The Great Divide
My latest Atlantic column looks at one of the most important phenomena shaping American political culture: the regulatory regimes that largely determine the cost of housing. These are long-term differences that persist regardless of short-term blips in the housing cycle, and they both reflect and reinforce differences in political and cultural values.
In 2000, my husband and I moved out of our mid-1970s three-bedroom town house in Los Angeles and into a brand-new three-bedroom town house in Uptown Dallas. At the time, the two were worth about the same, but the Dallas place was 1,000 square feet bigger. We've moved back to L.A., and we're glad we kept our old house. Over the past seven years, its value has roughly doubled. By contrast, we sold our Dallas place for $6,500 less than we paid for it.
It's not that we bought into a declining Dallas neighborhood: Uptown is one of the hottest in the city, with block upon block of new construction. But the supply of housing in Dallas is elastic. When demand increases, because of growing population or rising incomes, so does the amount of housing; prices stay roughly the same. That's true not only in the outlying suburbs, but also in old neighborhoods like ours, where dense clusters of town houses and multistory apartment buildings are replacing two-story fourplexes and single-family homes. It's easy to build new housing in Dallas.
Not so in Los Angeles. There, in-creased demand generates little new supply. Even within zoning rules, it's hard to get permission to build. When a local developer bought three small 1920s duplexes on our block, planning to replace them with a big condo building, neighbors campaigned to stop the project. The city declared the charming but architecturally undistinguished buildings historic landmarks, blocking demolition for a year. The developer gave up, leaving the neighborhood's landscape—and its housing supply—unchanged. In Los Angeles, when demand for housing increases, prices rise.
Dallas and Los Angeles represent two distinct models for successful American cities, which both reflect and reinforce different cultural and political attitudes. One model fosters a family-oriented, middle-class lifestyle—the proverbial home-centered "balanced life." The other rewards highly productive, work-driven people with a yen for stimulating public activities, for arts venues, world-class universities, luxury shopping, restaurants that aren't kid-friendly. One makes room for a wide range of incomes, offering most working people a comfortable life. The other, over time, becomes an enclave for the rich. Since day-to-day experience shapes people's sense of what is typical and normal, these differences in turn lead to contrasting perceptions of economic and social reality. It's easy to believe the middle class is vanishing when you live in Los Angeles, much harder in Dallas. These differences also reinforce different norms and values—different ideas of what it means to live a good life. Real estate may be as important as religion in explaining the infamous gap between red and blue states.
Read the rest here (free link good for three days).
Update: I should note, since some people have misunderstood, that we are not complaining about the price we got for our Dallas townhouse. We were very happy in that house and that neighborhood and considered our mortgage payments consumption rather than investment. One reason we were able to sell quickly is that we were realistic about the inventory-flush market.