Five variables to determine “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream”

SmartAsset released their 2018 rankings for “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream.” Here are the top cities and the factors they used to develop the rankings:

Best Cities for Living the American Dream

Diversity score. To create this statistic, we looked at the population percentage of different racial and ethnic groups in each city. A lower number represents more diversity. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.

Economic mobility. This metric looks at generational change in economic position for families. A higher number shows greater mobility. Data comes from The Equality of Opportunity Project.

Homeownership rate. This is the percent of households who own their home. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.

Home value. This is the median home value in every city. For this study, a lower home value is considered better as we use it as a measure of affordability. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 1-year American Community Survey.

Unemployment rate. This is the unemployment rate by county. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for January 2018.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. The five measures seem to make sense. You could quibble with different aspects, such as measuring the unemployment rate at the county level rather than the city or metropolitan region.
  2. What would make sense to add to this list of five measures? There is no measure of educational achievement on this list and it might be interesting to consider the foreign-born population in each place (particularly since the foreign-born population is at a high in American history). Do lower taxes matter?
  3. The list is skewed away from two areas: (a) the East and West coasts and (b) the biggest American cities. I would imagine the coastal cities have difficulty with home values. However, it is less obvious to me why the biggest cities, particularly those in the South and Midwest, do not make the top of these rankings.
  4. How many Americans would give up where they currently live to move to one of these places that supposedly offers a better chance at finding the American Dream? Some experts suggest Americans should simply go where there are opportunities, whether these are jobs, cheaper housing, or less taxes. Yet, it is not necessarily easy to just pick and go, particularly to places like these that might not be very well known. (And, it could also be the case that a large influx of people to each of these top-ranked locations would influence these places.)

Living by “a week’s pay for a month’s rent” in the early suburbs

Within a set of observations in Harper’s in 1953 about the new way of life in six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses the financial situation of the new suburbanites:

Henderson1b

Henderson2

Three quick thoughts:

  1. If we still adhered to the guideline of one week’s pay to cover housing, a lot of suburbanites would be in trouble. That rule suggests 20-25% of earnings should be for housing, not 30% which was a more common guideline today. But, with the dearth of affordable housing in many metro areas plus a desire of many suburbanites to be in communities that will help them be successful (i.e. good housing values, high-performing school districts, middle- to upper-class neighbors, a community with a good reputation, etc.).
  2. The desire to achieve the American Dream of owning a home in the suburbs is a powerful one as these residents of mass suburbia were willing to stretch financially – taking on extra work, living with in-laws – to make it happen. I would guess that this is still the case today.
  3. The full article is both an interesting snapshot of suburban life at the beginning of mass suburbia as well as an odd read since it treats suburbia as the exotic. Henderson admits at the beginning that the notes are subjective but they both provide some interesting information as well as provide insights into how outsiders viewed these early suburbs.

What if Americans like the suburbs?

Critics of the American suburbs have long charged that suburban lives are incomplete, diminished, or not all they are cracked up to be. Yet, Americans keep moving to suburbs and aspiring to live there. I was reminded of this by seeing a quote from Bennett Berger’s 1960 study Working-Class Suburb: A Study of Auto Workers in Suburbia:

The critic waves the prophet’s long and accusing finger and warns: ‘You may think you’re happy, you smug and prosperous striver, but I tell you that the anxieties of status mobility are too much; they impoverish you psychologically, they alienate you from your family’; and so on. And the suburbanite looks at his new house, his new car, his new freezer, his lawn and patio, and, to be sure, his good credit, and scratches his head bewildered.

Why can’t Americans take the hint and stop moving to or living in the suburbs when the problems (an auto-dependent lifestyle, emphasis on private houses, limited community life, use of lots of resources to sustain daily life, etc.) are so clear? There are two possible answers to this question:

  1. Suburbanites are being duped or pushed by larger forces to live in the suburbs. There is little doubt that the federal government has promoted suburbia over decades. If they truly were free to choose, Americans would pick the dull or anxious life of the suburbs.
  2. Americans truly do want to live in the suburbs. They like the lifestyle associated with it with the ability to own a house and drive a lot. The American Dream, even if it is just aspirational and not easy to attain, involves moving to the suburbs.

At this point, Americans have been choosing the suburbs (with generous pushes and promotion from various sources) for over a century when they have the means to do so. To reverse this pattern would require a lot of change.

Cars, homes, and the American way of life

Can comparative data about owning cars and homeownership in the United States help us think about how the two together help define a unique American way of life?

The data across countries suggest Americans are world leaders in owning vehicles and not so high on the list of homeownership. Few countries have more vehicles than us but over forty have higher percentages of homeownership. Yet, put these two features of life together – driving and owning a home – and they create something fairly unique in the United States.

To start, it is not just that Americans have a lot of vehicles: daily life and spaces are structured around these vehicles. For most Americans, getting to the places that are required for daily life – work, food, school, recreation – requires a vehicle. This is seen as normal and we have adapted in unique ways to this including developing fast food and big box stores (both could not exist in the same way unless people have their own vehicles, and often large ones at that, to operate). It does not have to be this way and indeed many other industrialized countries are not as dependent on vehicles for these daily activities.

As for homes, the availability of cars plus a desire to have a private single-family homes means that Americans are pretty spread out. This way of life reaches its apex in the American suburbs, which range from denser communities where driving involves shorter distances to places on the metropolitan edges where significant driving is needed for every major activity. This suburban form already existed to some degree before cars with the help of trains and streetcars. But, the availability of cars to the public in the 1920s really helped boost suburbanization as did subsequent decisions by different bodies of governments and others to promote an automobile-based society.

Critics of this way of life are plentiful even as we are nearing one hundred years of this arrangement. For more than a third of the existence of the United States, the goal of many is to own a vehicle and a home. To change this would require significant adjustments in a variety of areas. Imagine an America with smaller car companies (think of everything from the economic ripples to what commercials would replace auto ads on TV) or fewer fast food restaurants or no new sprawling suburban developments. We can see the resiliency of car and home narrative still: even as fewer than two-thirds of Americans own their dwelling (with more recent drops after the fallout of the housing bubble plus rising housing costs in certain places), it is still the goal of majority of residents (including younger Americans) and is said to be worth aspiring to. When the economy picks up, it seems Americans return to purchasing cars and homes.

Either cars or homeownership separately may not be enough to mark a unique American lifestyle. Put them together and they shape an entire society of over 300 million people.

If millennials prefer suburbs, what could lead to suburban decline?

Joel Kotkin argues that millennials would rather live in suburbs than big cities:

It has been often asserted that millennials (defined as the generation born between 1982 and 2002) do not want to buy homes or live in suburbia; Fast Company, saw this as “an evolution of consciousness.” The Guardian declares that millennials are refusing to accept “the economic status quo” while Wall Street looked forward to profiting from the idea that millennials will be satisfied to live within a “rentership society” (PDF)…

Meanwhile, the much mocked suburbs have continued to dominate population trends, including among millennials. As people age, they tend, economist Jed Kolko notes, to move out of core cities to suburban locations. Although younger millennials have tended toward core cities more than previous generations had, the website FiveThirtyEight notes that as they age they actually move to suburban locations at a still higher clip than those their age have in the past. We have already passed, in the words of USC demographer Dowell Myers, “peak millennial,” and are seeing the birth of a new suburban wave (PDF).

To some extent, the meme about millennials and cities never quite fit reality outside of that observed by journalists in media centers like New York, D.C., and San Francisco. More than 80 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in major metropolitan areas already live in suburbs and exurbs, according to the latest data—a share that is little changed from 2010 or 2000.

Suburban tastes remain predominant with 4 in 5 people under 45 preferring the single-family detached houses most often in suburban locales (PDF). Surveys such as those from the Conference Board and Neilson consistently find that most millennials see suburbs as the ideal place to live in the long run (PDF). According to a recent National Homebuilders Association report, more than 2 in 3 millennials, including most of those living in cities, would prefer a house in the suburbs.

If these trends continue, the suburbs will live on for quite a while in the United States.

This raises a question that I occasionally think about: what exactly would it take for millennials and other Americans to give up on suburbs? A few possibilities:

  1. Significantly higher gas prices. Apparently, getting up to $3-4 a gallon was not enough.
  2. Ecological disasters in the suburbs. Since there isn’t likely something that would affect all suburban areas at once (and not urban or rural areas), perhaps this would involve incidents in a number of major metropolitan areas.
  3. Another burst housing bubble. If housing it not more attractive in suburbs, this might change a lot of minds.
  4. All major employers move to big cities. I’m not sure why they would all do this is a significant number of workers are still in the suburbs but perhaps many employers needing educated workers would moving to cities, leaving suburban residents with low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Even with one of these scenarios, it would take significant time to see the suburbs on the whole decline and wealthier pockets would hold on for quite a while. Overturning the association between the American Dream and suburban life will be hard to reverse.

“[T]he federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”

The recent changes to the American tax code signal a shift toward homeownership:

It may be a few years before experts can accurately assess how the new tax reform law will affect each city’s individual housing market, but one thing is clear: For the first time in a century, the federal government has backed away from subsidizing homeownership as a pathway to the “American Dream.”…

“It’s very hard to come up with how this is helpful to housing,” said Jonathan Miller, President and CEO of Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting firm “It’s either neutral or negative; there’s no positive, at least that we’re aware of at the moment. All this does is make everything more expensive, at least in high-cost housing markets.”

As a result of the bill, Moody’s Analytics estimates that housing prices will drop about 4 percent nationwide relative to projections in which the law doesn’t exist, and those drops are more pronounced in high-cost housing markets.

A lower sale price is good news, though, right? Not necessarily. Average home prices will drop because of the lowered cap on the MID (from $1 million to $750,000), and a new cap on SALT deductions. These two tax deductions were baked into the price of homes-for-sale, so without them, prices will seem lower. But homeowners and buyers could end up with less mortgage interest to deduct, and a potentially astronomical property tax bill. Previously, there was no cap at all on property tax deductions.

Several things to keep in mind:

  1. The context – the specific address of the residence – matters a lot for this bill. And, local communities and states can respond uniquely to how the changes affect local homeowners.
  2. A lot of urbanists have criticized the subsidies from the federal government for single-family homes and suburbanization. Might these tax code changes help encourage more density in certain locales (and these high-price/high-tax locations are also ones where affordable housing is sorely needed)? Of course, since context matters here, some of those who prefer more sprawl could move to cheaper states where the disappearing SALT deductions matter less. But, isn’t this good for limiting Americans deducting mortgage interest?
  3. Could this help some communities move away from such reliance on property taxes? As one example, some have argued for decades that school funding needs to be more equitable and this is directly tied to property values and taxes: wealthier communities can draw in more tax revenue. (I would argue this is a red herring to as there are bigger issues at work.) Could these federal tax changes encourage more revenue sharing within counties, regions, and states?

Perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is the first sentence of the article quoted above: it could take years to see how this all plays out.

Suburban family downsizes to 1,000 square feet…and then upsizes 412 days later

Downsizing and tiny houses are supposedly all the rage but they may actually be difficult to pull off as one suburban family attests:

I’d like to say that we had thought about what it would be like to live a tiny life before we downsized from our 4,000-square-foot home, but we fell in love with our little cottage in McKinney, Texas, and had grown tired of living large. Somewhere between the quest for more living space, we lost ourselves in exchange for higher utility bills and weekends spent dusting…

By the standards of tiny living — formally anything under 500 square feet — our move was not a tiny one. But when you consider that we are a family of five (plus a dog), you can see why we called our life “tiny.”…

Every day we learned more about each other and grew less tethered by the norms of privacy. But still, we all secretly longed for a sliver of it, for a private moment where tears could run without an audience, for the chance of living an embarrassing moment on your own, and for conversations that are secret, almost hidden, from the buzz of daily life. It was the togetherness that championed our tiny life, but it was the lack of privacy that also had us questioning it….

All of this joy for 400 extra square feet plus the 12 it takes to house the vacuum. Everyone has a room, everyone has personal space, and no one has to look at the vacuum unless they are using it. We could have added more space, but we purposely kept it small to maintain the togetherness of tiny living and the added bonus of smaller utility bills.

The overriding thought in the decision to add a bit more square footage seems to be privacy: 1,000 square feet was simply not enough. That comes out to about 200 square feet per person but the family desired more. It would be interesting to compare this figure – certainly far below what many Americans have in their dwellings – to global figures as well as to how Americans define and prize privacy. The American Dream with its single-family home is in significant part about having space away from others.

Two other factors in this particular story also strike me as unique. First, the family lives in a warmer climate where being outside is easier. If residents need a little more space, especially kids, going outside is an option. (Granted, being outside in Texas summer may not be pleasant but it is certainly preferable to freezing cold.) Second, the family lives in a suburb that regularly is ranked among the best places to live in the United States. The family does not say much about this in the article but the amenities of such a suburb could ameliorate having a smaller house.