Tuesday, June 10th, 2014
[ After my recent post on people saying they were priced out of downtown Detroit, Daniel Hertz followed up with some thoughts of his own over at this excellent City Notes blog on that and other topics. He graciously allowed me to share them here. Also, I’d like to clarify one thing which is that in my original post I was referring to people in Detroit wanting more construction in their preferred neighborhoods, not Daniel personally. I included that bit from Pete’s post to help make Pete’s point in context – Aaron. ]
Okay, on to the funner stuff. Attempting to keep this organized:
What a superstar metro doesn’t mean is strong population growth and demand for housing outstripping supply.
Maybe I misunderstood, or maybe he changed his emphasis, but whatever the reason, the latest post makes clear that both supply restrictions and increasing demand are playing a role in exacerbating housing prices. I think that’s exactly right.
2. Aaron’s post: Responding to an article about rising home prices and displacement in downtown Detroit, Aaron basically picks out three dynamics that are important. The first is short-term:
Now, what about supply? Is the city of Detroit telling people they can’t build downtown?… What we would appear to have here instead is a lag issue. Real estate development isn’t like ramping production up or down in a factory. It takes time to do.
Right. Given that it can take a year or two for projects to be conceived, engineered, financed, and built, it’s pretty common for areas where demand increases very quickly to suffer a temporary shortage of supply as a result of this kind of lag. It makes sense that this would be the case in downtown Detroit.
Dan Gilbert imagines all the light-skinned people who will use his new toys.
The second problem is longer-term, but quite specific to places like downtown Detroit where there have been very few residential buildings at all, prior to the increase in demand:
Additionally, with higher income demand in the market, new units are going to be built to serve that market, not lower income people. If you own land and have a market that gives you the choice of either building a higher profit building or a lower profit building, which one will you choose?
I would actually make this even stronger. Given construction costs, very few new homes are built for low-income people without some sort of subsidy: it’s just not profitable to do. This is why even people like Ed Glaeser, a free market-oriented economist and champion of increasing housing supply to lower prices, say that housing subsidies will be needed no matter what we do: at the moment, the cost of building new housing requires sales prices that are too high for low-income people to afford.
In established low-income residential neighborhoods that experience gentrification, this can be less of an issue. If building new homes is difficult, then landlords of older buildings can make a lot of money by renovating their apartments and renting them at much higher prices to the wealthy newcomers, displacing the existing residents. But if building is easy, then lots of the newcomers will move to fancier, newly built homes, and the old landlords won’t face nearly the incentive to renovate and raise rents. In that case, the older, more affordable housing stock can be preserved.
But if there is no older, more affordable housing stock – as in places like downtown Detroit – then the only housing is the new, expensive stuff, and you’ll get a pretty economically homogeneous neighborhood no matter how much you build. (At least, that is, until that new housing stock becomes old enough to lose value.)
The last problem is the peculiar geography of demand.
Which brings us back to the juxtaposition of high demand in Downtown/Midtown Detroit vs. the low or no demand in most of the rest of the city. Why wouldn’t the people who can’t afford downtown rents just move into one of those areas?
The answer is obvious: they want to live downtown specifically.
This, I think, is the thorniest and most interesting issue: it’s obviously the case that in a place like Detroit – to a much greater extent even than Chicago – there is a “supply problem” only in very geographically limited areas. And that geography, as Aaron, Jim, and Pete Saunders have pointed out, is defined by where the people driving demand actually want to live: in this case, downtown, Midtown, and almost nowhere else.
Where I think Aaron and Pete are wrong, though, is in glossing over the reasons that demand is shaped this way. Their focus, as I understand it, is on status and yuppie comfort: where the hip neighborhoods, the hip bars, and so on, are. And, correctly, they argue that no one is entitled to live in the hippest part of a city.
But although status certainly plays a large role in determining where people want to live, you’re missing a lot if that’s all you’re thinking about. I would divide the reasons that people limit their housing searches to downtown and Midtown Detroit – or the North Side in Chicago, or (fill in the blank) in your city – into basically two categories:
1. Economic factors. This is economics broadly construed, and basically covers all of the concrete advantages or disadvantages to a particular place: not just access to jobs, but the quality of the local schools; access to amenities, from essentials like grocery stores to luxuries like cafes; the likelihood that you will be a victim of serious crime; and so on.
2. Social factors. This includes both conscious and semi-conscious concerns about status – I want to live in Lincoln Park, because the kind of person I want to be would live in Lincoln Park – but also the more invisible issues of social networks, or the extent to which you are aware of different neighborhoods. What my professors would call a “choice set” – what is the menu of options you’re consciously choosing from?
I guess my argument is that Aaron and Pete are focused on a subset of Category 2, but that in fact there’s a lot more going on.
More than that, I would suggest that, to a large extent, social factors are mostly secondary: that is, when you consider where to live, you first narrow down the options with economic factors – where can I get to my job, send my kid to okay schools, and not be afraid to walk home at night – and then you make your final choice using social factors.
In other words, you don’t need to use some status argument to explain why middle-class gentrifiers in Detroit refuse to move to most neighborhoods in that city: you just need to know that most of Detroit has terrible public transit (and therefore terrible access to jobs for people who don’t want to drive every day), high crime, and few essential amenities like grocery stores. Avoiding those sorts of disadvantages is a pretty obvious move.
Now, that said, I think Pete’s important insight is that sometimes, social factors are so powerful that they override economic factors, and neighborhoods that meet the basic economic qualifications are eliminated from consideration anyway. One of the main ways that happens is racist heuristics: black neighborhoods, no matter what their attractions, are just not in the “choice set” for white people (and, depending on the city, for Asian-American or Hispanic people, too). Thus Pete’s (and my) frustration that the middle-class black neighborhoods in Detroit, or places like Chatham or South Shore in Chicago, get no attention from the non-black middle class, while it flocks to working-class white or Latino neighborhoods.
Chatham: It’s pretty.
There’s some evidence that that’s partly because of ignorance – white folks in Chicago literally are not aware that Chatham or South Shore exist as relatively pleasant, attractive neighborhoods. There’s also a good amount of evidence that white people, and other non-blacks, just aren’t very comfortable with the idea of living in a majority-black neighborhood. My suspicion is that the latter factor is pretty powerful, which makes me pretty pessimistic about the prospects for large-scale integration in the next decade or two. But I could be wrong.
Evanston, IL, used to allow apartment buildings like this, which allowed people of moderate incomes to live in an affluent suburb with great access to jobs, other amenities, and good schools. But since the 1970s, that hasn’t been the case, and Evanston’s population hasn’t grown since.
But I also think that this whole conversation, by focusing on the choices of financially comfortable people choosing whether to live in downtown Detroit or some other comfortable neighborhood, is missing what the housing supply argument is really about: people who are currently stuck in neighborhoods that would fail any middle-class household’s economic test, and who can’t afford to move to one that would pass. Those are the people who suffer the most under our current housing system, and who would stand to gain the most if supply restrictions were lifted.
There’s a lot more to say about this; it’ll come next week.
This post originally appeared in City Notes on May 31, 2014.