Thursday, 5 April 2018

Cities, housing and the new serfdom

I am more and more convinced that cities and the fandom surrounding urban densification is the biggest threat to a fair, equal, open and decent society. Yet even the YIMBY movement seems to be trapped in the idea that we should cram more and more people into a tiny part of our land area leaving overprotected rural areas affordable only those fortunate to inherit, rich enough to buy or trapped in a marginal life renting one of the vanishing numbers of such properties outside the city.

The problem is that the idea of cramming more units into already dense places (and central London is, by almost any standards bar urban Spain, very population dense) simply doesn't resolve the affordability problem. Here's an illustration from California:
Dense housing is about three to seven times more expensive to build. Combined with the very high cost of land zoned for high-density development, market prices inevitably end up beyond the means of nearly all Californians. New publicly subsidized “affordable” apartments in one dense Bay Area development are estimated to cost upwards of $700,000 to build—more than the cost of two-thirds of all homes in California, according to our analysis of American Community Survey data for 2016.
The beginning of understanding our housing problems comes when we ask what kind of homes people want rather than asking how many 'units' we can shoehorn into the limited land supply local councils allow for building.
The suburban house is the idealization of the immigrant’s dream—the vassal’s dream of his own castle. Europeans who come here are delighted by our suburbs. Not to live in an apartment! It is a universal aspiration to own your own home.
And it's not just the immigrant into California - such as the man who the above comment, Edgardo Contini  - who want to live in suburbia, it's most families everywhere. Not because they're selfish ingrates who want to spoil the environment driving their cars but because they want space, openness, light, air and land, all the things they can't get in the confining, claustrophobic inner city. It's something like this from geographer Anne Snyder :

“There is a growing craving for life to be lived offline, for human contact to be enjoyed with real handshakes, real meals around real tables, and real care for neighbors, knowing that in a pinch that neighbor will watch out for you in turn.”
Cities are exciting places filled with experience - everyone should perhaps have a go at living in one. For some, it is everything but for most there comes a point where the thrill of having the buzzing cultural brilliance of the city at their fingertips begins to pall - it's too ephemeral, insubstantial and, while great for grown-ups, no place to raise a family. Yet so many people are trapped - great jobs, fantastic social life, but no way to have a stake, to put down roots, to join a real neighbourhood. And this didn't use to be the case, in times past (and not really all that long ago either) people could have those great years in the city and then follow them with great years raising a family in a welcoming, neighbourly suburb. So you aren't going to have a family (or, rather, you keep putting it off):
Recent Harvard econometric research associated bloated house price increases with a reduction in birth rates among households that do not already own a home of their own. Similarly, high housing prices were cited as a cause to delay having children in a recent survey. In places where housing prices remain around historic levels, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Nashville, Orlando, and Houston, birth rates are much higher.
Maybe you think us not having children is a good thing (over 70% of Inner London households are childless) but I've a feeling it's short-sighted, requiring the city to suck in more migrants from elsewhere just to sustain its appetites. And who is going to look after you when you need it? Cities are creating a society that sees short-term economic advance and personal utilitarian gratification as the only good. Community can be replaced by service contracts, neighbourhood by professional networks or 'corporate internal communities', and real social capital by the ephemera of social events.

“Zero” is also the most common response when people are asked how many confidants they have, the GSS data show. And adult men seem to be especially bad at keeping and cultivating friendships.
Our home is at the heart of all this and what matters here is that it's our home not some rented flat on a rolling short term lease. Yet so much of the debate about housing is stuck in an obsession with numbers rather than a discussion about needs or wants - all coloured by a cod environmentalism exploited by those who benefit from land values artificially inflated through the deliberate restriction of supply by government (a restriction eagerly supported by politicians with their cant about our "precious green belt"). And it gets worse - urban containment, densification and its consequential gentrification results in poverty:
High rents are leaving many at the brink of poverty. Adjusted for housing costs, California has the largest share of its citizens living in poverty—well above the rate for such historically poor states as Mississippi. And homelessness has surged in the priciest places, particularly in Los Angeles and New York City, which account for about 4 percent of the national population but 25 percent of its homeless population.
Our housing policies (and please let's not pretend the the UK's problems are so very much different from California's) are making us poorer, less happy, more dependent, tied to work and the work environment - a new bunch of serfs, highly educated with what seem great jobs, but with no stake in society beyond delivering the production business and government desires - serfs. As Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin conclude (and you should too):
The shift to an ever more unequal, congested, and feudal society is not inevitable. We have the capacity to expand housing opportunities for future generations. There is no reason that we need to surrender the universal aspiration that for so long has defined our society.
Build suburbs.


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