In a recent survey, America’s mayors named housing, and housing affordability, as the number-one problem facing their cities. This concern was not only voiced by mayors of expensive coastal cities, but in diverse communities across the nation. The biggest culprit, according to a large and vocal chorus of urban theorists and economists, is outmoded and overly restrictive zoning and building codes—not to mention politically powerful “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) groups—which hold back new housing construction.
But according to a report released Thursday by the urban-housing economist Issi Romem of Buildzoom, a platform for finding contractors, many urban cores are actually developing and growing denser. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed.
Overall, the picture looks something like this: There are pockets of high-density construction at the urban core and rapid building along the metropolitan periphery, but lagging growth in the dormant suburban interior. As Romem puts it:
In the past, virtually every patch of land in the metropolitan U.S. continually sprouted new housing, but this is no longer the case. In recent decades, residential construction has become increasingly confined to the periphery of American metro areas, while a growing swath of the interior has fallen dormant and produces new homes at a negligible pace. At the same time, a tiny fraction of the land area, scattered in small pockets throughout the metropolitan landscape, is responsible for a growing share of new home production, primarily in large multifamily structures.
The development of what was once the great suburban crabgrass frontier (to use the historian Kenneth Jackson’s evocative phrase), providing upward mobility and a path to a better life in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, has essentially been choked off. The urban core is growing denser, while the inner-ring suburbs are increasingly dormant, and in many cases distressed.