Understanding car ownership in the United States through comparative data

Americans like cars. Just how much they do is easier to see with two sets of comparative data (first image, second image).


1510B35-vehicles per person finland andorra

Several things to note:

  1. The United States is toward the top of the list with a number of notable smaller countries. Other large countries tend to be further down the list (except for Italy).
  2. It is interesting that the number of vehicles per person is so high in many countries that have smaller populations and a smaller land area. In the United States, cars often seem necessary because it is a big country and the population is spread out. (This would be interesting to measure exactly: before the widespread popularity of cars, was the dispersion of the American population significantly different from other countries? This would help get at whether the car caused greater American sprawl or Americans had already spread out and it only accelerated with the availability of cars.)
  3. Having higher levels of wealth seems to be at least slightly connected to higher rates of car ownership. However, this is not necessarily a strong relationship. In other words, different wealthy countries have different approaches to vehicles. Compared to the United States, the other G7 members are far down the list.

Tiny houses with the luxury touches

Tiny houses could be used to address affordable housing or provide housing for the homeless – or they could be luxurious and appeal to the middle and upper classes:

The reality television series “Tiny Luxury” aims to bridge that gap, enticing viewers with high-end, highway-ready homes built on trailer chassis, all under 400 square feet…

Do new homeowners experience any angst about the size of the homes?

Tyson: They’ve anticipated what it’s going to be like. For people who can work remotely, it’s a traveler’s delight. They see it as having four times the freedom for a fourth of the price…

When you design for just a few hundred square feet, your homes can splurge on quality.

Tyson: We do a lot of granite and quartz countertops, or custom tops like slate, stone and butcher block. We can do really premium backsplashes and tile work in showers. We’re able to upgrade all the lighting and use better hardware.

The tiny house movement is not very big and I suspect the largest market involves people with means who either want to (1) downsize and live a different kind of life or (2) be more mobile and have a nicer house than an RV. If this is the case, then the tiny house becomes another luxury good that is not really within the reach of many Americans.

I know this might go against the audience of networks like DIY or HGTV that likely skew toward better off viewers but it would be interesting to see someone providing tiny houses to those who truly need one. It does not have to happen on a mass scale – imagine twenty episodes where one tiny house is built on each show – but it could generate a lot of positive sentiment toward tiny houses. Imagine “Extreme Home Makeover” with tiny houses.

Locating a supersized home for the young and wealthy

A recent report from Luxury Portfolio International suggests some young wealthy Americans want giant houses:

About 40% of wealthy younger buyers — those aged 25 to 49 — told real estate broker Luxury Portfolio International they hope to own a house larger than 10,000 square feet, long considered the upper range for McMansions, in a survey published this week. Nearly a quarter — 23% — said they want a home 20,000 square feet or larger.

If you didn’t think people bought houses that big, you’re kind of right. The average U.S. home size was about 2,400 square feet in 2016, according to government data. The survey’s respondents, who were an average of 37 years old with assets of $1 million or more, want a house about eight times that size.

Need help picturing that? Think four times the size of Kendall Jenner’s $8.55 million Los Angeles spread or about the size of Taylor Swift’s Rhode Island estate and DJ Khaled’s Florida mansion — combined.

And the size of their desired home differs quite a bit from what older Americans with wealth want:


As the first article above notes, these are not just large homes: they are supersized homes. Beyond following some celebrity model or some cultural image of what constitutes a significant home, I wonder if this is also affected by where these different generations want to live. To have such a large home, an owner probably needs a sizable property in a more suburban setting. In contrast, those 50+ and wealthy may prefer smaller places but in urban centers. Those city homes or condos or penthouses may not be much cheaper or any cheaper but they certainly are connected to a different kind of life compared to the suburban estate.

Percent of homes worth over $1 million quadruples in last 15 years

Rising housing values, particularly in certain markets, mean that there are now more American homes worth over $1 million:

The share of homes valued at more than $1 million has surged more than fourfold since 2002, according to new data from real estate site Trulia, which analyzed the luxury real estate market in the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas. Across those regions, about 4.3 percent of homes are now worth at least $1 million, compared with about 1 percent in 2002, said Trulia senior economist Cheryl Young…

The share of homes valued below $1 million is “decreasing at a rate we’re surprised by,” Young said. “It was 98.9 percent in 2002, and now it’s 95.7 percent. That is pretty shocking.”

Rising real estate values, tight inventory and a lack of new construction are contributors the surge in million-dollar homes. Yet another factor may be at play: rising income inequality, which has benefited the bank accounts of America’s richest families…

It may explain why the share of homes worth $5 million or more is growing even faster. This segment is what Trulia describes as “the most luxurious homes available.” To be sure, it remains a tiny part of the real estate market, accounting for just 0.28 percent of overall sales. Still, that figure is five times higher than in 2002, Trulia said.

In the abstract, who is opposed to rising housing values and the benefits that confers to homeowners and communities? Yet, the flip side of rising housing values is that more homes might then be out of reach for average or even well-off residents.

Three related thoughts:

  1. While those fighting for more affordable housing have discussed this flip side for decades, I wonder at what point it may be viewed as immoral to live in an expensive dwelling.
  2. Expensive homes do not usually exist in isolation. For example, it would be very unusual to drive down a street of low-value homes and all of the sudden see a large expensive home. Expensive homes are often part of larger projects – buildings or developments or subdivisions – that give way to a whole wealthier lifestyle that include expensive homes. In other words, this is not just about the value of individual homes: it is about clusters of homes and locations that help elevate some housing values.
  3. Related to both #1 and #2, can we expect some residents to underestimate their housing values or sell at lower price points than they could get?

Successful Naperville also linked to stressed out teenagers

Naperville is not the only wealthy suburb to experience issues related to anxiety. Here is how one expert describes how community success can be related to worries:

Michelle Rusk, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, said when it comes to community pressure placed on teens to succeed and families to maintain the idealized “white picket fence” life, little has changed since she grew up in Naperville in the 1970s and ’80s…

Experts who work with Naperville students say they are treating more children experiencing signs of distress at a younger age…

Growing up in Naperville, Rusk, formerly known as Michelle Linn-Gust, said she heard stories of big houses with empty rooms because the owners couldn’t afford to furnish them or men who left their wives because they felt they weren’t making enough money.

People move to Naperville because it’s recognized as a great place to raise a family, but maintaining that image is challenging enough for adults let alone kids, she said.

In the 1990s, historian Michael Ebner argued Naperville was a “technoburb” – a suburb with a high number of high-tech and white-collar jobs – and this was accompanied by the development of high-performing schools. Naperville was not always like this; before the 1960s, Naperville was just a small town surrounded by farms.

But, is there a way to get out of this spiral of wealth, success, and anxiety and suicides? As Rusk noted above, Naperville is attractive in part because of its high-achieving environment. In communities like this with residents ranging from the middle-class to upper-class, families want only the best for their kids. Would residents and others be willing to give up some of the success to have better lives?

Wealthy San Francisco residents may have their private street back but this may not bode well for the city

Remember that private street with wealthy residents in San Francisco that fell behind on its taxes and was sold at auction to some other California residents? The street is now back in the hands of the well-off residents:

For now, Presidio Terrace belongs to its residents again. Their victory isn’t cause for celebration, either. The city’s first-ever tax sale reversal smacks of preferential treatment. It’s hard to imagine elected leaders going to bat for, say, each homeless individual who has had property seized by the city. Farrell, the city council member quoted above, is also the author of Prop. Q, a controversial measure approved by San Francisco voters in 2016 that allows the city to clear homeless camps given 24 hours notice.

But the saga of Presidio Terrace may not be over yet. Although the city promised they’ll get their $90,000 purchase price back, Cheng and Lam have said they plan to sue. For progressive politics, San Francisco was once a city upon a hill. Now it’s rich people squabbling over one.

While New York City rightfully gets a lot of attention for its mix of world-leading buildings, residents, activities, and expensive housing, San Francisco may be a more fascinating case. A limited amount of land (both due to local policies and different topography) plus rapidly increasing wealth in recent decades (with the tech industry leading the way) plus consistently liberal politics yet sharp divides between the rich and poor makes for big housing problems. Kind of like how President Trump regularly uses Chicago as a case of how crime is not being addressed, San Francisco has become a common conservative rallying cry for how not to address housing and growth.

At the same time, many of the housing issues facing San Francisco also are issues for many other American cities: how to construct more affordable housing when few want to live near it? How to encourage jobs for many residents that provide good standards of living (which then gives people access to more housing)? How to encourage economic growth and development across the city rather than within particular trendy or desirable neighborhoods?

How postwar DuPage County used zoning to limit poorer and non-white residents

I was recently reading the 1976 political science book Poliscide and part of Chapter 8 on the postwar zoning practices of DuPage County caught my attention:

Although no county can place guards at the county line to inspect the socioeconomic and racial characteristics of newcomers, such powers as zoning and control over subdivision and building codes make the county a highly effective arbiter of the types of structures to be built and, hence, the final arbiter of the types of people who will live in its jurisdiction.

For example, DuPage County enacts a subdivision ordinance requiring a developer to retain a large portion of his prospective subdivision for public facilities such as parks and schools; the county combines this with a zoning ordinance requiring single-family dwellings and a large minimum lot size. This effectively prohibits a developer from profitably building anything but high-cost housing not accessible to lower-income persons.

Stringent county building code standards, requiring expensive building materials and high-quality plumbing, wiring, and heating systems, also serve to increase housing costs. The county’s industrial zoning policy restricting heavy industry serves to limit job opportunity for lower-income persons and to prevent a decline in residential property values surrounding an industrial development – which might create housing opportunities for lower-income groups. Moreover, the county’s relations with various financial institutions make it difficult for a developer to secure financing for a project not approved by the county. Indeed, because of the obstacles the county is capable of placing in the path of a developer, the county’s objection may be sufficient to convince a financial institution that investment in a project would be unwise.

The county’s relations with other units of government give it yet another means of influencing the course of residential and industrial development. It is not, for example, an uncommon practice in Illinois for the county forest preserve district to condemn, at the count government’s behest, land on which an unwelcome development is planned…. And courts have made it a point not to intervene. If the acquisition was for a “public purpose,” there is no inclination to examine the underlying motives. (179-180)

And, as the political scientists point out, these were all legal procedures. Local governments, whether at the municipality, township, or county level, often have the power to dictate what can be built on the land over which they have jurisdiction.

At the same time, there have been court cases seeking to reverse these zoning powers. In 1971, DuPage County residents and a local fair-housing group brought suit against the county for exclusionary zoning practices. The Mount Laurel cases in New Jersey led to famous decisions suggesting municipalities cannot completely restrict cheaper housing (even if implementation has been messy).

More broadly, Sonia Hirt argues zoning in the United States serves one primary purpose: single-family homes. When wealthier suburbanites or urban dwellers get the opportunity to live in the homes they want or ones that have plenty of desirable traits, they tend to resist efforts to include cheaper housing nearby. (For a more recent urban case, see Portland.)

To some degree, the plan worked for a while in DuPage County. The authors of Poliscide say the county was the 3rd wealthiest in the nation, businesses were growing, and much of the development was relatively high-end. Yet, things changed over time. In the 2010 Census, DuPage County was the 62nd wealthiest county in the United States. (It would be interesting to analyze what role zoning played in vaulting all those other counties above DuPage County.) In the same census, the white along population was just over 70%. Some of this might be due to how the authors of Poliscide suggest municipalities fought back against the county: they moved to incorporate themselves as well as annex land so that they took over jurisdiction of land and DuPage County had less control over new development.