Daily Archives: September 28, 2015

You’ll Always Have the Antelope Valley

Purple City often provides a thought-provoking different viewpoint on how cities grow and what it means for a city to be available to all. Thus, you get support for the new bus system in Houston, but not for elimination of express bus routes when LRT lines open. Support for more urban density, but also for long-haul commuter rail lines and freeways that many transportation advocates don’t like.

However, I think a recent post misses the mark. It lists three reasons why lack of development in Palo Alto isn’t the problem in the Bay Area’s housing crisis: (i) land is scarce, (ii) the Bay Area is “blue tribe” – i.e. marrying and having kids later in life, and (iii) Silicon Valley attracts lots of smart people. The post argues that you don’t want to turn Silicon Valley into Singapore, because it would make humanity dumber by being a place that attracts lots of smart people but puts them in the kind of housing (small apartments in high-rises) that discourages them from having kids.

First, let’s address the assumption that this result would make humanity dumber. The snarky retort would be that watching TMZ would disabuse you of the idea that the ability to secure a position of wealth and influence is necessarily correlated with the possession of superior genetics. But at a more human level, this just isn’t how society works. I don’t claim to know the first thing about genetics, but regardless of the hand you are dealt by nature, the opportunities and resources society presents you with (or does not present you with) are far more important. Silicon Valley isn’t overwhelmingly white and male because of genetics.

Turning to the less controversial aspects, it’s true that California has a lower fertility rate than many “red tribe” states like Utah and Texas. However, the reasons behind these differences are probably quite complex, and I don’t think they can be boiled down to something as simple as being in a large SFR instead of a small apartment. The states at the bottom are a mixed bag of places with practically no one living in high rises, including Alabama, Pennsylvania, and all of New England. Meanwhile relatively dense Hawaii checks in near the top. In California, it is likely that the drop in the fertility rate has coincided with the decline in production of apartments, but it would seem questionable to draw any conclusions from that. To the extent there are differences within cities (young singles & elderly in apartments, families in the burbs), that may be self-selection.

What we can probably say with some certainty is that, all else equal, people will choose to have more children when they feel more economically secure, because raising children can be costly. High cost of housing is one thing that makes people feel less economically secure, as do things like potential medical and education expenses. If we are concerned about fertility rates being high enough to ensure a large enough number of future workers to pay for things like Social Security and Medicare, we should seek to reduce the cost of raising children, which can be done through things like lowering the cost of housing, providing more support for children’s health, and decreasing the cost of education. Of course, this is what many families are trying to do when they move to suburbs at the edge of the city. Ideally, policies to decrease the cost of raising children would be targeted at low-income and middle-income families, since there are many more of them than high-income families, for whom the cost of having children is probably less of a concern anyway.

Lastly, California is simply not scarce on land. We’re not Singapore or Hong Kong, not even by an order of magnitude. Santa Clara County has a population of 1.9 million, for a density of 1,400/sq mi. That makes it about 65% as dense as LA County, which includes enormous swaths of unpopulated land in the San Gabriel Mountains and Mojave Desert, yet still has over a million and a half single family homes. You can go 30 miles from Palo Alto and find vacant land and farms – well within the reaches of a Chicago-style extensive commuter rail, if that’s your fancy.

Like some parts of California, Singapore and Hong Kong have a lot of protected or unbuildable land close to the urban core. But unlike Singapore and Hong Kong, California is really, really big. For those who decide they must have a single-family home to raise a family, even if we upzone everything in the LA, you’ll always have the Antelope Valley.