America’s Best City for Affordability, Jobs, and Quality of Life? Lessons from Amazon’s HQ2
“It won’t happen in New York,” that was the disheartening response of an architect friend about how to make cities affordable.* He had a point. NYC’s affordability situation is bleak, with more than half of its renters paying more than 30% of their income on housing (and many much higher). If treated as its own city, my home borough of Brooklyn would be considered the least affordable city in the country.
But it’s not just NYC. Around the country, it seems like most major cities — SF, LA, Boston, Seattle, Austin, and Miami — are beset with affordable housing crises.
In actuality, it only seems this way. There are numerous American cities that have managed to achieve affordability. But there’s a catch.
The face of urban affordability today
Perhaps my favorite authority on affordable housing is Sightline Institute’s Alan Durning. He wrote an in depth and compelling post that asserts we must build our way to affordability, adding new housing supply to match demand. He cites Houston and Chicago as two major American cities that have managed to both support growing populations, solid economies, and maintain housing affordability.
Both cities are what BuildZoom’s Issi Romem calls “expansive” cities, which grow out geographically to accommodate more housing. This is in contrast to “expensive” cities like NYC and SF, which add housing units within constrained geographies to support additional citizens (that’s in theory, if not always in practice).
Durning concedes that expansion — aka sprawl — has attendant infrastructural costs, and when personal transportation costs (i.e. cars) are factored in, net housing affordability is lowered. And needless to say, this car-centric living is no friend to the planet. But it’s indisputable that when compared to expensive cities like NYC, SF, and Seattle, Chicago and Houston are bargains.
People live in cities, not numbers
But here’s the thing: Chicago and Houston, while quantitatively attractive places to live, suffer from some from qualitative challenges that, in my opinion, will forever prevent them from being the economic and cultural powerhouses of the “expensive” cities.
Chicago, for example, has many assets — great cultural institutions, restaurants, etc.—but it also has awful weather (I spent my first 16 years there, so I speak with some authority. And as of this writing, it’s 50 degrees in NYC and 18 in Chicago with a windchill of 9). Its skies seem perpetually covered in a gloomy, grey film. Sure, there’s a lake that’s usable four months of the year, but outside of that there are few easily-accessed natural resources like mountains or forest preserves.
Houston is a city built on a swamp (correct me in the comments if I’m off on that one). It lacks a walkable downtown. It has no beach or mountains. And it’s hot! The average high temperature from May to September is 90.8 degrees, and this is not a “dry” heat. It’s muggy seven months of the year, with 29% of those seven months being classified as “miserable” according to one source.
In fact, most affordable major cities — Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Atlanta as well as second tier cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Charlotte, Memphis, and Buffalo — have awful weather. Few have attractive and accessible natural features. Many sprawl and lack walkable downtowns.
Meanwhile, the expensive cities seem to flow with godgiven talents. NYC is the most walkable major city in the world and its climate is actually quite mild and its skies frequently sunny. SF has a lively downtown, an ocean to the left, and mountains on the right, and a mild, albeit humid, climate. LA has great beaches, mountains, and a sunny, dry, and hot climate (I’ll leave aside commentary about how this all fairs in the face of global warming). Seattle, while occasionally damp and dreary, has a mild climate and is flanked by Puget Sound on one side and amazing mountains and wilderness on the other. Boston is within easy reach of places like Martha’s Vineyard and its weather…is the exception that proves the rule.
I bring all this up, not to diminish Chicago and Houston or any other city. If you love these cities, more power to you (my mom loves Chicago, and I know scores of people who would never consider living in NYC, SF, or LA for good reason). I bring it up to say that any picture of a city that excludes its intangible qualities is incomplete. And to say that for every benefit a city might present, there’s always a catch, whether that’s high rent, crappy climate, or long commutes.
Are there no exceptions?
All this being said, there is a city that, at least to some extent, enjoys a positive quantitative situation with relative housing affordability and a healthy job market. But it also has qualitative assets such as great weather, a decent cultural scene, and amazing natural resources. That city is Denver.
This is no big secret. For years, Denver has ranked among America’s fastest growing cities. Its growth, like Chicago and Houston, has been a function of its ability to expand. With few geographic constraints outside the Rockies (and there is a healthy buffer between city center and those mountains), Denver’s ability to sprawl has been fairly unrestricted.
Sprawl aside, Denver has a lot going for it:
- While housing is getting less affordable than its very affordable past, Denver is still a bargain to coastal refugees. Consider that it takes 53% of annualized wages to buy a house in Douglas county, Denver’s most expensive county. Meanwhile, it takes 125% in Kings County (Brooklyn) and 83% in SF.
- Denver is still a car-oriented city, but the city’s FasTracks initiative has greatly expanded transit options including extensive light rail, commuter rail, and bus services. Mayor Michael Hancock also initiated a 12-year, $2 billion Mobility Action Plan to expand mobility options beyond cars, reduce carbon emissions, and eliminate car-related deaths (Vision Zero). One company even has hopes of building a “hyperloop-inspired” system in the city by 2021.
- The city has been bullish on affordable housing, having initiated a locally sourced affordable housing fund that’ll raise more than $150 million in the next decade from property taxes and new development impact fees.
- Unemployment hovers around 2% with consistent wage growth in the area.
- Neighborhoods like LoDo, RiNo, and others offer walkability and hold sufficient cultural appeal for urban-types.
- Unlike freezing Chicago or boggy Houston, Denver enjoys a very sunny, dry, and temperate climate with four distinct seasons (the reputation for frigid weather is one many isolationist Coloradans try to perpetuate).
The city ain’t perfect. It’s not particularly diverse. As mentioned, it’s sprawling, and has normal commuter woes. It faces a shortfall of single-family housing, and most signals point to housing affordability worsening in the coming years.
But the city has also had a multifamily building boom in recent years, with 13,370 new apartment units coming online in 2017, versus 8,000 to 10,000 of recent years. And nearly 11,000 apartments are scheduled to open in 2018, the Denver Post reports. There are reasons to believe this is creating a surplus of apartments, and already rent growth is slowing down, and luxury towers are offering extensive incentives to attract tenants, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The search for the next Amazon HQ has become a pageant to crown America’s top city. And in my opinion, Denver wins. Its combination of attractive features, robust economy (and correspondingly deep talent pool), future-focused municipal government, relative housing affordability, and decent multifamily inventory makes Denver a goldilock city. It’s one of — if not the only — major American city that can realistically handle the new HQ and the thousands of high paid, amenity-loving employees that’ll come in its wake (an assessment, I was heartened to find, the New York Times agrees with).
Of course, Amazon’s presumptive move will destroy affordability in Denver….
*Affordability, in this context, relates to cost of living relative to median household income.