Interesting article:  Alan Ehrenhalt argues in The New Republic that cities throughout North America are undergoing a “demographic inversion,” in which the center city is once again becoming home to the well-off rather than the poor.

Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city—Vienna or Paris in the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center—some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white—are those who can afford to do so.

Vancouver rainbow - flickr user hfabulousThat certainly rings true for Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, too.  In fact, Ehrenhalt discusses Vancouver, with its “forest of slender, green, condo skyscrapers,” at some length.  So apparently, the problems of urban housing affordability aren’t just local ones; they’re international in scope. (At least we’re in good company.)

The article also makes a trenchant observation: the recent North American view of the city as a dumping ground for people who are too poor to escape is something of a historical anomaly.  More typically, cities have been magnets for wealth, not repositories for the impoverished.  Recent trends are, as much as anything else, a return to historic norms. 

Still, Ehrenhalt argues that the urban resurgence is being driven by some ahistorical demographic shifts:  later childbearing, professional couples choosing fewer (or no) kids, more empty nesters in good health.  Those kinds of shifts are likely to persist—which will mean plenty more people will opt for urbanity over suburban living.  And high demand will likely mean higher prices for homes close to downtown.

So my question in all of this is:  given that people with lots of disposable income are choosing to move closer to downtown, is there a good way—or, indeed, any way—to retain decent, affordable housing for middle- and lower-income folks close to downtown jobs? 

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  • I used to think that the best answer was simply to build more housing close to downtown, in part by getting rid of unhelpful restrictions on development.  Build enough housing, I figured, and supply and demand would meet at a more amenable price point.  But I’m no longer sure how much that will help; Vancouver’s center city has grown enormously, but prices haven’t moderated.  It could be that downtown development is a virtuous cycle with a vicious edge:  as the city gets wealthier, its amenities get better and better, attracting even more wealth—and making it harder and harder for middle-income folks to find a decent, affordable place to live that doesn’t require a long and fuel-wasting commute.

    I’m not sure that there’s a simple solution here.  I think it’s worth a look around.  Has any city—from Paris to Chicago to Vancouver—found a good antidote to high housing costs near the city center?  If anyone knows of effective, tried-and-true models for urban housing affordability, I’m all ears.

    Then again, this is not the worst sort of problem for a city to have. Consider the alternative.  For decades, wealthy folks avoided downtown, and many urban centers became concentrated enclaves of deep poverty.  The results—economic segregation of the inner city—fostered far worse social ills than housing affordability presents today.

    Of course, some folks are opposed to gentrification in any form; but it’s worth remembering that back in the 1970s and 1980s—when cities had far less little wealth and economic vitality—life for downtown residents was pretty lousy.  Idealizing that past is a mistake.  In comparison, current trends in downtown revitalization—despite the affordability problems—are in many ways a breath of fresh air.

    Photo courtesy of Flickr user hfabulous under a Creative Commons license.