David A. Price interviews Edward Glaeser, with the subheading “On urbanization, the future of small towns, and “Yes In My Back Yard” (Econ Focus, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Fourth Quarter 2021, pp. 19-23). Here are a few comments that caught my eye.
On centripetal and centrifugal forces in cities
I see urban growth as almost uniformly a dance between technologies that pull us together and ones that push us apart.
Technologies of the 19th century, like the skyscraper — which is really the combination of a steel frame and an elevator — the streetcar, the steam engine, all of these things enabled the growth of 19th century cities. They brought people together. This was a centripetal age.
In the mid-20th century, we had technologies that were major jumps forward in transportation cost. In transportation technology, like the car, and in technology for transporting ideas and entertainment — television and radio — these were centrifugal forces that basically flattened the Earth and made it easier to live in far-flung suburbs or even rural areas. Those centrifugal technologies … were the backdrop for the exodus of people from dense cities that had been built around streetcars and subways and to suburbs that were built around the car.
But then in the late 20th century and early 21st century, the tides turned again. … We’ve started to see the electronic cottages become a force during the pandemic, and suburbanization has continued, but downtowns are vastly stronger than they were in the 1980s. And I think the primary reason is that globalization and new technologies have radically increased the returns to being smart, and we are a social species that gets smart by being around other smart people. That’s why people are willing to pay so much to be in the heart of Silicon Valley and why they’re willing to pay so much for downtown real estate in Chicago or New York or London.
On the shift to a rental market in single family homes
Traditionally, single-family homes were overwhelmingly owner-occupied in the U.S. More than 85 percent, I think, of homes were owner-occupied. The usual view of the housing economics community was that the agency problems involved in renting them out were huge. There are estimates that suggest that renting out for a year involves a 1 percent decline in the value of the house, or something like that, because the renter just doesn’t treat it properly. By contrast, traditionally more than 85 percent of multi-family housing was rented, at least once you get to over five stories. It’s much easier to manage a multi-unit building when you have one owner. One roof, one owner, because otherwise you’ve got the problems of coordination of the condo association or the co-op board, which can be more fractious.
So those were the things, I think, that were responsible for tying ownership type and structure type so closely together. We are starting to see that break down, which is quite interesting. I don’t know if these buyers have fully internalized their difficulties with the maintenance that goes into rental houses as a long-run issue. Or if technology has changed in such a way that they think that they can actually solve that agency problem and that they can figure out ways to deal with the maintenance costs in some efficient fashion. I’m happy to see an emergence of a healthy rental market in single-family detached housing, but I’m keenly aware of the limitations and difficulties of doing that. So, we’ll have to see how this plays out. I can’t help thinking some part of it just has to be that investors are simply searching for new investment products.
On new models of where workers will live
Take your Silicon Valley startup with 15 smart, hungry young people. Do we truly think in five years these people are just going to be Zooming it in from their suburban bedrooms? That sounds totally implausible to me. That sounds like a totally different work model that will lack all the energy and high quality in-person connections you get from being in the same room as one another.
But on the other hand, are these 15 people going to decide, “Well we all love skiing, we’re tired of paying Silicon Valley prices, should we relocate to Vail?” Or say, “We don’t want to pay taxes, let’s relocate to Austin.” Or, “We want better surfing, let’s relocate to Honolulu.” That feels entirely plausible to me. The technology supports the mobility en masse of these groups to some different area. Places they’re most likely to relocate to are high-amenity places that will appeal to them along one of these dimensions. These would be probably the best index right now of whether or not a place is likely to benefit: Among small towns, is it a skilled place already? Prior to COVID-19, did it do a good job of attracting large numbers of college graduates or people who had advanced degrees?