We Don't Have to Give In to Sprawl

(Bloomberg View) -- It's been a great couple of decades for America's cities. Crime is down, real estate values are up relative to the suburbs, schools are improving, job growth is strong. Iconic companies are moving their headquarters from office parks to downtown. Long-held anti-urban attitudes have given way at least partially to a realization that walkable, transit-rich cities are healthier, more environmentally sound places to live than sprawling, car-dependent suburbs. Economists such as Enrico Moretti at the University of California at Berkeley have also documented how a few big cities with high concentrations of talent have become hugely productive innovative factories that drive the nation's economy.

But where are Americans actually moving? Still mainly to sprawling, car-dependent suburbs and exurbs.

Some argue that this is because Americans prefer sprawl. Many Americans do, I'm sure. But many don't -- the breakdown is about 50-50, if you can believe what people tell pollsters.

A more convincing argument is that Americans are still moving to sprawl mainly because sprawl is affordable. On Wednesday, Issi Romem, chief economist at the San Francisco-based online construction marketplace BuildZoom and a former student of Moretti's, backed this up with an important new study.

Almost 90 percent of the new housing built in the U.S. since 1950 has been in low-density areas, he found. Metropolitan areas that sprawl produce lots of new housing. Those with political and/or physical barriers to sprawl don't. Writes Romem:

Of course cities should favor densification over the ills of sprawl. But if the past is any guide to the future, failing to expand cities will come at a cost. Cities that have curbed their expansion have -- with limited exception -- failed to compensate with densification.

If we are to keep building enough housing for a growing country, then, we seem to be basically stuck with letting it be done in metropolitan Las Vegas, Raleigh, Austin and Atlanta (the four major metro areas where sprawl is proceeding at the fastest pace), and similar "expansive cities" (Romem's term). Because it sure isn't happening in San Francisco (the archetype of what Romem calls an "expensive city").

I did my own mini-study on this today. Here are housing starts from 2013 through 2015 in the four biggest metropolitan areas of sprawl-friendly Texas:

We Don't Have to Give In to Sprawl

Those four metros have a combined population of 18.1 million. The four biggest metropolitan areas of coastal California have even more people, 23.2 million, and both California and Texas have seen lots of job growth in recent years. But here's that same chart with the numbers from California's coastal big four:

We Don't Have to Give In to Sprawl

Not so big, eh? Turns out it's hard to get new housing built in already-built-up coastal communities full of anti-growth activists in a state that makes it really easy to block to new development. Which is Romem's point.

His study has already gotten a lot of attention. Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post covered it. Urban scholar Richard Florida weighed in on it. After I read the report, and the coverage, I sent Romem a message last night asking if he had a "non-fatalistic takeaway." After putting his kids to bed, he responded with a bullet-pointed mini-essay. These seemed to be the two most important points (I left out a couple in between):

  • Fundamental land use reform that permits sufficient densification to move the needle on affordability may seem unrealistic today, but so did mandatory healthcare as little as 8 years ago. The White House is in favor of land use reform. The nascent YIMBY movement is a novelty, but is gaining traction. See e.g. the first ever YIMBY conference. Between top down and bottom up efforts, perhaps fundamental reform isn’t as far-fetched as we think?
  • Is sprawl so bad? Many of the arguments against sprawl boil down to taste, e.g. sprawl lacks character. A key set of arguments that aren’t a matter of taste involve the environment, but…
    • Greater carbon footprint? Will the carbon footprint still be such a concern if cars are electric, and more and more electricity comes from renewable sources like solar power?
    • Rural land lost to sprawl? The US is still a mostly empty country, even today.
    • More obesity when people walk less? Yep, this is true.

Yimby stands for "yes in my backyard," in case you were wondering. And yes, it is a movement worth encouraging. Even if it can't do much to increase the nation's housing supply, it may at least help save the souls of cities such as San Francisco and New York. It is the Nimbys who usually make the claim that they are preserving the character of their neighborhoods and cities, but preventing development just as often destroys that character by turning in-demand areas into hyper-expensive museums.

As for Romem's suggestion that maybe sprawl isn't so bad, or won't be once we all drive solar-powered cars, yeah, maybe. But half of Americans don't want to live that way! A more encouraging lesson can be found in his animated maps of metropolitan area growth since 1950, which show even the sprawliest areas getting denser and denser near their cores. Not surprisingly, the Texas housing starts depicted above skew much more toward single-family homes than the California ones (59 percent versus 29 percent). But the four Texas metros still had more multi-family units permitted from 2013 through 2015 than the four California ones did (164,625 to 120,779). As I learned when I spent a week in Houston this year, the same pro-development attitudes that encourage sprawl also make it easier to get dense, fill-in development approved.

Finally, there are the metropolitan areas that Romem terms "legacy cities" -- places that have old, dense cores but not many people clamoring to live in them. You know: Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis, even Pittsburgh. Yes, these places have disappointed boosters again and again in the past. But they're all still alive, kicking and full of beautiful old buildings. The expansive cities are almost all in the South and Southwest, and could be hard hit by climate change. Maybe by 2100, when Dallas is projected to have 98 100-degree-plus days a year and Phoenix 163, the legacy cities will all be full again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net.