This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

An Affordable or an Expensive City--Which Would You Choose?

One of the foundations of spatial demography is that your life is determined (yes, I said determined) by two key things: (1) who you are; and (2) where you are. The "who you are" is a combination of your sociodemographic characteristics and personality traits, whereas the "where you are" refers mainly to where you live. I discussed this recently in terms of mortality rates in the US, which differ, especially for the poor (the who you are), by where you live in the country. But in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Laura Kusisto discusses the spatial divide in terms of affordable (expansive) compared to expensive (cannot expand) U.S. cities. 
Across the country, a divide is emerging between cities that are growing outward and remaining affordable and ones that are hemmed in by geography and onerous zoning codes and are becoming more and more expensive.
As a whole, U.S. cities are expanding as rapidly as they have throughout the last half-century. From the 1950s until the 2000s they have added about 10,000 square miles per decade, or an area roughly the size of Massachusetts, according to research by Issi Romem, chief economist at real-estate site BuildZoom, to be released Monday. But beneath the surface a divide is deepening.
Thus, the very same person may live well or not so well depending upon the city of your choice (and, yes, we make that choice--few of us are compelled to live in a particular place).  Cities such as San Francisco are hemmed in geographically and so housing prices go up as demand goes up faster than the supply can increase. In Sunbelt cities of the New South, on the other hand, geographic expansion has meant that the supply of homes can keep better pace with demand and prices don't get out of hand.
The developed residential area in Atlanta, for example, grew by 208% from 1980 to 2010 and real home values grew by 14%. In contrast, in the San Francisco-San Jose area, developed residential land grew by just 30%, while homes values grew by 188%.
Now, as the article notes, this seems like a clarion call for suburban sprawl--spread out and keep housing prices low. Is that sustainable? Is that what we want? It probably is what some people want, and not what others want. The discussion about affordability of housing and sustainability of urban life needs to be nuanced enough to account for a variety of lifestyle preferences. Keep in mind that another aspect of inequality in America (not discussed in this article) is that many people in the Rust Belt who have lost their jobs prefer not to move somewhere else where they might find a job. That's another example of the interaction of who you are and where you are.

Overall, the data are telling us that homes in the US are more affordable in the expansive, not the expensive cities. Here's the map:

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