Sprawl and Stagnation—Housing Growth and its Discontents

Mapping housing production over the decades since the 1960s reveals a pattern that must be shifted to achieve the housing growth needed to face the economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

2 minute read

February 5, 2018, 2:00 PM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Nicole S Glass / Shutterstock

[Updated February 5, 2018] Issi Romem presents a series of maps and data findings on a study of housing growth at the census tract level in the country's largest metropolitan areas. The report Romem has created, titled "America’s New Metropolitan Landscape: Pockets Of Dense Construction In A Dormant Suburban Interior," shows exactly the huge swaths of the country that have completely stopped producing housing, and the few small places where housing growth is achieved.

Here's how Romem describes the subject of his inquiry:

In the past, virtually every patch of land in the metropolitan U.S. continually sprouted new housing, but this is no longer the case. In recent decades, residential construction has become increasingly confined to the periphery of American metro areas, while a growing swath of the interior has fallen dormant and produces new homes at a negligible pace. At the same time, a tiny fraction of the land area, scattered in small pockets throughout the metropolitan landscape, is responsible for a growing share of new home production, primarily in large multifamily structures. I refer to this increasingly spiky new pattern of housing production as “pockets of dense construction in a dormant suburban interior.”

To exemplify these concepts, Romem starts with a close study of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, telling the story above in maps, charts, and stylized diagrams. The stylized diagrams Romem has created segue to a point about how the pattern repeats in other metropolitan areas, like Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Romem provides additional themes and concepts for understanding his findings, on subjects like how low-density development spreads and how the pickets of dense development are enabled under current land use regulation schemes.

All these findings and explanations lead to a big recommendation from Romen:

I am suggesting that, while cities continue to fight the battle for development in dense hubs, they also question the de facto exemption granted to low-density suburban areas from the onus to produce more housing. The dormant suburban sea is so vast that if the taboo on densification there were broken, even modest gradual redevelopment – tearing down one single-family home at a time and replacing it with a duplex or a small apartment building – could grow the housing stock immensely.

For more insight on Romem's findings, see an article written in admiration by Joe Cortright.

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