When it comes to housing, it might be better to think about the U.S. as a country of 384 metro areas (plus 50 million Americans who don’t live in places big enough to qualify as a metro area) rather than one continuous country. In 2021, the U.S. population grew just 0.1% – the lowest annual expansion rate since our nation’s founding. But housing dynamics are best viewed through the different metro areas that are growing and shrinking. Of the 384 metro areas, 72 had declining populations in the decade leading to 2020, according to the Census.
The general argument makes some sense: supply and demand for housing depends on the metropolitan region. I have lived in one of these regions that has very limited demand for housing and experienced numerous foreclosures in the late 2000s. In places such as these, housing is cheap and plentiful – but there are relatively few people who want to move there and, if they do, there is limited desire to rehab older homes. On the other hand, the activity in particular housing markets – such as the coverage of housing and population in Manhattan and San Francisco during COVID-19 – draws all sorts of attention because of the prices and demand. All of this contributes to why housing is difficult to address at a national level.
More broadly, seeing the United States as a collection of metropolitan regions (or expanded city states?) may make some sense. For example, the 9+ million people in the Chicago region may see themselves as more of a collective than describing people from Illinois or people from the Midwest. These people share a particular housing and jobs market, common sources of information, entertainment options, a transportation network, and regional forces.
Of course, some regions may be more like other regions. Scholars have examined some of these broader collections, such as Rust Belt or Sunbelt regions or immigrant gateways, or used particular cities as models – particularly Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles – by which we can better understand all cities and regions. Yet, even these regions that share common characteristics have particular histories and current realities that would help set them apart from other.
All of this gets at an ongoing issue in sociology and other disciplines: at what point is it worthwhile to group phenomena together because of common traits or is it better to leave them as distinct entities because of their differences? There are both common traits in and a lot of variation among the 384 metro areas (plus all the other people living outside metro areas). At least for housing, it is tempting to treat each market as unique even as there are common patterns.