Top cities became hotbeds of innovative activity against which other places could not easily compete. The people clustered together boosted each others’ employment opportunities and potential income. From Bangalore to Austin, Milan to Paris, land became a scarce and precious resource as a result; the economic potential of a hectare of a rural Kentucky county is dramatically lower than that of a hectare in Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara county. And there is only so much of Santa Clara to go around.
Yet more Santa Clara could be built, were it not for the second and more distressing factor behind land’s return: the growing constraint imposed by land-use regulation. The Santa Clara town of Mountain View, for instance, is home to some of the world’s leading technology firms. Yet nearly half of the city’s homes are single-family buildings; the population density is just over 2,300 per square kilometre, three times lower than in none-too-densely populated San Francisco.
The spread of land-use regulation is not hard to understand. The clustering that adds to local economic vibrancy has costs, too, as the unregulated urban booms of the 19th century made clear. Crowded slums were fertile soil for crime and epidemics; filthy air and water afflicted rich and poor alike. Officials began imposing new rules on those building in cities and, later, on those extending them: limiting heights and building designs; imposing maximum densities and minimum parking requirements; setting aside “green belts” on which development was prohibited. Such regulations have steadily expanded in scope and spread to cities around the world.
As metropolitan economies recovered from their mid-20th-century slump populations began growing again. The numbers of people living in the central parts of London and New York have never been higher. And as demand for quality housing increased the unintended consequences of the thicket of building regulation that had grown up in most cities became apparent.
Great piece in the Economist about how land has become a constrained commodity, a brake on our economic growth. A lot of wealth has been made off of rent capture, and most of it accrues to the already wealthy while the middle class are saddled with mortgage debt and the poor, who rent, are just priced out of desirable regions.
This is a nightmarish scenario for the economy. It's bad any time you have any constraint on growth, but when that scarce commodity is land, it seems particularly difficult to remove because it has to be done through a political system that is in thrall to the moneyed, connected, real-estate-owning class.
The ugliest effect of the return of land, though, may be the brake it applies to the economy as a whole. One of the main ways economies increase worker productivity, and thus grow richer, is through the reallocation of people and resources away from low-productivity segments to more efficient ones. In business this means that bad firms go bust and good ones grow to great size. Something similar should hold for cities. Where workers can be put to use at high levels of productivity labour scarcity will lead to fast growing pay packets. Those pay packets will attract workers from other cities. When they migrate and find new, high-paying work, the whole economy benefits.
Mediterranean Avenue to Boardwalk
But that process is now breaking down in many economies. For workers to move to the high wages on offer in San Francisco, they must win an auction for a home that provides access to the local labour market. The bidding in that auction pushes up housing costs until there are just enough workers interested in moving in to fill the available housing space. Salaries that should be sending come-hither signals are ending up with rentiers instead, and the unfairness can trigger protest, as it has in San Francisco. Many workers will take lower-paying jobs elsewhere because the income left over after paying for cheaper housing is more attractive. Labour ends up allocating itself toward low-productivity markets, and the whole economy suffers.
Chang-Tai Hsieh, of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Enrico Moretti, of the University of California, Berkeley, have made a tentative stab at calculating the size of such effects. But for the tight limits on construction in California’s Bay Area, they reckon, employment there would be about five times larger than it is. In work that has yet to be published they tot up similar distortions across the whole economy from 1964 on and find that American GDP in 2009 was as much as 13.5% lower than it otherwise could have been. At current levels of output that is a cost of more than $2 trillion a year, or nearly $10,000 per person.
First and foremost, let's acknowledge that this is all solvable if we just relax land use regulations, build more housing, and increase the population density of our urban centers. Supply and demand still works in this universe. For a variety of reasons, some clear to me, like NIMBYism, some not clear to me, that seems intractable. Does the new David Simon show explain how hopeless it all is? I need to watch it so I find some entertainment value in my despair.
If that's a road to nowhere, can the germ of a solution come from the private sector? Tech companies tend to be creative about trying to solve problems that constrain their growth because they arise from a culture of ignoring accepted impediments. For now, though, they haven't made a ton of progress on this issue. At most they've turned to providing shuttle services with wi-fi that widen the geographic footprint in which their employees can live and still get to work.
But that doesn't work if real estate is expensive everywhere within that radius. What's next? Perhaps a deeper investment in conferencing or virtual reality technology to amplify the sensation of proximity and intimacy of even the furthest flung workers? It's long been a promise of technology, but it has yet to be realized in full.
What about turning office space into living space at night when it lies idle? It's sounds ridiculous, but a company did that with the slack time of cars and seems to raise a billion dollars of capital every other week. I know, it sounds terrible, living at the office, but I'm wary of making paternalistic prescriptions about how a person should spend their free time. Some of my closest friends in life are people I spent a lot of time with at the office at Amazon during my years there.
Maybe tech companies will start their own housing developments? The economic productivity of the average productive tech worker likely still exceeds their compensation, and tech companies, led by Google in particular, have been aggressive in pushing into that gap with increased salary, benefits, stock options, etc. Housing is just another form of investment, and they need not provide it for free, it could just be subsidized. Of course, that means they'd need to acquire land, and that, paired with a thicket of land-use regulations, still restrict the human density achievable with even the most aggressive development.
Finally, solving the problem for just tech workers doesn't feel like a path towards solving it for the rest of the population. Frankly, no one feels much sympathy for tech workers these days (with the exception of some Amazonians who are working long hours, though I'm still suspicious; a lot of it feels secretly like Schadenfreude in disguise). Bay Area complaints about high real estate costs are going to fall on deaf ears, even if it's symptomatic of a dangerous trend for our economy, as noted by the Economist article.
Group all the things I miss the most about NYC, and the root of all of them was the unmatched human density. It's not just the visceral sensation of the people around you (which some dislike), but the diversity of businesses and communities that can sprout and thrive when the potential customer base is so large and tightly packed. The variety of entertainment, like theater and museums, the variety of local cuisine, the ability to find someone to share almost any interest, from curling to revivalist arthouse cinema to hip hop dancing.
I have no answers, only a longing for the Bay Area to experience the liveliness of density in the physical world to match that of the the networks and communities they've built in the virtual space, where real estate is cheap and plentiful.