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The Real Reason Cities Don’t Work For Families With Children

2011 June 29
by dan bertolet

“Won’t somebody please think of the children?”

— The Simpsons


Nothing causes more fits of hand-wringing among urbanists than the issue of children in the city. We all want to believe that cities ought to be desirable places to live for families with children, but somehow it rarely seems to work out that way. And Seattle is quite the poster child (as it were)—although in recent years Seattle has fared better than most cities in terms of gaining households with children, of all major U.S. cities only San Francisco has a lower percentage of children.

So we fret and fuss that there aren’t enough playgrounds, or the public schools are bad, or there’s too much crime, or there are too many yuppie condos, and so on. And some or all that may be true to some degree. But there’s a much simpler reason why families with children will always be at a disadvantage in most large U.S. cities: money.

Kids cost money. There are lots of variables, but to pick a number, let’s say it costs $500 per month per kid. Two kids and that’s $1000 dollars less that’s available to spend on rent or a mortgage. If they happen to be in daycare or private school, double that. And then there’s the cost of health care insurance for children—another couple hundred per kid, or significantly more if you aren’t on a company plan. Oh, and don’t forget the college fund.

Meanwhile, families with children are competing with growing numbers of childless singles and couples for the same housing supply in the city. And on average, the childless households will win, because they have more disposable income to put towards housing.

Then add to that the fact that households with children need bigger—that is, inherently more expensive—housing to begin with.

And then add to that the fact that it’s often more of a challenge for parents to focus on their jobs, so maybe they only work part time, or their career advance is hindered, or they have to take unpaid time off when their children are sick. Which all translates to even less money to spend on housing compared to households without kids.

Based on the raw economics, we shouldn’t expect to see anything but families with children fleeing expensive cities in search of cheaper housing options at the fringe. Yes, transportation costs are likely to be higher, but historically that has not been a deciding factor for most. And besides, in Seattle and many other U.S. cities, even those who recognize the monetary value of not having to rely on a car for every trip are faced with a shortage of homes large enough for families.

In a post over at Seattle’s Land Use Code, Chad Newton notes that current for sale listings in Seattle show more than ten times as many studio, one, and two bedroom homes as three bedroom homes. For new multifamily housing, that imbalance is driven by one key factor: the smaller the unit, the higher the rent (or sale price) per square foot. It’s an easy choice for developers.

If we all agree that families with children are an important ingredient of sustainable cities, then we have to face the fact that the solution must involve, in a word, socialism. We need to compensate for the market realities of cities. And the most direct way to do that is to subsidize family-sized housing units in multifamily buildings. Like they at least tried to do in Vancouver, B.C.

The problem could also be addressed more indirectly, by reducing the cost of living through subsidies such as free day care, extended paid maternity/paternity leave, or free health care for kids. You know, like they do in the majority of developed nations worldwide.

And yes, we also need to provide amenities for children and improve the public schools. But those are moot points if parents can’t afford the housing.


A personal aside: My wife and I have two young children who attend public schools in Seattle’s Central District. We bought a neglected single-family house back in the late 1990s when the CD was still somewhat affordable, but we probably couldn’t afford our house if we had to buy it now. A couple years ago we seriously considered moving to a modest Capitol Hill condo about half the size of our house, but vetoed the idea when we considered that it would cost more than we could get for our house.

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Eric de Place permalink
    June 29, 2011

    Great post, Dan. I think you’re exactly right to point to economics as the main driver.

    That said, I think the numbers may be even tougher than you suggest. My two year old is in a downtown day care just four days per week. And while I fully admit that it’s one of the more expensive places in town, the price tag wouldn’t just double the $500/month you ballpark for basic kid costs — it would quadruple it.

    Needless to say, I’ve had to scale back my urban elite caviar budget accordingly.

  2. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    June 29, 2011

    Also a brief shout-out to those who are doing it right: public and non-profit housing developers, who are motivated less by raw economics than by real needs. It’s not uncommon to see 3 bedroom units included in their projects, for example the Denny Park Apartments which is close to a new playground as well as great transit, job centers, etc:

    One might think that even for-profit developers with long-term interest in Seattle could include a diversity of unit types, which may make a bit less money but better serve the public good. I can’t help but think it might even make them higher profits considering that it would expand the marketplace beyond just singles and couples.

    • biliruben permalink
      June 29, 2011

      That’s a good point, and my guess is that their are selling points for private developers to put in some family-size units beyond just altruism. Families tend to be more stable and form an anchor for any community, even the more vertical communities.

      As for the rankings where Seattle sits near the bottom for childishness, I may be off base, but I would guess that Seattle is at a disadvantage due to it’s narrow boundaries. NYC for instance, encompasses the massive suburbs of Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx and Staten Island. Los Angeles is practically one giant suburb. We certainly have some of that, but it doesn’t seem to be as extensive, and I bet a fairer comparison would be to lump in Shoreline, LFP, Burien, Seatac and White Center. Those rankings probably are just a measure of how annex-happy a city is.

      • Matt the Engineer permalink
        June 30, 2011

        Those problems happen in all kinds of statistics about cities. Does anyone know of a fair way of comparing cities? Maybe just collecting statistics from, say, 5 square miles surrounding the city’s center?

  3. Chris permalink
    June 30, 2011

    Great post, Dan. I’d echo most of your sentiments in terms of setting a goal for supporting families in the City, but not necessarily within the most urbanized, expensive neighborhoods within the City, for the reasons you mention.

    When we talk about Seattle as a city – a jurisdiction – only small portions of the City proper are actually at truly urban densities. Most places north of the ship canal and in West Seattle and SE Seattle are very similar in density to neighboring suburbs, albeit with a price premium for being closer to the CBD. But there’s some room for new 3BD townhouses and higher household sizes within the existing single-family housing stock. We should encourage policies – such as rezoning single-family land where practical, supporting school quality, parks, etc., that support larger households.

    Then there’s the high-density urban areas, where I do not think it make economic sense to subsidize families in stacked flats. In one analysis I’ve seen recently, the average monthly subsidy to deliver a studio at 80% AMI for one center city mid-rise was $75; the cost for a 2BD at the same AMI was $275. The monthly cost for a 3BD would be much higher; no one builds stacked flats 3s so its hard to tell. The 80% rent limit is $1540. Replacement cost rents would be at least $2000, market more like $2200 at least. So the opportunity cost of subsidizing a 3 BD unit would be $660, or almost 9 affordable studio/small 1 bedroom units.

    • Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
      July 1, 2011

      I’d love to take a look at the analysis you mention if you have a link. However, I think it’s important to remember that, while we’re using a pure dollars metaphor, what we’re really talking about is a public good by providing more housing options.

      Perhaps you’re right that one 3 bd unit would require as much of a tax credit at 9 affordable studios, but the population at large is not made up of solely people who can live in a studio. That’s why non-profit housing developers like LIHI or Capitol Hill Housing often include multi-bedroom units. (As an aside, these also aren’t just for families with children; extended families often arrive in our country as refugees and prefer to live together, as is common in many places around the world. Sometimes with children, but also could be just for example grandmother/aunt/uncle.)

      That said, we need more innovative ways of bringing down the cost. For example, see the Capitol Hill Urban CoHousing project which has very small units but more shared space (and a corresponding emphasis on healthy relationships and community). That’s a for-sale development but rentals could be done in a similar way. There are examples in Europe, such as Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm and Sharing Tower in Valencia.

  4. Susan permalink
    June 30, 2011

    “If we all agree that families with children are an important ingredient of sustainable cities, then we have to face the fact that the solution must involve, in a word, socialism.”

    This is a big assumption. Why should those of us without young children, including the poor, disabled, and elderly, provide additional subsidies for those who choose to have them. We already provide large subsidies for people with children, schools and income tax deductions to name just two. Instead, we should be encouraging people to have less children, which fits better with the needs of our society, i.e. reducing resource depletion and environmental degradation. If you choose to have children, you should live in the less expensive house rather than the more expensive condo; that’s the choice you made, and I would fight strongly against subsidizing your desire to live in a more centrally located condo.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      June 30, 2011

      Interesting. But why stop there? Around 80% of seattle is zoned for single family homes. The strongest reason for this has always been that families need yards. So we’re all subsidising* most of our city for children (and admittedly for dogs).

      * Ok, the link from zoning to subsidy isn’t direct. But you’re constraining 80% of our area to a single housing type that’s designed for families. That greatly increases the value of the condos and apartments on the other 20% of land.

      • Susan permalink
        July 1, 2011

        Well, and all the roads and utilities out to the single-family developments.

        Family size is a factor also – with four kids it’s hard to live in a small urban space; with one or two, less so.

    • Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
      July 1, 2011

      The choice that many of us with young children face today, now that the Central District is unaffordable, is not for a “less expensive house” but a “house with long commute” vs “less expensive apartment”. Hopefully you could agree that the far-flung development of for-sale houses in Kenmore or Maple Valley is in fact resource depletion and environmental degradation. Also, while I agree that our low birth rate is positive thing, a low birth rate is the same as zero children. A healthy society provides for all members (including children who are poor or have disabilities). It’s sort of like the difference between climate and weather–you still get cold weather with global warming.

  5. Christine permalink
    June 30, 2011

    Re the line in the article that said childless couples have more disposable income to spend on housing: a) No they don’t. They are no more richer or poorer on average than their childed friends. Did you ever think that maybe some couples don’t have kids because they don’t have enough “disposable” income left for raising kids? And b) Is the income truly “disposable” if you’re spending it on housing? If you take home $2400 per month, experts say you shouldn’t be spending more than $600 on rent (1/4 of your paycheck), period. So if I have no kids & make $2400 per month, I still cannot afford an apt for $800 per month, unless I make lotsa cuts elsewhere.

  6. RossB permalink
    July 1, 2011

    The perception of the schools also has a lot to do with it. I know several people who came to Seattle but decided to move their family to the suburbs because they thought the schools were better. I don’t think they are, but perception is everything. People felt that the schools were great when John Stanford was superintendent. They really haven’t changed that much since then, but the perception has. The new superintendent should spend a lot of time promoting what is good about the Seattle schools, instead of just focusing on fixing what is bad.

  7. July 1, 2011

    That math works until they become high schoolers and all want cars. But it’s important that you bring up this challenge for families with younger children. I think as we create more “urban” places the economics will become more favorable. Also, it seems that people may be paying more attention to transportation costs in the future.

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