It Is Possible To Fit Many People Into a Small Patch of Land

Clarendon Metro Station; Arlington, VA.

Wikimedia Commons.

Lydia DePillis asks developers why all the new building in Arlington County is aimed at fancy yuppies when there’s lots of demand for non-delux housing:

The basic answer for that, developers tell me, is fairly simple: Land is expensive along transit corridors like Wilson Boulevard, so they build whatever will command the highest rents per square foot, and so far the market hasn’t given them a reason to believe they won’t lease.

That makes perfect sense. But of course as I argue in The Rent Is Too Damn High, this still raises the question of why the market for high-end rentals and condos doesn’t become saturated. After all, there’s only a finite quantity of people who can afford high rents. The answer is two-fold. One is restrictions on how tall a building you can build on that Wilson Boulevard corridor. The other is that the county takes a very narrow view of where the corridor is. Courtesy of Google Maps, here’s a satellite glance at a portion of the relevant place:

What you see is a narrow thread of urbanism between Wilson Boulevard and Clarendon Boulevard, with a bit of a thicker blob of urbanism around the Metro station itself. I don’t really want to condemn this development paradigm because if you compare it to other suburban jurisdictions around the United States, what Arlington has done really stands out as practically best in class. But still the fact of the matter is that these single-family homes adjacent to the corridor of urbanism are sitting on some extremely expensive land. If you opened it up to redevelopment, you’d see denser building. Perhaps tall apartments in some cases, perhaps attached rowhouses in others. Opening this up would both bring the luxury market closer to saturation, and also just create some housing that’s a bit less convenient to the Metro and thus perhaps a bit more affordable.

Instead what we have is a regulatory climate which prevents the market from bringing any affordable housing online. So nonprofits rush in to try to fill the gap. But as the article makes clear, the very same regulations that squelch the market for cheaper housing also tend to stand in the way of nonprofit developers aiming to serve a low-income clientel.