How COVID-19 and Skyrocketing Housing Costs Accelerated Sprawl

In search of space and affordability, American families are increasingly moving to suburbs and exurbs.

Read Time: 1 minute

January 9, 2022, 11:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


trekandshoot / Shutterstock

Suburban sprawl is nothing new to U.S. cities, but, as we have noted repeatedly over the last two years, the pandemic has accelerated the dispersal of urban households to suburbs and exurbs and reduced Americans' appetite for public transit. But high rents in urban cores have been driving the trend since well before the pandemic. And, as Patrick Sisson writes, "with growth has come a familiar set of challenges, including traffic, environmental damage and city services that struggle to reach a spread-out population."

To meet rising demand for new homes, developers are building on undeveloped suburban fringes rather than urban infill properties with more difficult permitting processes. "Indeed, the ascendance of sprawl is a source of dismay for historic foes of this land- and energy-intensive development pattern, which bakes-in car-centric lifestyles and strains resources like water."

While some cities are enacting zoning reforms and pro-density policies to increase affordability and fight climate change, Sisson says "those factors are not nearly enough to offset the magnetic pull of cheap land." While local leaders embrace walkability and density as goals, many households are still forced to seek affordability outside central cities. Meanwhile, build-to-rent developers are capitalizing on the need from people who can't afford homeownership but want the space and amenities offered by single-family homes.

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