Two Dilemmas Urbanists and Housing Advocates have to Face March 6, 2018

First, we often have two inconsistent objectives.  The first is good housing for all and ownership for many. The second is that home ownership should be a ‘wealth builder’ for those who achieve it.  You can’t have it both ways.  What makes home ownership a ‘wealth builder’ is a relative scarcity of land for housing.  Housing is expensive now because it is not abundant.  And I will concede to the single-family home advocates that we need ‘both-and’.  We need densification in a lot of spots, and we also need to eliminate most ‘growth boundaries’ [though certain special landscapes should be preserved].  There are a lot of good reasons why people aspire to home ownership other than it being a ‘wealth builder’.  Owning cars isn’t a wealth builder. They become used cars.  Houses become used houses.  It is the value of the scarce land that makes a house a ‘wealth builder’, not the house itself.  And, it could be argued that the millennial generation is having trouble finding houses it can afford precisely because it was such a ‘wealth builder’ for my boomer generation.

Second, we worry about housing affordability near where good jobs are.  And people ‘drive till they qualify’. The other side of the coin is where the good jobs are.  They are not moving out to the perimeter as much as they used to.  Vast numbers of high-end jobs relocated to Newport Beach, Irvine, and Costa Mesa in the period 1967-77.  They are not moving to Lancaster, Victorville, and Moreno Valley with the same enthusiasm.  Perhaps there has always been what Christopher Leinberger and others have called the ‘favored quarter’.  This means that high-end growth and good jobs move out of the city and to the suburbs in one particular direction, not in all directions.  The other directions still have long commutes.  Eventually, the location of jobs imposes a ‘growth boundary’ of its own, a two-hour drive one way perhaps [and as traffic gets heavy, that ‘boundary’ actually moves inward!], and only the retired and unemployed can move out any farther.  This also needs to be taken into account when we talk about ‘urban growth’ and ‘urban sprawl’.

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