The Miracle Of The Elevator

Karl Smith notes that America is primed for a record level of new starts on multi-family apartment buildings. That’s excellent news because via Alex Block it looks like the DC area, which has a relatively strong labor market, is having trouble finding enough housing slots for everyone who’d like to live here and work to do so.

Puzzlingly, the article poses this as a “vexing problem” rather than a win-win for blue collar construction workers, and white collar office drones alike. “How” they ask, “do you house those new workers in ways that are both affordable and don’t worsen the soul-crushing commutes that already plague the region’s residents?” In principle, this is easy. The DC area actually already went through the trouble of building a multi-line heavy rail subway network. There’s also the MARC commuter rail serving the Maryland suburbs and the VRE commuter rail serving the Virginia suburbs. I, personally, walk about 10 minutes to work and will probably just take the ~30 minute walk to my new job starting on Monday. Lots of people in DC bicycle or ride the bus. All we need to do is squeeze a lot of housing into those parts of the metro area that are walking distance from downtown, or for Metro/VRE/MARC stations. The only problem is that in order to do that, the buildings would need to be very tall and we’d need some kind of elevating device to get them from floor to floor.

More seriously, you see a great small example here of the very concrete economic problems that come with restrictions on tall buildings. There are lots of people around the country who’d like to come and work in DC’s vibrant service sector. And if we were building apartments for them to live in, not only would they have jobs, but so would the people working in our not-so-vibrant construction sector. We’ll see some of that, to be sure, but we’re also just going to see a lot of spiking rents as supply is restricted. I own a condo and will, personally, benefit from the increase in house prices. But the only way for me to realize those gains without leaving town would be to sell the place and then go live in an Occupy DC tent in McPherson Square. The losses to renters and the unemployed are quite real, in other words, while the gains to homeowners are hazy and illusory. But, you know, the views.