Why are the wealthy, well-off, and middle-to-upper-middle-class Americans pouring back into American cities? Eric Jaffe unpacks a new study in The Atlantic...
Back in 1980, Americans didn’t pay much of a premium to live in the center of a city. Quite the contrary: many gladly paid more to live farther away. The average price for a two- or three-bedroom home right in the central business district was about $100,000 (in 1980 dollars). That figure dipped a bit as you made your way out of town, but then it popped back up as you entered the suburbs. By the time you were 10 miles away, that home price was higher than it was downtown, and as you kept moving out it pretty much kept going up until you hit truly rural areas. We all know how that story ends. In the years and decades that followed, center cities made a comeback, and demand for downtown living soared. By 1990, in America’s top cities, those average home prices were higher in the [city center] than they were 10 or 15 miles away, according to U.S. Census data. By 2010 the gap was even greater, with city center prices 40 percent higher than periphery prices.
So centrality, however cramped, is worth something. That’s certainly not news to CityLab readers. But identifying just what it is about centrality that’s become so attractive to the well-off young households that might once have preferred more space in the suburbs is an ongoing question, and one that bears on the forces of gentrification and crises of affordability that challenge so many cities today. Among the ineffable thrills of urban life, is there a particular amenity to centrality we can point to and say—that thing, there?
A group of economists has submitted an intriguing answer: a “reduced tolerance for commuting.” As well-educated, high-income, dual-breadwinner households have put in longer hours at the office, they’ve likewise become starved for free time. And since a shorter trip to work is one of the simplest ways to make up for lost moments, they’re willing to pay handsomely for it, as reflected in soaring CBD home prices. Over time, new local amenities emerge—bike-share, cat cafes, cereal shops, what-have-you—“further fueling the gentrification process.”
Speaking of commutes: Ann Dornfeld had a moving report on KUOW last week about Seattle public school students who who are afraid to walk to and from school. These kids live in a high-crime neighborhoods and don't qualify for school bus rides or free Metro passes because they live within two miles of their schools:
Walking home, [Emily Au] clutched her jacket to her chest like a shield. She said three of her friends have been attacked for their sneakers while walking home from school.... Au didn’t tell her parents when she got mugged—they don’t even know she walks to school. She told them the school gave her a bus pass. Au’s mom is a seamstress at a factory. Her dad works in a restaurant kitchen. “I feel bad that I’m lying to them, but I don’t want to take money from them. They’re my parents. Fifteen dollars a week—they can use that on something better, groceries or something like that.”
The youth fare on King County Metro is $1.50: that's $3 to get to and from school, $15 a week. And this kid would rather take her chances walking to school every day—in the dark on the way home—than ask her struggling parents for the money.
What does Au's plight have to do gentrification?
Poor, working-class, and lower-middle-class people are being forced out of the centers of cities and an ever-greater share of their income is eaten up by transportation costs. We talk about how car ownership is expensive—and how it's out of reach for many—but having to take the bus everywhere is expensive around here too. Adult fares at peak travel times are $2.75 (one zone) and $3.25 (two zones). Getting to work and back will cost an adult $27.50 or $32.50 a week; toss in three additional roundtrips per week (the grocery store, a medical appointment, a school function, a movie) and you're talking roughly $44 (one zone) and $52 (two zone). So take a hypothetical two parent family where both parents work (one traveling in one zone, the other traveling over two zones) with two school-age children live within two miles of their schools. All four ride the bus to-and-from school and work and each take three extra roundtrip bus rides per week. Total cost of bus fare for this family: $144 per week, $7488 per year.
You know what would help out kids like Emily Au? You know what would offer immediate to help people being displaced by gentrification and development? You know what would help the poor and working class? Cheaper mass transit. Wealthier people are moving back into the centers of cities and have been for decades. Posters and snark are a lovely way to vent—I'm all for venting—but posters and snark are not going to halt or roll back the macroeconomic forces that are reshaping our cities; they're also not actually going to help anyone who has already been displaced. Poorer people are being pushed into farther-flung neighborhoods and out into the suburbs. We can and should build more units of affordable housing (which will take years to construct and only benefit those who land one of those units), we could and should push for rent stabilization (a political battle that will take years and may never be won), but we can and should push for cheaper mass transit.
The fight for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle was helped by the simplicity and straightforwardness of the demand: "What do we want? $15 an hour." A fight for subsidized mass transit—subsidies that would help address and ameliorate the harms being done by gentrification and development (and whose benefits would, again, kick in faster than those plans to build more units of affordable housing)—would benefit from a similarly simple, straightforward demand.
So how about this: "Buck a Day Transit." Annual Metro passes—available to all, not just the poor*—that cost $365 a year. In Vienna an annual pass to ride that city's extensive transit system costs 365 euros a year. We should fight to get the same deal here: $1 a day to get wherever you need to go—work, school, shops, downtown, movies, parks, doctors. Leave the one-off fares where they are, but make the annual buck-a-day transit pass available to all. It would help Emily Au's family, it would help people displaced by gentrification, it would be put money back in the pockets of poor and working class people. Emily Au could get to and from school—and all around town—for $7 a week, not $15. And that hypothetical family of four would be spending $1460 on transportation annually, instead of $7488. That family would have an extra $6028 to spend on housing, groceries, clothing, entertainment. They might even be able to to eat out once in a while or go on a fucking vacation.
The minimum wage had been a dull national policy debate for decades before the left transformed it into a social justice issue. The left could do the same for mass transit subsidies: turn transit into a social justice issue. Fight economic inequality by making buck-a-day bus passes available to all. Fight for $15 kicked the city's ass on the minimum wage. Seems to me that a "Battle for the Buck" campaign could kick the county's ass too.
And how do we pay for those passes? Tax the rich.
* Programs that only benefit the poor are vulnerable to political attack. Programs that are perceived to benefit only the poor—like food stamps and welfare programs—are easier to dismantle. That's why Republicans want to start "means testing" Social Security benefits; turning Social Security benefits into something only the poor get is a step (a giant step) toward dismantling the whole program. Make annual buck-a-day transit passes available only to the poor and they won't be around for long. Make buck-a-day transit passes available to all and you've secured them for the longterm—and the poor will benefit more than anyone else.