One reason sprawl has been good for Atlanta

AJC Photo / Bita Honarvar

AJC Photo / Bita Honarvar

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.

Reader Comments 0

112 comments
C_Casselberry
C_Casselberry

A city that is the railroad crossroads of the Southeast has zero commuter rail. Amazing. 

EastATLGuy
EastATLGuy

Atlanta wouldn't have crazy traffic if it weren't one of the top destinations for people to move to. Low taxes, better quality of life and almost no democrats in charge. 



Starik
Starik

@EastATLGuy Except in Clayton, DeKalb, South Fulton and that city in the middle of the donut... Atlanter?

Starik
Starik

@EastATLGuy @Starik As a whole, unfortunately yes.  There are areas firmly controlled by Democrats, counties and even congressional districts.

EastATLGuy
EastATLGuy

If Atlanta is so bad why do people, and companies, from blue states keep moving here?

Starik
Starik

@EastATLGuy The state bribes them by reducing their taxes and increasing ours.

jetblasted
jetblasted

Miami, bordered by a ton of cities to its north, the ocean to its east, a swamp to its west & islands to its south.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@jetblasted You may have noticed I didn't attribute Miami's slowed expansion to any particular reason, and did note above that comparison the lack of such features around Atlanta. But it doesn't really change the point: Cities that expanded tended to keep prices down; cities that didn't -- for whatever reason -- weren't able to do so.

In fact, another thing Romem said that I didn't include is he thinks geography is becoming more of a limiting factor over time, even though it's fixed.

Starik
Starik

@Kyle_Wingfield @jetblasted Cities surrounded by water can't expand freely.  In coastal cities the weather gets hotter and drier the farther inland you go, and far less desirable for development.

Freethinkethman
Freethinkethman

I stIll have not been able to find the "One thing" why sprawl is good for Atanta in this piece.

Does not matter since I, someone once in a non-sprawl area that is now sprawl, can only think of the reasons sprawl is much like cancer. It has given us stifling traffic, repleat with too many jerks on the road, much more crime, higher taxes, etc. Thanks for nothing.

EastATLGuy
EastATLGuy

@Freethinkethman

Higher taxes? I guess you've never lived anywhere else in your entire life. Crime? See Chicago. 


You're free to move and I'll gladly pay for your moving van. 

C_Casselberry
C_Casselberry

@Lil_Barry_Bailout While driving on your crappy roads. Banana republics have smoother pavement. Hope the gun stuffed in your underwear doesn't go off when you hit a deep pothole.

Starik
Starik

67 comments and nobody mentioned race, which drives a lot of this movement of population along with the effect of race and public schools.  Myself, I think it's class differences as much of race. Blacks and other minorities also move far from the inner city to get away from the schools and the crime centers, and they are welcome. 

Politics too... when the black power structure shut down the Atlanta housing projects, that population had to leave, creating demographic shifts in DeKalb, Clayton, Douglas and parts of Cobb and Gwinnett.

Somebody should do maps of the racial makeup of census districts since, say 1950, so we can see the blobs representing different groups chase each other around the area. 



EastATLGuy
EastATLGuy

@Starik


" nobody mentioned race"

Awe, are your feewings hurt, race baiter?

Starik
Starik

@EastATLGuy @Starik Not me, but if you ignore the effects of race on just about everything in this area you're ignoring reality. 

Starik
Starik

@Lil_Barry_Bailout We can't. Race is always with us. It's part of our Southern Heritage, like the Confederate Flag.

Starik
Starik

@Lil_Barry_Bailout @Starik Black folks, some of them, want to keep it going; see the black lives matter "movement."  Given the history of segregation and Jim Crow they have that right.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

BTW, I liked Fellini's better when they had the self-serve beer cooler.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

The revitalized small towns such as Woodstock and Kennesaw offer some of the best of both worlds. Walkable neighborhoods, nice restaurants, suburban quiet and prosperity, and no ITP crime and trash.

Starik
Starik

@Lil_Barry_Bailout Hey, Barry I got the book you recommended.  I'll start on it as soon as I finish the Game of Thrones books.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

It's refreshing to see someone else on Kyle's blog dedicated to bettering themselves!

Starik
Starik

@Lil_Barry_Bailout Game of Thrones is long, but extremely well-written and provides lots of detail and backstory that the HBO series can't. 


As to the book, I love exposure to new information and best of all, arguments.

Bruno2
Bruno2

Kyle: "Elsewhere, particularly in California, Romem told me in a phone interview, “the middle class are the ones being squeezed” as geographic expansion slows."

kitty: "My hometown, San Jose, CA"

Kyle (and kitty)--If you are looking for the most powerful example of "expensive vs expansive", you should quote some stats from San Francisco.  "Scrapers" are going for $1 million plus at last check.  As a result, the middle class has been completely squeezed out of the city.  You have to be extremely rich or extremely poor to live there.  Pretty ironic that the most liberal city in America is also the one with the greatest wealth disparity.

SouthernHope5
SouthernHope5

Interesting.


But here's the thing...someone being able to get a large house for less money than other places isn't necessarily a great thing for all of us as a whole.  So I wouldn't cite Atlanta as a "winner" because it's managed to gobble up all of the land around the city so people can continue to spend less on housing.


Anyone who has to drive 20, 30, 40 miles out of the city before they can hit a non-developed peaceful area can attest to this.


My philosophy (as a parent with kids) has been to live in a smaller house but have the house be (much) closer in. 

Bruno2
Bruno2

@SouthernHope5 It's great to have that choice.  See my note above about living in San Francisco.

SouthernHope5
SouthernHope5

@Bruno2 @SouthernHope5 I hear you, Bruno...San Francisco is NUTS right now...lots of factors on that one..including the insane salaries earned by a small % of residents that has distorted the market as well. 

Bruno2
Bruno2

@SouthernHope5 @Bruno2 I'm not sure about your assertion that only a small % of the residents there make insanely high salaries.  In order to live comfortably in San Fran, you have to make about $250,000 per year.  A person can't make it on even $100,000 due to the housing costs.  A studio apartment rents for $3500 per month = $42,000 per year.  After taxes and all of the add-on fees, not much left for food and utilities. 

SouthernHope5
SouthernHope5

@Bruno2 @SouthernHope5 that's a good point....a $100,000 salary there is not enough to live on...other than perhaps, London, I can't think of a more forbidding place to seek housing. 

bu22
bu22

@SouthernHope5 And on the 20,30,40 miles drive New York, Chicago and San Francisco are different how?  And you could just head to Stone Mountain or the Chattochee Nature Reserve.

Pickle7
Pickle7

I don't see how this has to be a one vs. the other situation.  People who want to live in denser more convenient neighborhoods for a higher cost will continue to do so.  People who are willing to sacrifice convenience and connectivity for increased travel times and cheaper housing will continue to do so.  Why are OTP people always so defensive about their decisions?

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

Obviously some are completely without shame.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Pickle7 1. I don't live OTP.

2. As I mentioned in the column, lots of suburban cities are moving in the same direction (i.e. toward density). That has a real effect on people's ability to continue to "sacrifice convenience and connectivity for increased travel times and cheaper housing."

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

They're defensive because deep down they know they're getting something of a free ride and don't want to have to pay the real costs of unsustainable development. .. would be my guess.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

Nonsense. Conservatives pay nearly all income taxes, and more property tax and sales tax than Democrsts who are over represented on the welfare rolls.

Bruno2
Bruno2

@Visual_Cortex You would be guessing wrong.  I'm not defensive about choosing the suburbs vs living in-town.

Bruno2
Bruno2

@Visual_Cortex Why should suburb dwellers feel shame??  I pay more taxes than 90% of the population already.  You're not making much sense here, VC.

HIbought theRefs
HIbought theRefs

@Lil_Barry_Bailout That depends on the state. KY, TN, GA ... the welfare goes equally to highly Republican / Tea Party areas of the state.  Be careful before making an assumption about who gets welfare or "benefits."

bu22
bu22

@Pickle7 They aren't defensive.  They are just tired of liberals criticizing anyone who doesn't live exactly as they do and the constant MSM barrage against their lifestyle.