The Incompatibility of Forced Density and Housing Affordability

New research supports the conclusion that anti-sprawl policy (urban containment policy) is incompatible with housing affordability. Build-zoom.com economist Issi Romem finds that: “Cities that have curbed their expansion have – with limited exception – failed to compensate with densification. As a result they have produced far less housing than they would otherwise, with severe national implications for housing affordability, geographic mobility and access to opportunity, all of which are keenly felt today as we approach the top of housing cycle.”

Romem had previously produced stunningly innovative research, estimating the extent of urbanization in US cities every decade from 1940 to 2010. He provides maps that show the changing urban expanses in each census. Romem uses the larger metropolitan areas, the currently defined Combined Statistical Areas (CSAs). This combines metropolitan areas that are adjacent and significantly economically connected, such as San Francisco and San Jose, New York , southeastern Connecticut and Allentown, and Los Angeles and Riverside-San Bernardino.

The new research is a similarly important addition to urban policy. Like most in urban planners, Romem strongly believes that the “ills of the urban sprawl must be curbed.” However, importantly, Romem’s research is driven by data, rather than urban planning principles often disconnected from the aspirations of households. This article examines Romem’s most recent research in the context of middle-income housing affordability.

Middle-Income Housing Affordability

Housing affordability is much broader than “affordable housing” for lower income households. In markets regulated by urban containment, middle-income housing usually becomes too expensive for many middle-income households. In such markets, there is considerable discussion of housing affordability, but little that gets to the heart of the matter.

Housing affordability is appropriately compared both between housing markets and  withinmarkets over time. Perhaps the most effective tools are price-to-income ratios, such as the median multiple (median house price divided by median household income) used in the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. Now in its 12th edition, the Survey shows virtually all major metropolitan areas with seriously unaffordable housing to have urban containment policy.

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