There may be no dirtier word in today’s local lexicon than “sprawl.” The image it conjures — of shopping center after shopping center (excuse me, “strip mall”) separated from a four-lane by parking moats — is one our community leaders are eager to banish.
In its place we have “walkable” and “live-work-play.” Build up, not out. Not just ITP: Many of Atlanta’s suburbs are either reinventing or creating anew denser city centers. Metro Atlanta, that place without mountains or an ocean to halt its march, instead seems to be hitting a different sort of natural boundary: The amount of time people will spend in their cars.
For obvious reasons, we tend to talk about that issue in terms of transportation. Sometimes we touch on education, given that one big reason so many moms and dads accept such long commutes is the generally superior quality of public schools in the suburbs. But we don’t discuss as often what a slowdown in growing out might mean for housing prices — or acknowledge just how good we’ve had it on that score thanks to, yes, sprawl.
A report this week from BuildZoom.com illustrates the point. From 1980 to 2010, the cities that slowed their expansions into rural areas the most also saw some of the sharpest increases in average, inflation-adjusted home prices. Conversely, those that kept moving outward were able to keep home prices in check. The study’s author, Issi Romem, calls these two groups “expensive” vs. “expansive.”
For example, compare Miami and Atlanta, two metro areas similar in population. Our footprint continued to grow rapidly between 2000 and 2010, with 86 percent more land developed then than during the 1970s. Miami, on the other hand, saw its third straight decade of slower development: The area added 64 percent fewer square miles than it did in the ’70s.
As a result, housing prices grew five times faster in Miami than around here. Price spikes were even worse in places like Seattle and San Diego. Only a handful of metros with significant population growth in recent decades kept home-price growth as reasonable as Atlanta did. The ones that did — competitors such as Austin, Charlotte, Dallas and Houston — were also ones that kept growing outward.
Elsewhere, particularly in California, Romem told me in a phone interview, “the middle class are the ones being squeezed” as geographic expansion slows.
That effect is already visible in our area, where a similar “expensive” vs. “expansive” dynamic plays out on a micro level. The average home price across all of metro Atlanta may be holding fairly steady, but try telling that to someone looking for a place to live near job centers like Midtown and Buckhead.
It’s not just single-family homes. Density in West Midtown and along the Beltline usually means more multifamily housing, but it’s not necessarily more affordable. I know firsthand from helping someone who just moved back here from Brooklyn. We’re talking apartment rents that rival what she was paying up there, and even the mortgage payment for a decent house.
And as my colleague Bill Torpy recently documented quite well, the monotonous aesthetics of these apartments don’t give any ITPers any room to look down their noses at “cookie-cutter” subdivisions outside I-285.
Look, I like to get home quickly and walk to dinner at Fellini’s as much as the next intowner. Let’s just make sure we’re not about to abandon a quality that brought many of us here in the first place.