery that grows with demand to keep prices affordable.

The next piece is high mobility investments into the core. Those young families have to be able to reasonably get to the central employers (i.e. within about a half hour, on average, whatever the mobility mode). Family-focused 30, 40, and 50-somethings are the core employee base of most companies. If they can't get into town, the employers will eventually move out to them.

Without aggressive freeway and other mobility investments into the core, it's easy to end up with a 3-ring city: residential urban core, middle ring of employers (usually along a beltway/loop freeway), and an outer ring of suburban families. It's almost impossible for transit to effectively serve those kinds of dispersed employer centers, which leaves the urban core people with reverse commutes by car, kind of making all the spiffy transit investments moot and hurting the attractiveness of those urban core neighborhoods.

The SF Bay Area, Seattle, LA, DC, Philly, Atlanta, and Dallas are all examples of cities struggling with this dispersed employer problem to some extent. In many cases, there has been underinvestment in freeways and overconfidence in commuter tolerance for long transit times (once all connections, waiting, and walking is taken into account). Studies have shown that, thoroughout history, regardless of mobility mode, a half-hour each way is the average commute tolerance - and people always try to get housing within that time-range of their employer. It's a bell curve, of course, so there are plenty of people who do 45 minute, 1 hour, or even higher one-way commutes. But if too many of their employees get put in that position, employers will generally move if they have the choice.

In general, I'm pretty optimistic about Houston on this score. Our housing costs are some of the lowest in the country (among big cities). We're developing the core transit and dense urban neighborhoods, but we're also making big-time freeway investments, including new toll roads, so suburban families can get in to the employers. And as long as we really take into account the half-hour commute rule, I think our transit investments will be reasonable.


At 12:19 PM, May 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surprising. I just need to know the average cost of a house in Houston. So far, no help.

At 1:17 PM, May 24, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...



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