Back to the city? Not so fast.

The past decade made Seattle think the suburbs were fading and urban living was on the rise. The long-term trends are not reassuring.
Crosscut archive image.

Single in Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

The past decade made Seattle think the suburbs were fading and urban living was on the rise. The long-term trends are not reassuring.

The leading edge of Seattle politics is urban environmentalism. The main premise is that we need to embrace urban density, whether to combat global warming or to foster sidewalk sociability and the creative economy. The condo boom of the past decade has given visual evidence — all those cranes in the sky — that the back-to-the-city movement is happening in earnest.

But is it? Not according to Joel Kotkin, author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, and a steady doubter of the claims of fading suburbs and rising cities. He lays out his case in a Wall Street Journal article ($). Among the points he makes:

  • Multifamily housing peaked at 40 percent of all new housing in 2008, but has since retreated to 20 percent of the total, where it was in 2000.
  • Polling consistently shows over the past decades that 13 percent of Americans prefer living in an urban environment, compared to 33 percent who prefers suburbs and 18 percent who covet exurban living.
  • While well-educated people in their 20s and early 30s are strongly drawn to urban settings, the millennial generation as a whole "is even more suburban-centric than their boomer parents." Those who do prefer cities tend to think of it as a phase, moving to suburbs when children are ready for schools.
  • The real growth in urban population has come from ethnic immigration, but that tide is now shifting to suburbs.

To these sobering figures and trends, I would underscore two other points. One is that cities are not doing enough to attract and hold a mobile population. That would require much more emphasis on such things as creating jobs, improving schools, building parks, repairing infrastructure, getting more productivity for tax dollars, and making cities safer. Such matters in Seattle are distinctly second-tier compared to youthful amenities like bike lanes and more nightlife.

The other point is that cities such as Seattle are facing punishing fiscal consequences for going along with the condo bubble. That era drove up prices for housing (pricing out many middle class families) and gave cities a false sense of financial security, living off the real estate taxes. Now that those housing developments have lost value, or been put on hold, the city budgets are in terrible shape. In turn, this reversal will cut more of the basic services needed to keep attracting and holding residents.

The bubble also deluded local leaders into ignoring the structural fiscal problems of Seattle and other cities in the state. Ever since Tim Eyman's early 2000 initiatives capped the growth of real estate taxes to below inflation and population growth, cities have been living on borrowed time. They made it through the past decade by the surge in real estate excise taxes, levied on sales of housing at inflated prices. Instead, they should have been working to overturn the Eyman caps and to find a stabler tax base for urban services.

Bubble, bubble: lots of trouble.


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