The unrealized potential of downtown housing

Matt Taecker, New Urban Network

Editor's note: This blog is part 1 of a 3-part series on downtown housing. Part 2 was published February 24 and Part 3 appeared February 25.

The district must have a sufficiently dense concentration of people, … there because of residence. … [P]eople concentrate in downtowns. … [I]f they did not, there would be no downtown to amount to anything. — Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities.

Housing sets a cornerstone for centers. To be vibrant, city centers need lots of people, day and night. Housing brings 24-hour activity to downtown streets and patrons to downtown stores. Downtowns need to be livable places that some will call home.

Meanwhile decent housing — housing that is affordable, secure, and convenient — remains out of reach for many Americans. More than one of three households and half of all renters spend over 30 percent of their gross income on housing. Over the last decade, this crisis of affordability has worsened as the number of such “cost burdened” renters increased over 50 percent and doubled among homeowners (Alan Mallach in Planning Magazine).

Moderate- and lower-income households are being priced out of local housing markets. Many double up and live in crowded or substandard districts. Many seek low-rent options in less accessible locations, not fully appreciating the drain that these locations have over time on net income and family life. Often people who work in one place can’t afford to live nearby and must commute in. They commute by car because developers build cheap near the metropolitan edge. Land is cheaper there. Access is more limited across longer distances, and converting land from rural to urban uses pays a premium. New housing sells because it’s cheaper or offers for more space or yard, for the same money could buy closer in. But housing at the edge also carries enormous costs.

Consumers can be pretty bad at factoring long-term costs in their decisions, and many people who rent or buy farther out don’t realize that they are signing up for needlessly large on-going car costs.  As reported in the Denver Post, the average American spends about 20 percent of their gross income on transportation, 95 percent of which goes toward owning and operating cars. Household spending on transportation is second only to housing and is three times greater than health care. This makes downtowns and similarly connected locations more affordable overall, even if a premium is paid for central location, urban amenities, and transportation options.

Downtowns and other city centers address a full spectrum of housing needs and preferences. They frequently bring together a mix of incomes. Downtown housing types can vary considerably, from affordable efficiencies to luxury townhomes. Downtown amenities and open spaces also make smaller housing an attractive option.

Downtowns cater to a broad range of ages and abilities. Thriving downtown’s offer a wide range of housing choices and allow car-free living that translates into significant savings and easy access to jobs. When downtown’s have matured as places to live, they cater to all of life’s stages: from single adult through childrearing and then older empty-nester.

Downtowns offer more in the way of community services for those who need them. Seniors and others can more easily access health and other forms of care. Many downtowns are the location for social services, like job training, which can place low- and very low-income households on a path toward self-sufficiency.

While the exodus from downtowns has reversed, the potential for downtown housing lays untapped. Three-quarters of major downtowns had population increases in the last ten years (Lincoln Institute), but less than half of these downtowns had more than 10,000 residents, and 20 percent of these downtowns had less than 5,000 residents — smaller than most small towns — a hamlet at the center. Only a few big cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have more than 20,000 people living downtown. And while 45 regions grew 100 percent from 1970 to 2000, the downtowns in those regions grew only 8 percent — not for lack of land as most downtowns have numerous parking lots and unremarkable single-story buildings.

Downtowns and other city centers present exceptional opportunities for new housing. It is increasingly attractive to young individuals and families, and older empty-nesters. But while city-center housing offers advantages, its construction has remained well below its potential. Personal income saved through reduced transportion costs goes largely unrecognized. Demand for deeply affordable housing goes largely unmet. Possibilities to create centers that are vibrant and economically diverse go unrealized.

For nearly three decades, Matt Taecker has developed innovative area plans, city and regional plans, development codes, and mixed-use master plans. Most recently, Taecker has applied best practices to high-density urban centers to community-responsive plans for Downtown Berkeley. He is the editor of Center and Edges journal, where this blog was recently published.

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