Historic preservation, the ways cities and suburbs resist development projects, and property values

In a discussion of how historic preservation aligned with particular political interests in cities, a scholar describes how suburbanites resist development compared to those in cities:

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The peculiar yet profound way in which historic preservation bound together issues of aesthetics, finance, and urban change is key to understanding why its popularity grew so rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. It also explains why a culture of historic preservation took root in some places more than others. Most suburbs—like the one on Long Island where Geller I once stood—relied on a different set of tools to stop development, such as open-space requirements and zoning codes that limited the number of new homes. To this day, historic preservation remains a less potent force in such places, largely because these other rules ensure that homes like Geller I are unlikely to be replaced by anything but McMansions. In cities with significant numbers of old buildings, however, preservation became an essential part of the process by which communities fended off urban-redevelopment projects.

While historic preservation does take place in the suburbs (and will come for McMansions at some point), it does not occur at the same level as in cities. As noted above, suburbs are not likely to approve significant changes to local zoning or buildings. Neighbors and residents will complain about changes to traffic, noise, lighting, and the character of a neighborhood in a way that tends to limit what a redeveloped property will be.

Cities also have zoning regulations and NIMBY responses to new structures but the presence of more buildings and uses in denser areas can make this all more complicated. Particularly in areas where redevelopment is hot, a new building might be very different than what has stood there for a long time.

But, as the article notes, historic preservation can be a tool used in a lot of places to halt plans:

Historic preservation not only gave this process of hyper-gentrification an imprimatur of political and legal legitimacy it might otherwise have lacked, but also continues to enable it in the present day. The LPC’s own website still notes that one of the purposes of New York’s landmarks law is to “stabilize and improve property values.” While the commission’s press releases paint an image of a body focused on protecting a diverse new array of buildings, the historic districts that already exist are, right now, a significant intervention in the city’s real-estate markets, whose main beneficiaries are the people who own land within them. Nor is this dynamic unique to New York. In California, wealthy cities like Pasadena and Palo Alto have recently tried to expand their landmarking powers in order to circumvent a new state law encouraging the construction of sorely needed housing. Simsbury, Connecticut, which is 87 percent white, just finalized a sale of nearly 300 acres to a land trust—killing an affordable-housing project in the process—on the premise that the site is historically significant because Martin Luther King Jr. once worked there. In Washington, preservationists have long tried to block the redevelopment of a water-filtration plant that hasn’t been used in 35 years on the basis that it is historically significant.

And perhaps this gets at the heart of the matter: whether using zoning or historic preservation, one of the goals of American residents is to enhance property values. Sonia Hirt argues that protecting single-family homes and their values is a primary goal of zoning in the United States. In a system that prizes the growth of home values, perhaps historic preservation plays a similar role.

Are American cities in trouble or are we focusing too much on the business core of cities?

Recent data suggests the biggest American cities are facing several issues, including population loss. I wonder if the bigger issue is too much focus on the business and downtown core:

They are all among the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country. All of their populations were growing in 2011. And then, in 2021, they all shrank by a combined 900,000 people, according to an analysis of census data by the Brookings scholar William Frey. That’s an urban exodus nearly the size of two Wyomings.

The great metro shrinkage is part of a larger demographic story. Last year, the U.S. growth rate fell to a record low. The major drivers of population—migration and births—declined, while deaths soared in the pandemic. But America’s largest cities are getting the worst of this national trend. In the past three years, the net number of moves out of Manhattan has increased tenfold. In every urban county within the metros of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, immigration declined by at least 50 percent from 2018 to 2021. In downtown Detroit and Long Island, deaths actually exceeded births last year.

The great metro shrinkage also appears to be part of a broader cultural story: The rise of remote work has snipped the tether between home and office, allowing many white-collar workers to move out of high-cost cities. Nearly 5 million Americans have moved since 2020 because of remote-work opportunities, according to Adam Ozimek, the chief economist for the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank in Washington, D.C…

So what might this period of urban struggle look like? Just check out what’s happening now. Mass-transit ridership has collapsed from its pre-pandemic highs in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. Although restaurant bookings and travel have bounced back almost entirely, office occupancy remains 50 percent below its 2019 levels. In San Francisco, vacant office space has nearly quadrupled since the pandemic to 18.7 million square feet. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has practically begged white-collar workers to return to Midtown, even as those workers patronize businesses in more residential parts of the city, closer to where they live. America’s downtown areas support millions of jobs that can’t be made remote—in retail, construction, health care, and beyond. But for millions of white-collar workers, something important has changed: They don’t work “in” cities anymore. They work on the internet. The city is just where they go for fun.

The overall numbers are what they are. Yet, the emphasis in this piece and in others I have read are about a downtown core that COVID-19 weakened. What if American cities no longer need a dense downtown core in the same way? With more work from home, less demand for downtown office space and more interest in downtown residential space, and the ways cars and mass transit allow workers to live in different places from their workplaces, how much focus should be placed on struggling cores?

This could be a larger existential issue about American cities. In the 1990s, a group of scholars in Los Angeles wrote about a new Los Angeles School of urbanism built around the unique features of the LA region. This includes a decreased emphasis on a downtown core and more sprawl and fragmentation across the region. In contrast, Chicago and New York and many other American cities stand as the established alternative: an important business core in response to which all other city activity is oriented.

So is the problem really cities are in big trouble or that the model of an ultra-dense center with all that comes with it is breaking a bit? This could be a huge change for certain places – particularly parts of Manhattan, downtown San Francisco – but there would also be opportunities throughout cities if development and business and residential activity could be more spread out. Indeed, the picture attached to the story says a lot about this:

This picture is taken from the vantage point of a sizable property just south of Chicago’s Loop. Why is it not developed? If the core did not have to be as dense, could this significant property be better woven into the fabric of the city?

More broadly, observers can think about complete cities and complete regions in addition to changes or issues facing the downtown. If activity is moving elsewhere, what does this mean and how might it improve life elsewhere?

Looking to global examples to address housing crunches in expensive cities

Housing is a very difficult issue to address at the national level. Can the United States look to examples abroad?

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Some suggest that Japan is the model to follow. There, rental prices have largely remained flat over the last 25 years, according to data from the country’s statistics bureau. The reason is that the government controls zoning nationally and is more open to development in the number of houses it allows to be built. Just over a third of Japanese citizens rent the homes they live in, protected by a 1991 law called the Act on Land and Building Leases, which makes it difficult for landlords to end leases or prevent a tenant from extending their rental contract…

So where else should we be looking, if not to Japan, for the model to fix the broken housing market in large parts of the west? One option is Singapore, where public housing is built in specially designed communities and sold to individuals with a 99-year lease below market value. Selling on that property is highly restricted to reduce profiteering, but it can happen after five years of ownership. Nearly four in five Singaporeans live in public-sector housing, according to official statistics. “Prices can never get beyond regular working families,” says Ronald. “They have this virtuous circle, and it makes it interesting to think about the role of regulating housing.”…

Until late January 2022, housing developments in Germany were subsidized by the government below market rates for the first five years after being built. “It means tens of thousands of units every year come onto the market, keeping rental prices lower and preventing scrambles to buy a property,” he says.

A similar model exists in Austria and Switzerland, where the split is roughly 55 to 45 percent (in favor of renting in Switzerland, and owning in Austria), compared to an average European home ownership rate of 70 percent. When you get to the Austrian capital, Vienna, the home ownership rate is just 7 percent.

All of these sound like they would require some fundamental changes to housing policy in the United States. This might include:

  1. A stronger national policy. This could be through programs available everywhere or guidelines that all states and municipalities have to follow.
  2. A stronger emphasis on renting.
  3. More government involvement in the construction of housing and/or longer-term government oversight of housing units.

None of these options would be particularly popular in the United States or easy to implement. Here are quick explanations why for each option above:

  1. A national policy would come at the expense of the power of more local governmental actors. With real estate being so much about location, could a national policy truly address all of the different situations? Americans expect to be able to control or at least provide input into the use of land around them.
  2. Homeownership is ingrained in American life as part of the attainment of the American Dream. This is ensconsed in zoning policy, supported by politicians and policies for decades, and Americans can be suspicious of renters compared to homeowners. Renting is more common in some areas compared to others but it is not seen as the ideal among Americans.
  3. Public housing has never been fully supported in the United States. The government’s active role in housing is often viewed as negative unless it is supporting homeownership.

This does not mean that the housing landscape in the United States cannot change. The need for more housing and more affordable housing is acute. But, changes will likely take decades and sustained efforts.

Populations – national or local – can grow or decline through births, deaths, and immigration

While the focus here is on the United States as a whole, this is also worth considering at the community level:

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A country grows or shrinks in three ways: immigration, deaths, and births. America’s declining fertility rate often gets the headline treatment. Journalists are obsessed with the question of why Americans aren’t having more babies. And because I’m a journalist, be assured that we’ll do the baby thing in a moment. But it’s the other two factors—death and immigration—that are overwhelmingly responsible for the collapse in U.S. population growth…

As recently as 2016, net immigration to the United States exceeded 1 million people. But immigration has since collapsed by about 75 percent, falling below 250,000 last year. Immigration fell by more than half in almost all of the hot spots for foreign-born migrants, including New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco…

The implications of permanently slumped population growth are wide-ranging. Shrinking populations produce stagnant economies. Stagnant economies create wonky cultural knock-on effects, like a zero-sum mentality that ironically makes it harder to pursue pro-growth policies. (For example, people in slow-growth regions might be fearful of immigrants because they seem to represent a threat to scarce business opportunities, even though immigration represents these places’ best chance to grow their population and economy.) The sector-by-sector implications of declining population would also get very wonky very fast. Higher education is already fighting for its life in the age of remote school and rising tuition costs. Imagine what happens if, following the historically large Millennial cohort, every subsequent U.S. generation gets smaller and smaller until the end of time, slowly starving many colleges of the revenue they’ve come to expect.

Even if you’re of the dubious opinion that the U.S. would be better off with a smaller population, American demographic policy is bad for Americans who are alive right now. We are a nation where families have fewer kids than they want; where Americans die of violence, drugs, accidents, and illness at higher rates than similarly rich countries; and where geniuses who want to found new job-creating companies are forced to do so in other countries, which get all the benefits of higher productivity, higher tax revenue, and better jobs.

This matters for communities and cities in at least a few ways:

  1. The “growth is good” model in the United States assumes continued population growth. This is good for status as well as for other things (see #2).
  2. When populations are growing, the incoming revenues help pay for existing infrastructure and services as well as suggest money will be there in the future. In contrast, stagnant or declining populations can require cuts or reductions.
  3. The role of immigration cannot be understated and it affects population as well as demographics and local economics. For example, Chicago would have likely had more population loss over recent decades without immigrants coming to the city.

It will be particularly interesting to see what happens if more major population centers experience relatively little or no population growth while a few continue to grow rapidly. Does this change the balance of power and status among places?

Planning for the metaverse libertarian urban paradise

The quest for a free online city continue with the help of a prominent architectural firm:

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Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) has revealed renderings of the “cyber-urban” Liberland metaverse, a small virtual city made of futuristic, curving buildings in the architectural style that made the late architect’s firm famous. When complete, it will offer users the ability to traverse the hub as an avatar, and feature a city hall, collaborative working spaces, shops, business incubators, and a gallery for NFT art shows. The community it hopes to foster will have a focus on self-governance as well as fewer rules and regulations.

Those ideals are based on the so-called Free Republic of Liberland, a real-life micronation founded by Czech politician Vit Jedlicka in 2015 with a goal to implement small government libertarian values. Wedged between Serbia and Croatia, the 2.7-mile territory, which is larger than the Vatican and Monaco, is a disputed land and claimed by neither country. Since its founding, no one has moved to Liberland, which lacks any infrastructure, nor has construction started in earnest. But it does have 7,000 approved residents and 700,000 applications, according to Jedlicka, who told CNN in an email. The micronation also has a national flag, anthem and currency — the cryptocurrency Liberland merit…

Though many metaverse concepts have been born out of video game aesthetics — Mark Zuckerberg’s concept for a Metaverse, for example, looks similar to Nintendo Wii’s avatar design — the digital architecture of Liberland is meant to be more grounded in reality. The buildings, while hyper-futuristic, are similar to the glossy look of typical architectural renderings. But they were made with parametric design — a method that employs algorithms to create complex forms…

But while many online forums and social media companies have had to grapple with how much to moderate their users, with sites like Reddit having to move away from their ideals of unmitigated free speech as their user base ballooned, Liberland will start out as an exclusive space and expand slowly, in order to keep its community in check. Jedlicka confirmed that Liberland citizens and residents will have first access.

This combines several ideas with their own fan bases – the metaverse, libertarianism and small government, this architectural style – and tries to put them together in once place. I wonder if this hints at a fragmented metaverse where people of different interests and community ties come together in a few settings but they do not go elsewhere.

It is also worth noting that while this is only a online place, it is not disconnected from the offline realm in multiple ways. First, the online realm tries to imitate the offline with its use of space, buildings, and architecture. Second, those who operate in the online realm still have physical bodies and interactions outside of Liberland. This will be billed as new and exciting because it is in the metaverse…but physical matter still matters in multiple ways for this new community.

The importance of the globe’s five biggest forests

A new book outlines the outsized role of the five remaining big forests in the world:

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All forests can help, but large forests are of supreme importance for the climate. The five largest ones left—the megaforests—include boreal forests in Russia and North America, and the tropical forests in the Amazon, Congo, and New Guinea. Intact forests are 20 percent of the tropical total and store 40 percent of the aboveground forest carbon in the low latitudes. New research led by Sean Maxwell, of the University of Queensland, and 11 collaborators suggests that the carbon benefit of intact tropical forests is six times greater than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others have estimated to date. That’s because in the years after a big forest is broken up by roads or farms, its edges dry out and winds whistle through, blowing over big trees. Fires invade it more readily, and overhunting eliminates animals that disperse seeds. And on top of all the carbon vaporized from the space actually deforested, over the next several decades the climate will be stuck with 14 metric tons of extra carbon per acre that the lost tropical forests would have absorbed had they remained standing…

This experiment began in 1979. It ended up with five plots measuring two and a half acres, four at 25 acres, and two covering 250 acres. Matching control plots in continuous forest were also established. By 2002, the project had produced a simple answer about fragmentation: Large intact areas are very important, the larger the better. Even the 250-acre reserves were too small for forest-interior bird species, half of which vacated these patches in less than 15 years. The edges were hotter and drier, with great mats of desiccated leaves from trees either dying or losing foliage to wind. There were more vines, thicker undergrowth, and fewer mushrooms.

Species that need continuous tree cover decamped. Black spider monkeys, for example, who move fast through large areas of forest eating fruit from widely spaced trees, abandoned all the forest fragments immediately. They stayed in nearby continuous forest. Howler monkeys, by contrast, are leaf eaters and not particularly choosy. They remained in all the fragments. The white-plumed antbird, so named for the spiky crest between its eyes, could not persist in the fragments. Antbirds follow raiding ant armies and eat the bugs flushed out by the lethal column. Though 250 acres is sufficient territory for one ant colony, each colony marches only about a week per month. So, to avoid going hungry for weeks at a time, the white-plumed antbirds need to follow several colonies on a rotating basis. The 250-acre fragments were at least three times too small for the birds. No antbirds means no antbird droppings, which deprives shimmering blue-and-black skipper butterflies their sustenance. They left too…

Big forests are a linchpin in a planetary system. They are vivid stages for stories about energy and matter that we describe severally with our physical, biological, and chemical sciences, but are really a single story whose intricacies and meaning we don’t fully understand. Orchid bees make Brazil nuts, feed agoutis, take carbon from the air, breathe water back into it, make clouds that make rain a hundred miles away that feeds a stream, where a catfish, having migrated from the mouth of the Amazon, is caught by an otter or by a person, surrendering its protein to enliven the woods. The bee makes all these things, and these things make the bee.

One takeaway from this research: the way trees and nature are often treated in urban and suburban settings does not fully grapple with the larger impact of trees and forests. Isolated pockets of green are not necessarily bad but there is a difference in scale between those possibilities in more densely settled locations and large unbroken forests.

Another interesting aspect to consider is the human interaction with these large forests. Coming off reading the The Dawn of Everything, the shift to agriculture and living in larger cities in metropolitan areas did really create a divide between certain natural settings where humans could thrive and what became the settings for much of human activity.

This book also reminded me of this January 2022 piece on a man who has explored the old growth forests of New England and how much this differs from many contemporary experiences with trees and forests.

Why people do not flock to the American cities that keep showing up in the most affordable places to live

I recently saw another list of the most and least affordable metropolitan areas in the United States with a key metric of how many families in the region could purchase a home at the median price. Here are the five most affordable places:

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Home prices and incomes vary widely, and there are oases of affordability, mainly in the Rust Belt and Midwest. The top five most affordable places among metro areas with population of 500,000 or more:

Lansing, Michigan: As a result of modest home prices, 90.6 percent of all new and existing homes sold in the fall months were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $79,100. The median home price was $155,000 in the fourth quarter of 2021, the builders’ index says.

Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazleton, Pennsylvania: Wages here are below national levels, but so are home prices — the median sale price was $150,000 in the fourth quarter. As a result of rock-bottom prices, 88.5 percent of all new and existing homes sold in October, November and December of 2021 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $70,600.

Pittsburgh: This metro area has a median family income of $84,800 and a median home price of just $166,000. As a result, 88.4 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Indianapolis. This metro area has a median family income of $81,600 and a median home price of $215,000. As a result, 87.6 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Akron, Ohio: With a median family income of $83,300 and a median home price of $165,000, fully 86.5 percent of homes were in reach of median-income families in the state capital.

Two features quickly stand out: the homes in these regions really are cheap (particularly when compared to local earnings) and they are all in the Midwest/Rust Belt.

Still, I have seen some version of this list many times now and I am not sure what to make of them. Why aren’t people moving to these locations?

The most obvious answers to me: it is not necessarily easy to move and these cities are perceived to have a lack of opportunities (economic, cultural, housing, etc.). American geographic mobility as a whole is down but do people actually move just for cheaper housing? What this list does is highlights that median income families can access median level housing in these five places. Get a decent job and owning a house is possible.

There are other possible answers that get more complicated:

  1. People just do not think of the Midwest/Rust Belt when thinking of places to live. Lack of opportunities, the weather, the middle of the country, a Midwestern blah-ness, etc.
  2. It is not just about a lack of opportunity; these are places seen as on the decline. Even if they are cheaper, who wants to live in a place that has already seen its best days when “growth is good” is a key marker of communities?
  3. These communities are lacking incentive campaigns to try to attract new residents.
  4. These communities may not want too many people to move in because it could drive up prices and bring in outsiders. (Yet, growth is good and many declining communities would do a lot to become a destination again.)

In sum: some American metropolitan areas are much cheaper than others, they have common characteristics, and there are a number of compelling reasons why people do not move to the places with cheaper housing.

Fewer people out and about in cities in 2020 so more people were victims of crime?

A working paper tries to put crime in the recent context of fewer people moving around cities in 2020:

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Each of these metrics basically reports the same thing: A huge and prolonged decrease in the total number of hours people spent out and about in the American city. This decline peaked in April 2020, but urbanites stayed sedentary throughout the year, relative to 2019.

For crime data, the duo used statistics from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, which enabled them to sort for violent crime that occurred in public—a category that included streets, parks, alleyways, commercial establishments, and offices.

The results: From March to December, 2020, public violence in the three cities was 19 percent lower than it had been in 2019. But when put into the context of how little Americans left the house that year, that data takes on a different significance. In April, for example, violent street crime fell by 30 percent—but the risk of being a victim of such a crime rose by almost 40 percent. A similar pattern held for the whole year: Even as street crime fell, the risk of being a victim of a crime rose between 15 and 30 percent over the previous year, depending on which measure of “outdoor activity” was used. In short, if you spent time in public, you were more likely to be robbed or assaulted in public in 2020 than in 2019.

For what it’s worth, that risk remained very, very small: 12 violent crimes per million outdoor hours, or more than 80,000 safely-spent outdoor hours for each violent crime.

This is an interesting way to think about perceptions of crime: even if fewer crimes were committed, they might feel like more if there was less activity. This reminds me of some of the images going around from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic of empty streets and cities. Once busy places simply did not have people. How did this affect perceptions of safety in public settings?

Would the same idea apply to media reporting on crime: because of a lack of other public activity (beyond COVID-19), did crime receive more attention even if there were fewer crimes? Perceptions of crime might be more important than the actual statistics themselves. Americans can be fearful even as numbers go down.

You can find great restaurants in the suburbs?!?

The New York Times reports on good restaurants in unexpected locations:

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Jalea’s owners, the siblings Mimi and Andrew Cisneros, recognized the risk in choosing this quaint street over a city known for its vibrant restaurant scene. But they saw opportunities in the suburbs that they wouldn’t find in St. Louis. Yes, the rent was lower. And St. Charles, where the Cisneroses spent their teenage years, is also one of the fastest-growing counties in Missouri…

There is also less competition than in the city, they said. Because St. Charles is a small community, the two believe they can make a bigger impact here. With the lower overhead costs, Mr. Cisneros, 29, said he felt much freer to experiment with flavors. (He runs the kitchen, and Ms. Cisneros, 30, oversees operations.) Since the restaurant opened in December, they have been encouraged to see that locals are eager to try Peruvian food.

Media coverage of restaurants in the United States has long centered on cities, while suburbs are most often associated with restaurant chains. But Jalea is one of many independent restaurants — including Roots Southern Table in Farmers Branch, Texas; Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale, Minn.; and Noto in St. Peters, Mo. — that are raising the collective aspirations of the local culinary culture and turning suburbs into dining destinations…

While not all suburbs are alike, in general, suburban planners are not well versed in how best to support independent restaurants, said Dr. Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo.Because they don’t understand that these businesses often have a shorter financial runway than large restaurant groups or chains, the planners are less likely to provide economic development grants or loosen zoning restrictions.

So suburban eating is not all Olive Garden and Chik-Fil-A and whatever other chain restaurant, fast causal, or fast food place is on the nearest main road?

This article attributes much of the change to what the suburbs have become in recent decades: complex suburbia with more diversity, more cultural and entertainment options, and growing populations. And there are concerns about whether suburbs are well-suited for fine dining in terms of regulations and

My biggest question upon reading this story is how long it might take to develop new narratives about where great restaurants are located. If there are indeed fine dining establishments in suburbs across the United States, does this become recognized or are city restaurants still drawing the bulk of attention? This could depend on a lot of factors – where are restaurant critics based, stereotypes about cities and suburbs, the number of independent restaurants per capita in different locations, etc. – but I imagine it would take some time to shift. Even as the article recognizes significant shifts in suburbs that mean they are no longer just retreats of white and wealthy people, is this widely known and told?

View housing – and America? – as “a country of 384 metro areas”

Housing is all about location so why not view it as a metro by metro issue?

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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.