Forbes: U.S. Cities Have A Glut Of High-Rises And Still Lack Affordable Housing

Another blow for “voodoo urbanism” in Portland and elsewhere.

The Vancouver skyline, where massive construction of high-rises has failed to improve affordability — in fact, new evidence suggests the practice has fueled greater problems.

In a convincing rebuttal to the myth that high-rises can help address housing shortages and loss of affordability, Forbes Magazine has cited statistics of a growing glut of high-rises on the market – at the same time that the crisis of affordability (in Portland and other cities) continues to spiral out of control.

The author is Joel Kotkin, a demographer and urbanist with whom the authors of this blog have had big disagreements in the past, and still do. Mr. Kotkin seems to be fond of car-dominated  sprawl, and not particularly appreciative of urbanism, i.e. livable neighborhoods with walkable streets, ample parks and squares, transportation choices and a mix of amenities. (Say it ain’t so, Joel!)

Well, urbanism is not the same thing as a city core, and while Mr. Kotkin perhaps doesn’t get urbanism, the boosters of hypertrophic growth in the core – what we previously referred to in this blog as “voodoo urbanism” – don’t seem to get the possibility of a more geographically diverse urbanism either.

The population of the Portland metro region is 2.3 million, but the population of Portland itself is only 670,000 – meaning that over 70% live outside of Portland. Even fewer live in the truly urban core of Portland, where high-rises are economically viable.

Kotkin rightly points out that focusing on this small area with high-rises creates a great many negative outcomes – of just the sort the authors of this blog have been warning about:

“…a high-density strategy tends to raise the price of surrounding real estate…”

“Critics also note that high-rises in urban neighborhoods often replace older buildings, which are generally more affordable.”

“High-density housing is far more expensive to build. Gerard Mildner, the academic director of the Center for Real Estate at Portland State University, notes that development of a building of more than five stories requires rents approximately two and a half times those from the development of garden apartments.”

“…in many cases, these units are not people’s actual homes; in New York, as many as 60% of new luxury units are not primary residences, leaving many unoccupied at any given time.”

“The notion that simply building more of an expensive product helps keep prices down elsewhere misses the distinction between markets…”

“These expensive units are far out of reach for the younger people who tend to inhabit the neighborhood, instead serving as what one executive called ‘vertical safe deposit boxes’ for people trying to get their money out of China.”

“In the end, the real need is not for more luxury towers. What is needed, particularly in America’s cities, from the urban core to the urban fringe, is the kind of housing middle- and working-class families can afford.

This is very true – although Kotkin seems a little too focused on the fringe. It still seems true that he conflates “suburban” with “sprawl,” and “center city” with “urban”.

But the “sub-urbs” can be urban too – that is, they can offer livable, walkable neighborhoods with a diversity of amenities and transportation choices – and here is the real challenge for most people in most cities, including Portland.

So the question is NOT how many people we can jam into high-rises in the core – again, “voodoo urbanism,” imagining that tokenistic over-building there will somehow solve broader problems, when in fact it exacerbates them – but rather, how well we create a truly continuous, diverse, polycentric urbanism.

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