CityLab: Why Densifying the Urban Core Alone Won't Fix Housing

Density's Next Frontier: The Suburbs

By Richard Florida

According to a new study, the continuing low density of inner suburbs is a major cause of the housing crisis—and a potential solution.

In a recent survey, America’s mayors named housing, and housing affordability, as the number-one problem facing their cities. This concern was not only voiced by mayors of expensive, coastal cities, but in diverse communities across the nation. The biggest culprit, according to a large and vocal chorus of urbanists and urban economists, is outmoded and overly restrictive zoning and building codes—not to mention politically powerful NIMBY groups—which hold back new housing construction.

But according to a report released today by urban housing economist Issi Romem of Buildzoom, many urban cores are actually developing and densifying. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed. ...

There are pockets of high-density construction at the urban core and rapid building along the metropolitan periphery, but lagging growth in the dormant suburban interior. As Romem puts it:

In the past, virtually every patch of land in the metropolitan U.S. continually sprouted new housing, but this is no longer the case. In recent decades, residential construction has become increasingly confined to the periphery of American metro areas, while a growing swath of the interior has fallen dormant and produces new homes at a negligible pace. At the same time, a tiny fraction of the land area, scattered in small pockets throughout the metropolitan landscape, is responsible for a growing share of new home production, primarily in large multifamily structures.

What was once the great suburban crabgrass frontier, to use historian Kenneth Jackson’s evocative phrase, providing upward mobility and a path to a better life in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, has essentially been choked off. The proverbial hole-in-the donut has in many ways shifted from the now-reviving urban core to the increasingly dormant, and in many cases distressed, inner-ring suburbs. ...

Still, there are important differences between metros, according to the study. Large Sunbelt metros, such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix, have demonstrated a much greater capacity to expand outward at a low density, while gradually densifying their cores. Lagging Rust Belt metros like Cleveland and Buffalo have seen much less growth out across their suburban periphery, and modest or minimal densification in their urban cores as well. Many expensive coastal cities, with the Bay Area being the prime example, have slowed their outward expansion due to smart-growth policies. Nonetheless, all these different types of metros have large areas made up of dormant suburbs with little or no new construction.

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl.

While urban densification can house some people—mainly affluent and educated ones—the bulk of population and housing growth is shifted farther and farther out to the exurban fringe. That leads to more traffic and longer commutes, and the social and environmental consequences that flow from them, as this old suburban-growth model is stretched beyond its limits. ...

But if America’s dormant suburbs are a big part of its housing and growth problem, they can also be part of the solution. Relaxing zoning rules in these neighborhoods would spread population growth more equitably and sustainably across a metro, relieving the pressure of rising housing prices and gentrification around the urban core, and unsustainable growth at the periphery. ...

There are some signs we may be moving in this direction. After being a sacred cow for decades, single-family zoning restrictions are finally beginning to be reconsidered. In California, state legislators have proposed a bill that would do away with all single-family zoning restrictions in areas that are in close proximity to high-frequency transit. Scott Wiener, one of bill’s authors, has said this legislation would help the state produce more “missing middle” housing: modest apartments and duplexes that are far cheaper to build than steel frame high-rises common in downtown areas. Massachusetts is also considering zoning reforms that would make housing production easier. And around the country, accessory dwelling units(ADUs)—small homes in the backyards or basements of single-family homes—are gaining in popularity.

The great cities of the 21st century not only need more density in the urban core, but more distributed density—the kind of continuous density that allows great global cities like London, Tokyo, Paris, and New York to scale and accommodate larger and larger populations without shifting their footprints ever farther outward. For future-oriented cities, the cranes we see dotting the downtown skyline may be only the beginning.

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Brent Woodcox