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Monday, April 21, 2008

City Comforts

posted by on April 21 at 10:04 AM

House prices are falling everywhere, right? Wrong. Houses in far-flung suburbs and exurbs—soulless shitholes that aren’t served by mass transit, don’t have walkable urban cores, are bad for bike commuters, and may be the slums of the very-near-future—are headed off the cliff. But houses and apartments in cities—certain cities—are holding their value or rising in value. From NPR:

At a recent auction of foreclosed homes north of Washington, in the Maryland suburbs, there weren’t many takers. All of the addresses are far from downtown, and average commute times are among the highest in the nation.

It’s a different story for properties that are closer to the city’s center—in areas of Montgomery County that are on the edge of Washington.

“When I have a listing in this neighborhood, there are often 40 to 60 people coming through the open houses,” said Pam Ryan-Brye, an agent with Long and Foster Real Estate.

Inside the city, median home prices are actually up 3.5 percent from a year ago.

Here’s my favorite part of the story:

Stiff recently matched home resale values against commute times and found that in most of these major metropolitan areas, the trend is the same. The longer the commute, the steeper the drop in prices.

Stiff says home buyers’ attitudes have changed. The old rule was, “Drive ‘til you qualify”—meaning they should go out from the city until they could get what they wanted at a price they could afford. Stiff says buyers are now asking different questions: “What is the cost of gasoline? What is the cost of my time?”

With more Americans asking themselves those questions—questions Europeans have been asking themselves for a century—houses and apartments in areas “close in or near public transit,” according to the study cited by NPR, are holding their value or increasing in value.

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Earlier this month my next door neighbor's house in Wallingford (on the 26 bus line) sold in two days for $10k above asking price. Suck it, Issaquah!

Posted by DOUG. | April 21, 2008 10:16 AM

If those exurbs aren't served by mass transit, how will they become slums?

Posted by Matt from Denver | April 21, 2008 10:21 AM

I asked myself that question and moved out of Illinois. I couldn't afford to live near my job (which was NOT in the city, but in Schaumburg) and couldn't take public transit to it (I would have had to take the train IN to Chicago and then out again--would have ended up taking me at least 2 hours). I moved back to my hometown of Columbus, OH, and live in a tiny 1940's start home in Clintonville, 6 miles away from my job. My mortgage is smaller, I have room for my 3 dogs, there're things to do within walking distance or a bus ride, or a short bike ride or by car. What's not to like? I get a lot of crap for moving here from the Chicago area, but when ANYTHING you might want to do is at least 45 minutes away (and traffic in Chicago sucks round-the-clock, AND if you want to take the train you have to be back at the train station by midnight) what use are all those fabulous cultural opportunities? Might as well have a few less that you can actually GET to and enjoy.

Posted by Nora | April 21, 2008 10:30 AM

this is why I keep hammering at three important things:

1. Global Warming is NOW - which implies gas prices will be higher, as will natural gas and coal - and the sooner we adapt and build fewer highways and more interurban high-speed rail and local transit systems, the more competitive we'll be.

2. The exurbs and far-flung suburbs are over - and the tax subsidies we have created for them will be crushed by the increasing voter majorities in the cities and near suburbs (suburbs served by mass transit and/or with walkable neighborhoods like Everett or Kirkland).

3. Growth in city is inevitable - and building 3-4 story townhouses won't cut the mustard. Whether we adapt and do what Vancouver did by moving to 40-100 story mixed-income (leavened by 40/20/20/20 income groupings mixed on a floor from all five rich / upper middle / middle / lower middle / working incomes) with surrounding publicly-open greenspace (and playgrounds) ... or infill our single family housing residential neighborhoods instead (yuck) ... we will have to change.

Now, attack me for ... again ... telling you the truth about the future. It won't change it - it will happen, just like South Lake Union happened when you killed the park.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 21, 2008 10:37 AM

FYI: most Europeans don't live near mass transit.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 10:42 AM

@3, I'm sorry Chicago sucks so much. I've heard that Chicago sucks and I think your situation is pretty much what sucks about it. But I think basically the moral is that big cities that don't have a train system to go with it, like Paris', London's, Tokyo's, or (sort of) New York's really suck. Cus really nothing sucks worse than the El.

But like the story is really that you really need good transit, not just any transit, and the bigger your city the worse you need it.

Posted by John | April 21, 2008 10:43 AM

does anyone think this trend will come to Cleveland? because I found a 3 bedroom home with a yard within 1 mile of my downtown Cleveland job for $14,000 (no, I'm not forgetting a zero) - but I probably won't buy it.

Posted by pain | April 21, 2008 10:49 AM

@7: Pain--why wouldn't you buy it--is the neighborhood that iffy? or you just don't think it will appreciate? or it needs too much work?

I dunno, I think if it's that convenient and that inexpensive, and you need someplace to live, why not? MUCH cheaper than rent!

Posted by Nora | April 21, 2008 11:02 AM

@5 - no, but they do live in efficient walkable locations ... and consume a lot less energy to live there.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 21, 2008 11:14 AM

When these suburbs were created and the freeways along with them, traffic was not so bad. But the more people who moved to the burbs and the more the population increased, the more traffic became a pain in the ass. In the 50's, living far away from your work: no problem. Today: 2 hour plus gridlock problem.

Posted by D. | April 21, 2008 11:21 AM

@9: no they don't.

Will, I assume you've got some names or street addresses or something for all of these 40-100 story mixed-income buildings in Vancouver we should be emulating. Or do they only exist in that "Canadian edition" of "Building Defensible Spaces" you like to refer to (but which the National Library of Canada has never heard of)?

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 11:26 AM

Noooo! You weren't supposed to figure this out until after I bought myself urban real estate, Americans.

Damn it.

Posted by tsm | April 21, 2008 11:49 AM

Here, let me help you, Will, since you appear to be momentarily dumbfounded (your natural state):

1. One Wall Centre, 2001, 48 stories (27 floors of hotel, 3 of time-share resort, 17 of ultra-expensive condos).

2. The Melville, 2007, 43 stories, all ultra-expensive condos.

3. Shaw Tower, 2004, 41 stories, all offices.

That's, uh, it. No other 40+ buildings in Vancouver at all. Well, there's Living Shangri-La, which isn't finished yet, which will be a whopping 61 stories -- 15 floors of luxury hotel, the rest ultra-expensive condos. And none of these buildings are "surrounded by publicly-open greenspace (and playgrounds)".

In short: Will, you are a fantasist and a liar.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 11:57 AM

@11 - most places in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy are much more highly served by rail transit between cities than the US is.

Most cities have more transit than we do.

Fewer people own low mpg vehicles there than we do - and pay higher costs for fuel than we do.

Net result: EU is more efficient - as anyone who even has the slightest clue could tell if they read any energy research paper in the last DECADE.

Now, go stick your head in your wiki pond, Fnarf. Reality has a bias - and it ain't on your side.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 21, 2008 12:18 PM

It's about price sensitivity.

The houses closest to the city are the most expensive. Rich people that can afford the most expensive houses are the last to feel the economic downturn.

Economics stupid.

Posted by menelaus22 | April 21, 2008 12:38 PM

@22: Yep. which is why moving was such a good idea for me. Now I can live in a small city and 6 miles away from my job instead of 30 miles outside of a large city and 20 miles from my job.

And I'm not willing to live in a stack. My little single family house is very close to the next-door houses, which I don't have a problem with, and I have a single-car garage with alleyway access (so I am not living in McMansion luxury) but I don't want to live on the 20th floor of a building.

Posted by Nora | April 21, 2008 12:45 PM

Oops--I meant #15--menalaus22--sorry bout that.

Posted by Nora | April 21, 2008 12:47 PM

I live in the city, walk everywhere, and agree with the economics involved here, but jesus Dan, could you have sounded any more arrogant in this post?

Posted by john cocktosin | April 21, 2008 12:50 PM

keeping pace with inflation isn't amazing.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | April 21, 2008 1:30 PM

@14 -- nice attempt at changing the subject, Will. I didn't say that Europe in general isn't more efficient than the US, nor did I say that Europe isn't better-served by transit options, more efficient vehicles, etc. etc.

What I said was "most Europeans don't live near mass transit". That statement is TRUE.

As far as reading "energy research papers" goes, I've read more on the subject than you have, and I've absorbed more, too.

People like you think that because you've walked down the Champs Elysees, you know what Europe is all about. Most Europeans don't live in gentrified, museum cities, though; they live in rural areas, or nasty modern housing, much of which resembles the kind of crap you keep insisting would be terrific here.

But keep up with the straw men, Will. It makes you look so au courant.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 1:37 PM

I just want to know which building in Vancouver I should be looking at so I can decide if I like this idea. There are fewer than 10 existing or planned towers taller than 40 stories there, so if I only knew the name, or a general identifying characteristic, I'm sure I could find it by process of elimination if nothing else.

Posted by elenchos | April 21, 2008 1:44 PM

@20 - you changed the subject - go back and READ THE POST that is the Subject of this Thread (fuckin poser).

Annual energy usage of suburbanite USA resident compared to annual energy usage of urbanite USA resident compared to annual energy usage of Western EU urbanite and suburbanite .... (no, the former Eastern Europeans don't count, they haven't had time to restructure their societies ...)

Do the math.

Then ask why we continue to subsidize the inefficient suburbanite lifestyle, especially those not willing to adapt - exceptions such as Everett, Mercer Island, Kirkland where they are moving to transit ...

Then follow and ask should we move to a block house 4-6 story apartment mode citywide or instead maintain our single family housing in city and upzone near transit to 40-100 story inexpensive residential towers with views surrounded by small greenspace.

Fairly obvious.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 21, 2008 1:45 PM

You're a liar, Will.

I know what the subject of this post is, and you do not.

You are the poseur. You have your own little pet ideas, or should I say "ideas", that you don't even understand yourself, but still insist on injecting into every subject.

It's apparent in your comical rhetorical style. If I say "no, Will, there are no 40-100 story mixed-income towers set in parkland in Vancouver" you say "Fnarf wants us all to live in suburban McMansions!". If I say "no, Will, there are no commercially-available 80-MPG cars, even in Europe", you reply "Fnarf wants us all to drive gas-guzzling SUVs".

This kind of straw man argument is trivially easy to blow down, of course, which drives you further and further into fantasyland, as you inevitably resort to out-and-out lies to maintain your position. For example, the time not long ago you cited that book, "Creating Defensible Spaces", which ironically is the single most forceful argument AGAINST your position, if you would read it (which you haven't). Then you said you were referring to the "Canadian edition", but there is no such item, and you know it. It's a stupid and easily-discoverable lie. Why, Will, why?

Now you've come up with "Mercer Island is moving to transit" which is just...nonsensical.

But keep going, it's entertaining. It's too bad we can't run cars on the bullshit that flows out of you.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 2:12 PM

Gee, I wonder if Dan's old house on Vashon is holding its value?

Posted by Goose/gander | April 21, 2008 3:06 PM

To #13 - and, actually, really, Will, but just to add a fun fact, and hopefully not to exasperate this:

The tallest apartment building on the West Coast (by a longshot at 43 floors, and one of the few of its kind) is the Paramount here in San Francisco. Alcove studios there are about $2,500, 2 bedrooms are close to $6k. Luxury prices, even for here.

If you want "affordable" housing, that isn't the way it's done. Though I believe it's mostly occupancy rates - or supply and demand - that control housing prices, after a certain height, construction costs begin growing exponentially, and they aren't absorbed by the developer. But hey, there's shops on the ground floor, and it's kinda close to BART.

I still don't buy the "suburbs and exurbs are the ghetto of the future" theory. It could happen in some places, and has in the past, but not because the city became so desirable - but because local economies collapsed. The most prevalent examples here are post-WW2 economies (in the Bay Area, mostly shipyards) that slowed when the government was handing out FHA loans left and right, stranding those that didn't qualify (often times, the loans were only available to whites) creating a post-industrial, suburban wasteland that we're now 3 generation into.

Posted by Dougsf | April 21, 2008 3:17 PM

Dougsf, the Melville in Vancouver is also 43 stories. Your point still stands, of course; not mixed-income by any stretch.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 3:39 PM

#26 - Good to know. For some reason I thought those Vancouver buildings were part office/part residential, like some LA/NY buildings are set up (but are generally penthouses). Not sure why I thought that, they just looked odd from the outside, I think (those are the ones on that weird "beachfront" in the city, right?).

Posted by Dougsf | April 21, 2008 3:45 PM

So, given the backlash against building in parking lots, you're basically backing more 2-3 story townhouses to replace all the single family housing zoned neighborhoods in Seattle, then?

That's the net result if you keep going this way.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 21, 2008 4:36 PM

Why don't you address your lies and obfuscations before we move on to that, Will?

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 4:59 PM

Oh, right, I forgot -- you'll be tackling that problem tonight after midnight when you're drunk, in hopes that I won't see it.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 5:57 PM

I'd be OK replacing single family homes with 2-3 story, multi-family units. They still need to be designed and built well, and people will still have to WANT to live in the structures.

This isn't an eminent domain case here, it's people selling their property, and it being redeveloped within the confines of a particular zoning code.

Posted by Dougsf | April 21, 2008 6:40 PM

Ah, my old mansion on Vashon -- with it's three bedrooms and one bath. It was walking distance to the ferry, and I walked to work every day. Which means... it was near transit, and has probably held its value. Good for the folks who bought it from us.

Posted by Dan Savage | April 21, 2008 10:21 PM

There are no end of reasons why 100 story buildings are a bad idea. The shadow they cast, possible earthquake danger, potential as terrorist target, the sorry state of America's projects... the list goes on and on.

Also, no one would live in one without serious economic incentives or government mandates.

Posted by Dawgson | April 22, 2008 8:55 AM

Shh, everyone, don't bother Will with the facts. You know how he gets!

Posted by Donolectic | April 22, 2008 8:33 PM

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