Housing Preference Doesn't Matter When You Can't Afford to Live Where You Prefer

Living in the suburbs vs the city isn't as simple as choosing which you prefer and moving there.

The Reason Foundation's Robert Poole has brought up the issue of housing choice in a transportation news update last week, arguing, yet again, that the media is exaggerating the Millennial preference for urban housing. His evidence includes an analysis by the notoriously biased (and regularly debunked) Wendell Cox in addition to data from a mysterious survey that I can't even track down, but since some people take these guys seriously, I'll take a little time to address the logical fallacy underlying their arguments: namely, that where people currently live is the best measure of where people actually prefer to live.

The way Mr. Poole sees things, because more Millennials live in suburban housing today than did 15 years ago, suburban housing is clearly their preferred housing type. There are a few problems with this view, and the most important is that it ignores the reality of prices and affordability — Millennials (and others) may prefer to live in urban communities, but if they can't afford to do so, their preferences are largely irrelevant.

And because the age group he's looking at is young and at the beginning their careers, many Millennials are especially sensitive to price beyond a relatively low threshold. In quite a few of the most thriving U.S. cities, housing in the urban core is affordable to only a very small subset of under-30 residents: those that earn much more than the average 20-something, and those that are willing to pile into small units with multiple roommates. The remainder of the Millennial cohort, many of whom might prefer a downtown loft to a suburban garden-style apartment or shared single-family home, if they could afford it, are not so much expressing their highest preference as being driven by the necessity to find a place they can afford. Price is a far better measure of the demand for urban housing, and it's price that explains why Millennials are so often unable to afford living in the city. Any assessment of preference that doesn't consider affordability is inherently flawed.

A site adjacent to Beacon Hill Station in Seattle left vacant due to poor planning following a major light rail investment.

Another important consideration is whether the housing that's built corresponds to the housing that's most desired. A big part of the problem is that, despite strong demand for more walkable, urban housing, that's not the type of housing being built: I estimate a shortage of at least 8 million walkable housing units in the U.S., a deficit that will take decades to cure at current multifamily construction rates.

This again comes back to affordability, as well as regulation: It's much easier and much cheaper to build low-density housing in areas where demand isn't quite as high, land costs are considerably lower, and regulations that limit development tend to be much more lax. Most people will settle for suburban housing when they can't afford the urban housing they prefer, so these non-ideal units still get snapped up. But that's not an expression of preference for suburban housing, that's an expression of preference for not being homeless.

I don't mean for this to be an excuse for the flawed system of development that typifies most coastal cities. Matthew Yglesias writes that housing affordability is Blue America's greatest failing, and I agree. This is simply an acknowledgement that people need a place to live, and when it's illegal or fiscally impractical to build homes for them in one place, developers will build those homes somewhere else — to the detriment of our overall quality of life, health, safety, and environment.

Poole, an unabashedly pro-oil, pro-car advocate, concludes his post lamenting the "wishful thinking" of urban planners who build extensive transit infrastructure even as people continue to choose suburban, car-dependent lifestyles. He's correct that urban planners and other city leaders have fallen prey to wishful thinking, but not in the way he implies. Their failing is in thinking that transit investments alone would create the multimodal, sustainable communities we seek — particularly when those investments continue to defer to cars at the expense of transit users.

Many cities, Los Angeles and Seattle included, have committed to massive expenditures on new bus and rail infrastructure, but few have been nearly so bold in regard to housing development. This has worked out nicely for the relatively few residents that are able to secure income-restricted housing near transit, those that can afford units in the small number of new transit-oriented developments, and especially for those that owned property near stations before they were built. For most everyone else the impact has been sadly limited, and it should be no surprise that as Millennials begin to form their own households, they're choosing to live where new homes are actually being built.