Nobody Wants to Live There, It’s Too Expensive

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This “American Dream Coalition” post highlights an oft-expressed but paradoxical thought:

Sorry, Professor, but we will get over the high prices of energy, or we will adapt to them. But suburbs will not die, for this is where middle income families go to pursue the American Dream – a home with a backyard and nearby ball fields, places of worship, and other amenities. There’s less crime in the suburbs, less congestion, less polution, less . . . er, disease. And suburbs are more affordable than central cities. Much more affordable.

Note the tension here between the grandiose talk of the American dream and the banal ending which notes that people live in suburbs because it’s cheaper. Now obviously both price and preference play a role in these decisions. And some suburbs — these days typically ones with walkable downtowns and transit access like Evanston or Bethesda — are super-expensive and some cities (Detroit, e.g.) are really cheap and undesirable. But in general, central cities are substantially more expensive per square foot than are suburbs and especially far-flung exurbs. Which reveals, of course, that there’s lots of demand for urban space.

And on top of that demand, there are lots of practices that (a) artificially reduce the supply of urban space, and (b) subsidize suburbs at the expense of cities. If we changed (a) and (b) then the relative price of cities and suburbs would shift, and you’d see a shift in the population balance. Now maybe you think that’s a bad idea, which is fine. But you can’t point to the lower prices of sprawl and count that as evidence that people don’t want to live in cities. Urban areas are expensive because people like to live in them and given that high demand we ought to shift policies in such a way as to allow more of them to be built.