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How big-city living is hurting families
A new study says families and the middle class have been "pushed out of the debate" over affordable housing in big cities. - photo by Eric Schulzke
The best place for a middle-class family looking to relocate in 2016 is Des Moines, Iowa, a surprising new report suggests, noting that middle-class families are relocating to places like Des Moines, which has less zoning and regulation restrictions, more economic growth and more room for families to spread out.

The study is a rarity in housing policy debate, said the report's lead author, Joel Kotkin, who is director of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California.

"The basic issue here is that families and the middle class have been pretty much pushed out of the urban debate, so no one much focuses on them," Kotkin said.

Kotkin aims to encourage cities to loosen tight zoning restrictions that prioritize urban density over the kind of single-family homes that middle-class families prefer.

This makes Kotkin a lonely voice crying in the policy wilderness in defense of what critics call "suburban sprawl."

Neglecting the middle

Kotkin's overarching concern is the place of middle-class families in an urban landscape that increasingly is geared to single and/or very wealthy people, with vast and growing wealth inequalities in major urban centers squeezing out middle-income families, which then leave for suburbs and cities that are more attuned to their needs.

The Brookings Institution defines middle-income households as those that make between two-thirds of and twice the average income. In 2014, this meant a range from $42,000 to $126,000. This category has shrunk, down to 50 percent of all adults in 2015 from 61 percent in 1971.

Inequality has risen in the larger, denser cities, Kotkin argues, resulting in an "upstairs/downstairs" economy, where wealthy professionals and the low-income service providers who work for them are the only ones who stay behind, while middle-income families flee.

Who can still afford to live in big cities? High earners, service workers and dogs. San Francisco, Kotkin notes, now has 80,000 more dogs than it does children.

Fleeing families

And when the families flee, many of them go to destinations like Des Moines. Other high-scoring cities included Madison, Wisconsin; Albany, New York; Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

The new report looked at growth of median family income, the percentage of jobs that fell into the middle-income range, and cost of living adjusted for long-term unemployment.

The study also factored in commute times, the number of bedrooms per person, and the out- or in-migration of children ages 5-17, as a measure of "voting with their feet." All together, the study rolled nine key variables into a single rank order of cities.

The study notes that the impact of housing costs has grown in the past decade, now taking the largest chunk of family income, eclipsing food, clothing and transportation, which have all held steady or even declined.

"In 2015, rises in housing costs essentially swallowed savings gains made elsewhere, notably, savings on the cost of energy," the authors note.


Needless to say, not everyone agrees with Kotkin's diagnosis or prescription.

Choices of where to live will always involve trade-offs, argued Arthur C. Nelson, a professor of planning and real estate development at the University of Arizona. And while Nelson said he finds Des Moines to be a charming place to visit, he would never want to live there.

Nelson also said that Kotkin, who lives in the heart of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, seems to agree with him. He lives in the nations most densely settled metro area, Nelson said. Its suburbs are more dense than most cities. If density is so bad, then why does Kotkin choose to live in the heart of L.A. County?

Things are not nearly so dire in urban centers, argued Michael Lewyn, a law professor at Touro Law School in Islip, New York.

Lewyn noted that much of Manhattan has seen increases in number of children. In Greenwich Village, for instance, just 11.4 percent of households had children in 2000, but by 2013 15.1 percent did. That number is still low, Lewyen conceded, but the current trend will not depopulate Manhattan of children.

South and west

The release of Kotkin's new report coincides with new data from the Census Bureau that lend some credence to his findings. The Bureau reports that after a hiatus during the Great Recession, rapid growth in the South and West has resumed.

"A search for jobs and more affordable housing (was) behind two-thirds of the long-distance moves made between 2014 and 2015," Pew reported, summarizing the census data, adding that "Texas, for example which had the biggest population gain from 2014 to 2015, an increase of 490,000 people for a total 27,469,114 is a magnet for job-seekers from elsewhere. It has been at the fore in high job growth and outpaced the nations economic growth since the recession."

Of the top 10 fastest-growing states last year, four are contiguous Western states: Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Other fast-growing low-regulation states included Florida and Texas, though, to be fair, Oregon and Washington also made the list, despite their more restrictive zoning and regulatory reputations.
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