Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Fri Jan 30th 2009 at 8:53am UTC

The Mobility Paradox

Nearly half of all Americans would like to move to a new place. Trouble is, the credit crisis and economic downturn have effectively locked them into their current location. Residential mobility levels approach record lows, according to recent reports by the U.S. Census and the Pew Research Center. USA Today’s Haya El-Nassar, one of my favorite trackers of demographic trends, reports:

Whether they favor cities, suburbs or the countryside, almost half wish they lived somewhere else, the report found. Denver, San Diego and Seattle are the top picks of the 30 largest metropolitan areas. Denver is the favorite city among Republicans, and it also rates well with Democrats and independents … In addition to Denver, favorite cities among Republicans are Phoenix, Orlando and San Antonio. Half of all liberals would like to live in San Francisco, more than double the share of conservatives. San Diego, once a bastion of conservatism, appeals to Democrats, liberals and moderates.

46% would prefer to live in a different type of community from the one they now reside. Adults 50 to 64 who live in cities are the least likely to say they live in the ideal place; two-thirds of those in that age group who live in the country say they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Young people are the opposite: 57% of urban dwellers younger than 30 say the city is where they want to live. … “Fewer than half of all city residents say there is no better place to live than in a city.” … A smaller proportion of women express the desire to live in the nation’s largest cities  … Wanting to live outside cities doesn’t necessarily mean people reject urban lifestyles, however. The appeal of developments with an urban flair — ones that combine housing, stores and offices in a neighborhood setting — is growing.

My main take away: America’s two great dreams – the dream of unlimited economic opportunity and to own a single family home – are running head on into one another. Home ownership means less economic mobility when you can’t sell your home. The big cost of the housing crisis may not be what’s happening in the financial markets, it may be the long-run competitive damage caused by sagging labor mobility and the inability to flexibly match the location of workers to the location of jobs.

8 Responses to “The Mobility Paradox”

  1. MPI Bullpen Says:

    I think this problem predates the crisis and will outlive any business cycle rebound because it is about “spikiness”. If Americans, on average, valued every place equally than they could use the housing market to swap houses with each other…

    The trouble, I suspect, is that all the wishful movers want to move to a dramatically small list of cities, and the people in those cities don’t want to move out very much. Economic opportunity is more concentrated than ever.

    So maybe more than more flexible housing per se, we need more housing in the most popular metros.

    Another thought, high creativity cities (San Diego, Seattle) seem to be well represented in the “most popular cities” list and absent from the least popular one, but how can we explain Tampa Bay and Orlando, using the creative capital paradigm?

  2. Robert Says:

    So what role does marketing and PR have to play in creating the image that attracts people to various places? I’m thinking of the opening credits to Ally McBeal, in fact any Hollywood film that is essentially a glorified advert for whichever location it is set.

    It’s naive to simply think that people are attracted to cities because they pore over data and critically examine employment prospects – their opinions are formed by prejudice that is largely the result of propaganda (aka “culture”).

    There’s a clear hierarchy of UK cities in terms of how favourably they are portrayed in various media. Liverpool – basketcase economy and social cesspit, is frequently portrayed positively and is well known around the world (mainly because of The Beattles and Liverpool FC), whereas more resilient and robust cities such as Glasgow and Birmingham are treated like dirt and will only receive negative airtime by an arts and media elite based in London and the South East.

    This is turn impacts heavily on location decisions of talent and graduates (in a small country, it’s far easier to up and leave, as it only takes a couple of hours on a train/in a car to visit friends and relatives etc).

  3. Buzzcut Says:

    So people say that they want to move to SF or SD. Big deal. Even if they could sell their homes and move, they most likely couldn’t afford to live there.

    And, faced with the reality of life in California (stupid high prices for really, really awful houses, high unemployment, high taxes, immigration “issues”) they probably really wouldn’t like to live there.

    Consider that the net migration pattern in California for native borns is negative (i.e. native borns are leaving, and California would have a declining population if not for births and non-native immigration).

  4. Buzzcut Says:

    With that said, Richard’s main point that our housing policy and home ownership fetish is a net negative, long term. He’s right, and he’s the only major analyst out there making the point.

  5. tpk-nyc Says:

    It’s a question of class. Not Creative, but old-fashioned working/lower-middle vs. professional/upper-middle. The conclusions of the report are diverse because they reflect the opinions of the country as whole, however class distinctions are very clear and marked. Lower income families want to move to Las Vegas and Orlando; upper income families want to move to San Francisco and Seattle.

    For working/lower-middle class families, owning a single family home IS economic opportunity. It may be a fetish, but they have little else to aspire to: They’re not going to get meaningful “performance bonuses,” their jobs carry no social status, and they don’t have the disposable income to enjoy the amenities (restaurants, theaters, etc) of the great cities. Their earning power is effectively capped and any salary-premium they may receive for living in a super-star city (like San Francisco) is insufficient to compensate for vastly higher real estate prices. If you’re working in a mailroom, it doesn’t really matter, from a career prospective, if you’re in Orlando or San Francisco.

    The “long-run competitive damage” is that we risk super-star cities becoming enclaves for the rich, like Martha’s Vineyard, with a dearth of working/lower-middle class families. Such enclaves are at a competitive disadvantage because workers are either unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

    Many, particularly lower-income, families are “trapped” because of the financial/housing crisis, but that is an effect, not the cause of the real estate bubble. They were fleeing to cheap (and now nearly worthless) housing in the middle of nowhere (i.e., exurban Phoenix or the Inland Empire) because they couldn’t afford housing in/near existing cities. From a “long-run competitive” (and certainly environmental) point of view, that housing should not have been built in the first place. Living in such places is uncompetitive because it is inefficient.

    If we are concerned competitiveness, we have to address efficiency and affordability.

  6. Brendan Says:

    “Wanting to live outside cities doesn’t necessarily mean people reject urban lifestyles, however.”

    Well of course not. Americans hate having to deal with negatives; we’re the worst kind of idealists when it comes to trying to get the best of both worlds, and that very quality played a major role in the creation of the suburban landscape as it exists. I agree with tpk-nyc that efficiency and affordability need to be addressed in our housing policy, but I hope and pray that we manage to take a bit of realism away from our current recessionary ordeal.

    When people realize that you can’t build a dozen blocks of “the city” in the middle of a greenfield thirty miles from any real density and expect to get a functional urban community, we might actually make some progress on building cities that work for people instead of against them. Perhaps some semantic wrangling is in order; “urban” is a dirty word for many people, for very, very stupid reasons. That cultural tic is in need of a serious overhaul.

    Very interesting report, though. Even with the goofy equivocating.

  7. Isaac B Says:

    Buzzcut is right about the problem of high cost of living for our best cities.

    A problem is also often not discussed, and perhaps because they are a smaller population, is that for people born and raised, particularly the less privileged, in our “top cities” you learn this problem much faster, and that the excitement of “open to experience” “tolerant” places to live in the U.S. that are up to par, or better than their native cities (i.e. NYC and SF) are extremely limited or non-existent.

    I am highly biased, but for electronic dance music (EDM) producers, dj’s, etc. all of the “quality” cities here are outrageously expensive and not connected to enough markets for these workers to sell their work.

    I have began to see that a factor for EDM being European centric and more positive for such workers is because of a variety of factors, particularly due to what I suspect are a few significant ones:

    1) The ability of the EU to allow for movement and legally live and work in any member country.

    2) Strong social welfare systems that allow for more room if technically unemployed

    3) Access to a high number of cities/markets to sell one’s creative work, where as in the U.S. we have very few cities with “open-minded” consumers interested in such material.

    4) Young people not being riddled with ridiculous amounts of debt due to different attitudes about education that are not so Protestant work ethic influenced and the “American dream” of poorer immigrant that seek to get the most wealth as quickly as possible.

    5) New cities, particularly Berlin, being cheap to live in, HIGHLY tolerant, and easy to travel to/from via cheap airlines to access European cities, which means that there is not the same kind of uber-competitive nature for musicians in America, who seem to only be competing for either rock-star status, or protectionism of small, underground scenes from those who seem like a threat.

    Ironic how are most “liberal” minded artists can be prey to just the same problems we criticize, “conservative” businesses like GM.

  8. Isaac B Says:

    To add, what i mean, is that while the world has been more globalized, our immigration laws caught up in what I consider to be the outdated notion of a nation-state, which appears to actually perpetuate inequality and injustice for not just the least privileged, but some so-called “privileged” citizens in nations like the U.S.

    If I was an American EDM producer and wanted to take advantage of the market in Europe, the immigrant and work restrictions make this far more difficult than for residents of any EU country. People are still doing it, but for those who are not as well established, they pretty much have to live and work there illegally, no?

    I see our immigration policies as significantly problematic in our ever globalizing world, along with these paradigm shifts in consciousness.