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.
The Dallas model, prominent in the South and Southwest, sees a growing population as a sign of urban health. Cities liberally permit housing construction to accommodate new residents. The Los Angeles model, common on the West Coast and in the Northeast Corridor, discourages growth by limiting new housing. Instead of inviting newcomers, this approach rewards longtime residents with big capital gains and the political clout to block projects they don’t like.
The direct results of these strategies are predictable: cheap, plentiful housing in some places, and expensive, scarce housing in others. A remodeler working on my L.A. town house a couple of years ago wistfully recalled visiting a cousin in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth. He wanted to move there himself. In Arlington, he said, “you can buy a million-dollar house for $200,000.” According to Coldwell Banker’s annual sur- vey, a 2,200-square-foot, four-bedroom “middle-management” home costs around $141,000 in Arlington (or, for big spenders, $288,000 in Dallas), compared with $1 million or more in the L.A. area. One man’s million-dollar dream home is another’s plain old tract house.
Many people do pack up and move, if not to Arlington, then to Las Vegas or Charlotte. Historically a magnet for educated migrants, California has begun losing college-educated residents, on net, to other states, in large part because of the high cost of housing. Most of the South’s population growth since the 1980s has come from the lure of cheap housing created by liberal permitting policies, according to new research by the Harvard economists Edward Glaeser and Kristina Tobio. By lowering the cost of housing, these policies give residents higher real incomes compared with similarly paid workers elsewhere—a strong incentive to move, even if you don’t like bugs or hot summers. The mobile middle class gravitates to the cities where housing is affordable. “If you’re your basic $85,000-a-year person, you can’t own in Los Angeles. You can’t do it,” says the Wharton School economist Joseph Gyourko. And if you’re your basic $45,000-a-year person, closer to the U.S. median household income, you’d better pack for Texas.