There's a very precise formula for how major U.S. metro areas can make their housing markets “hot”; simply commit to jobs and population growth, then artificially restrain the housing supply. This has been the price inflation calculus in New York and San Francisco. But even within these and other desirable metros, the price variation across the geographic landscape is so disperse as to seem random--and counters the stereotypes about where consumers actually want to locate.
This is evident when looking at the "Heat Maps" on Trulia.com. These maps allow prospective homebuyers to see color-coded overviews of the price ranges across their desired metros. Areas shaded in red are ones where average listing prices exceed $1 million; orange areas are between $500-999k; yellow areas are between $350-499k; and green areas are $349k or less. Along with average listing prices, Trulia's Heat Maps can be altered to show average sale prices, sale prices/sqft, valuations and rental prices.
What's surprising about the maps is just how spiky and variegated they are, by neighborhood and by municipality. This would refute certain commentary that has been made about cities in recent decades. Thanks to the continued growth of major metros, center city areas are anecdotally thought to be places of high demand and pricing. Suburban sprawl, meanwhile, is viewed as the less desirable second option; the one that people settle for because they can't afford the expensive and over-regulated city centers. This "forced exile" narrative was, for example, one of the main ones in Richard Florida's new book about class segregation.
But these two sentiments are only somewhat true. While there are a lot of cheap suburbs, there are also many suburbs that are pricier on average than central cities, making them destinations unto themselves; and while much of central-city America is famously expensive, certain neighborhoods within even these hot markets remain surprisingly cheap.
The perennially "hot" New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area is one case study. On its heat map, most of the blocks south of 110th street in Manhattan have average listing prices above $1 million (no surprise there). But then, the Long Island townships of Kings Point, Old Westbury and the Hamptons also have at or above this price range, as do parts of southern Connecticut.
Meanwhile Brooklyn, for all the talk of whitewashing and gentrification, is really not much different than the rest of the metro. Some parts of the borough, especially close to Manhattan, average above $1 million. Other parts, especially those further from Manhattan, average around the metro area median of $411,000. But a majority of the borough contains the orange designation of between $500-999k. This isn't cheap, but it doesn't cause Brooklyn to stick out from other parts of the region; much of suburban Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey is also orange. Meanwhile, various portions of New York City proper--namely The Bronx--have average listing prices below the metro area median.
A similar calculus applies to the Bay Area. A majority of San Francisco is of course shaded red. But so too is pretty much all of Silicon Valley (besides San Jose); the entire northern peninsula leading to San Rafael; and even some of the uber-suburban territory far east of Oakland. Meanwhile, various neighborhoods in San Francisco city proper have cheaper listing prices on average than the metro area median of $843,000, and this goes for almost all of the East Bay, including Oakland and Berkeley.
In other notably pricey metros, the most expensive areas sit outside the city proper altogether. This is the case in San Diego (La Jolla and Coronado); Washington, DC (Bethesda and Potomac); Los Angeles (Malibu, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, although the Hollywood Hills, which are in the city proper, are also pricey); Seattle (Bellevue and Mercer Island); Denver (Boulder); and Boston (western suburbs). It is also the case in metros with cooler housing markets, such as Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Chicago.
So to break it down: there are many city center areas that people could locate into for less money--if being centrally-located were that important to them. But they don't, thanks to various factors that have nothing to do with price. Maybe those neighborhoods have crime, failing schools, or high poverty (although that isn't the case for many of San Francisco's cheapest areas). Or maybe such people just prefer the suburbs.
There are numerous suburban areas, moreover, that people will pay more to live in than they would for city living-- even city living in a nice neighborhood. The factors could range from the slightly better job growth in the suburbs, to the fact that, as former Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko has written, suburban and rural areas score higher on consumer choice surveys.
The point of noting this is not to diminish the problems caused by high housing prices in cities. Such prices have been broadly felt by society, driving our poorest into homelessness, preventing our richest from forming reliable workforces, and hurting all other groups in between. The point, rather, is to note the complexity of consumer demand in urban America, and how it should inform the affordable housing debate. Center city areas with high demand should be deregulated so that more housing is allowed; by now this is an obvious, bipartisan solution. But suburban areas that are in high demand--and that suffer from their own bouts of Nimbyism--should also see such deregulation. Because if average home prices are any indication, people want to live just as much, if not more so, in these suburban areas as they do in the city.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]