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Elites And Their Houses

A Boston reader passes on this Virginia Postrel column talking about how housing regulation has made America less equal. Postrel says that under standard macroeconomic theory, the differences between wealthy places and poorer places tends to even out thanks to the migration of capital and labor. But around 1980, that started to change, to create a more rigid set of circumstances. Why? The cost of housing had a lot to do with it. It became too expensive for unskilled workers to live in or close to many big cities, because too much of their income was swallowed up by high housing costs. Postrel writes:

As I have argued elsewhere, there are two competing models of successful American cities. One encourages a growing population, fosters a middle-class, family-centered lifestyle, and liberally permits new housing. It used to be the norm nationally, and it still predominates in the South and Southwest. The other favors long-term residents, attracts highly productive, work-driven people, focuses on aesthetic amenities, and makes it difficult to build. It prevails on the West Coast, in the Northeast and in picturesque cities such as Boulder, Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The first model spurs income convergence, the second spurs economic segregation. Both create cities that people find desirable to live in, but they attract different sorts of residents.

This segregation has social and political consequences, as it shapes perceptions — and misperceptions — of one’s fellow citizens and “normal” American life. It also has direct and indirect economic effects. “It’s a definite productivity loss,” Shoag says. “If there weren’t restrictions and you could build everywhere, it would be productive for people to move. You do make more as a waiter in LA than you do in Ohio. Preventing people from having that opportunity to move to these high-income places, making it so expensive to live there, is a loss.” That’s true not only for less-educated workers but for lower earners of all sorts, including the artists and writers who traditionally made places like New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe cultural centers.

She adds:

Finally, there’s the never-mentioned possibility: that the best-educated, most-affluent, most politically influential Americans like this result. They may wring their hands over inequality, but in everyday life they see segregation as a feature, not a bug. It keeps out fat people with bad taste. Paul Krugman may wax nostalgic about a childhood spent in the suburbs where plumbers and middle managers lived side by side. But I doubt that many of his fervent fans would really want to live there. If so, they might try Texas.

Postrel wrote a longer piece in 2007 (before the housing crash) on this theme, contrasting Dallas with Los Angeles. Excerpt:

Dallas and Los Angeles represent two distinct models for successful American cities, which both reflect and reinforce different cultural and political attitudes. One model fosters a family-oriented, middle-class lifestyle—the proverbial home-centered “balanced life.” The other rewards highly productive, work-driven people with a yen for stimulating public activities, for arts venues, world-class universities, luxury shopping, restaurants that aren’t kid-friendly. One makes room for a wide range of incomes, offering most working people a comfortable life. The other, over time, becomes an enclave for the rich. Since day-to-day experience shapes people’s sense of what is typical and normal, these differences in turn lead to contrasting perceptions of economic and social reality. It’s easy to believe the middle class is vanishing when you live in Los Angeles, much harder in Dallas. These differences also reinforce different norms and values—different ideas of what it means to live a good life. Real estate may be as important as religion in explaining the infamous gap between red and blue states.

The Dallas model, prominent in the South and Southwest, sees a growing population as a sign of urban health. Cities liberally permit housing construction to accommodate new residents. The Los Angeles model, common on the West Coast and in the Northeast Corridor, discourages growth by limiting new housing. Instead of inviting newcomers, this approach rewards longtime residents with big capital gains and the political clout to block projects they don’t like.

The direct results of these strategies are predictable: cheap, plentiful housing in some places, and expensive, scarce housing in others. A remodeler working on my L.A. town house a couple of years ago wistfully recalled visiting a cousin in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth. He wanted to move there himself. In Arlington, he said, “you can buy a million-dollar house for $200,000.” According to Coldwell Banker’s annual sur- vey, a 2,200-square-foot, four-bedroom “middle-management” home costs around $141,000 in Arlington (or, for big spenders, $288,000 in Dallas), compared with $1 million or more in the L.A. area. One man’s million-dollar dream home is another’s plain old tract house.

This really is a complex problem. When we lived in Dallas, which has pretty lax housing regulations, I learned that “teardowns” are a big thing. Teardowns occur when a buyer obtains an older house in a desirable neighborhood, tears it down, and builds a much bigger house on the lot. Obviously this adds a lot to the cost of the new home construction, so you have to really want to live in that neighborhood. On the one hand, this is how you revitalize tired neighborhoods. On the other hand, people who live there may resent the massive McMansion going up on the street near their more modest houses. In the case of the neighborhood we lived in, the teardown culture would have eliminated historically and architecturally significant houses.

On the other hand, as Postrel points out, the more housing and zoning regulation you have in place, the more expensive housing becomes — and that has its own effects on a community. We’re seeing that happen in West Feliciana Parish, where I live. I’m thinking of doing a piece on it for the magazine. I have not verified any of what I’m about to say, just to be clear.

If you drive around the parish, the first thing you notice is all the open space. Fields everywhere. Yet the cost of housing is prohibitively high here — so much so that, according to several local folks, their adult children cannot afford to live in the same place where they grew up. Why? Part of it, I’m told, is that most of the land is held by a few families, and they’re not eager to open it to development. But it’s also the case, I’m told, that there are lots of housing regulations in place that prevent development, especially of low-cost housing (for example, new trailer parks are banned).

These aren’t all bad regulations. Some people here look at a nearby town, which has low regulation, and they see a sprawlsville that has consumed the green space. They fear that if we allow unregulated development here, we’re going to end up killing the natural landscape that makes this parish so beautiful. It’s also the case that there’s a certain amount of NIMBYism — well-off folks who migrated here from the city to build a big house in the country, who want to keep people from following them.

The desire to keep this beautiful place from being swamped by sprawl is commendable. But it has a serious cost for the non-wealthy — and most natives here are not wealthy — in that it compels young families to establish their households outside of the parish. A friend of mine complained that his son, who grew up here and works in the parish, had to buy a house in another parish, and drive to work here, because he simply couldn’t afford to live in the place where he grew up. This, despite the vast tracts of open space where houses ought to be. The relative lack of land open for housing development has pushed the price of land up to something like $14,000 an acre. To give you an idea of how much things have changed in such a short time, my father bought his land in the late 1950s for $40 an acre.

We will probably end up building a house on family land. If my dad didn’t have that land, we’d be very hard pressed even to think about it.

Again, I’m going at this point only on hearsay regarding the things I’ve picked up from listening to people in the eight months I’ve been back here. If I write something for the magazine about it, I’ll interview people on the record. The point is, there is a significant social effect that housing rules and regulations are having on the place where I live — and it illuminates within me my own conflict of values.

On the one hand, I don’t want unregulated sprawl here, because I agree that if we let things develop naturally, we stand to ruin this place. Once the natural environment is gone, and once we junk the place up bigtime with strip malls, it’s never coming back. That would be a tragedy.

On the other hand, I want this place to be a place where people of all classes can afford to live, and especially where people who were born and raised here can afford to return to raise their own children here. It would be a different kind of tragedy, but a tragedy all the same, if the only people who could afford to live here were the upper middle class and the wealthy, and this place became dominated by rich retirees and doctors and lawyers who work in Baton Rouge, but treat this as a bedroom community.

That’s the tension. Both positions express a kind of conservatism. Do you want to conserve natural beauty and the land, or do you want to conserve the human culture (that is, making it possible for all kinds of people, especially young families, to live here)? Because you can’t have both in full. Something’s got to give.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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