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Why the High Cost of Big-City Living Is Bad for Everyone

August 27, 2016

By : newyorker – excerpt

Cities like San Francisco provide decreasing opportunities for many of those who already live in them.

In 1948, a federal housing bureaucrat named Paul Oppermann, trying to come to terms with the perils of the nuclear age, proposed a solution to the problem of protecting America’s cities from the bomb: empty them out preëmptively by encouraging the population to move to suburbs and small towns of fifty thousand or fewer. “No power in the world could afford to drop an atomic bomb on a city of 50,000 or less” is how the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the talk that Oppermann gave to a local planning organization. Plus, Oppermann explained, you get slum clearance into the bargain. The next year, Oppermann assumed office as San Francisco’s planning director.

The story of Oppermann—who did not send the residents of San Francisco packing but merely crippled growth with arcane lot-size rules and off-street-parking-space minimums—comes down to us via a San Francisco Bay Area cartographer, programmer, and amateur historian named Eric Fischer. Fischer, a transplant from Indianapolis, has spent his free time in the past months digging through newspaper archives to understand how San Francisco housing came to be as insanely expensive as it now is…

With all the advantages of hindsight, it’s hard to believe that anybody didn’t see the skyrocketing cost of housing coming in New York and San Francisco (and other cities around the globe like London, Singapore, and Washington, D.C.). But, in fact, for many years the conventional thinking pointed in the opposite direction. Urban planners such as Oppermann saw growing cities as an overcrowded traffic puzzle. Later, it was said that the deterioration of old urban cores would push everyone who could afford it out to “edge cities.” Most recently, we were promised that information tech and the virtual office would make cities largely unnecessary.

In reality, the opposite happened. New York, San Francisco, Washington, Miami: these have become international centers of commerce, issuing an ever louder siren call to the global élite. The San Francisco Bay Area is the most widely discussed example; nearly half of the fifty-eight billion dollars invested in technology last year was concentrated in San Francisco and San Jose, California. But economic vitality of all sorts has become increasingly concentrated in a few desirable locales. Brooklyn is the country’s third leading locale for new businesses; Miami-Dade County, which has also seen spectacular increases in rent, is No. 1…

So what is to be done? One hardheaded answer is to build more housing. An increasing supply of housing would theoretically put downward pressure on prices. The reality, unfortunately, is that almost all urban construction happens too late. Fischer estimates that bringing San Francisco’s rents back to the level of fifteen years ago would require adding close to a hundred and fifteen thousand living units to the city’s current three hundred and eighty thousand—all in a city short on space and with infamously onerous building regulations. It would mean, more or less, an urban Marshall Plan for housing.

On the other hand, it is also possible to encourage the migration of wealth outside imperial metropolises. To some degree, this is already happening; Vauhini Vara wrote recently about the emerging technology scene in Denver. There are signs of success in smaller cities around the country, sometimes tied to universities, sometimes driven by refugees from Silicon Valley and New York. Given enough time, these cities may grow into true competitors. But enough time means decades, at the very least.

The recent history of urban planning has to invite some humility in offering solutions. Cities that seem to have been resistant to the efforts of planners like Oppermann to shrink them may prove equally resistant to the ideas of future planners about how to expand them. Simply describing just where we stand, though, has value. The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success…(more)

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