MR commentator “Sure” on YIMBY

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People talk about YIMBY as though it will mean more high rise apartments. And maybe it would in New York or San Francisco, though I have my doubts.

But what people want from their housing is overwhelmingly a short commute and low density.

Currently, the neighborhoods that offer the best tradeoff for these are the priciest in most metropolitan areas. Georgetown, Arlington, Falls Church, Chevy Chase, Great Falls, McLean … all of them offer shorter commutes into DC (or other key job locations like the Pentagon).

And what have YIMBY’s won? Well in Arlington and Alexandria they can now build multifamily housing in places that were once reserved for SFH.

Suppose they do, who is going to move in? The guys who are buying in Chantilly because they want space? Or the guys crowded into a apartment building in NE DC who work in Foggy Bottom?

I submit it will be the latter.

End of the day, Americans want to live in the burbs and the country. If we liberalize zoning everywhere (i.e. the YIMBY dream) then we should expect a net movement from the areas where people say they don’t want to live to the areas where they say they want to live.

And on net that means out of the urban core and into something less dense. Most likely that means leaving the high rises and moving into low rises or multiplexes. End of the day, it will be moving from high density to lower density.

And this will create tensions between maintaining SFH in burbs as opposed to multiplexing them or building low rises.

I have no idea if the price will be the thing that gives – it may rise because the land has suddenly gotten more valuable for a teardown to low rise conversion. This would bring down “housing” prices, but quite possibly increase the cost of detached single family homes as the supply of that specific housing class diminishes. Possibly, the low rises will reduce demand for SFH more than teardowns and foregone SFH developments.

But if that does happen, it means that a lot of suburban areas are going to have a bunch of new residents and voters who are not keen to live the SFH lifestyle. And that is all but certainly going to mean disamenity for the SFH lifers. That may be new local politics, investment in public transportation at the expense of road maintenance, or declining school quality.

But end of the day, if YIMBYism allows people to live as they want because the market can better match demand, then the net flow has to be out of the oversubscribed cities. And the big reason people say they live urban when they would prefer otherwise is to be close to the jobs. This strongly suggests that YIMBY will end up resulting less in skyscrapering the cities and more in multiplexing the burbs.

Outside of a handful of cities with extremely harsh geographic constraints (e.g. NYC, SF), upzoning the burbs will likely eat into the city cores more than new folks will move to the city cores.

Of course there is always the immigration question. With enough immigration, even the cities will fill (i.e. both NYC and SF are already more than a third foreign born), but if we confine ourselves to current residents they want out and they want a short commute.

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