Economist Lawrence Summers has described the Covid-19 pandemic as a “hinge in history,” meaning that the crisis could alter everything from great-power relations to daily life. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is proving Summers’s point. His announcement that up to half of the company’s 45,000 employees may work from home within the next decade sets a powerful example for other firms—one that may upend real estate markets everywhere. In an industry in which “location, location, location” has long been the basis of value, employment and residence may soon be decoupled. Thousands of Facebook employees will no longer have to live in the expensive Bay Area to work for the company. Zuckerberg’s decision, it turns out, could accomplish more for long-declining metropolitan areas than any government-directed economic-development program.
It’s no secret that housing prices differ greatly across the United States, but it’s worth emphasizing just how great those differences are. The median home price in San Jose—which calls itself the gateway to Silicon Valley—is more than $1 million. The grandeur doesn’t match the price tag, though: most of the houses are humdrum, 1950s-era ranches and split levels. The average San Jose house is eight times pricier than that of my hometown, Cleveland, where the median home price is just $135,000. A similar ratio holds true for Detroit, Akron, Buffalo, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Rochester, among many other metropolitan areas. Such disparities are tracked by multiple indices, such as Kiplinger’s useful affordability ranking.
Engineers and programmers who decide they’d rather not spend their disposable income on mortgages will find that these regions offer amenities rivaling or surpassing those of high-priced coastal cities—certainly, those of Silicon Valley. Cleveland, for example, not only has one of the world’s great symphony orchestras and concert halls but also veritable mansions available for less than the cost of a condo in Cupertino. The city also boasts an Olmsted-designed park system and scores of ethnic restaurants. Meantime, America’s great art museums include Buffalo’s Albright–Knox and Kansas City’s Nelson–Atkins.
Nor is high culture the only attraction. Consider the other advantages of these “legacy” cities, many of them home to legendary sports franchises, whose low ticket prices make family outings to the game an affordable proposition. Recreation, from hiking to golfing to fishing, is typically more accessible and cheaper than on the coasts. Many of these midsize cities have also maintained distinct local cultures: Memphis, also low-priced, offers great barbecue and music. Exploring these cities, one will find few traffic jams, no long lines at theaters, and no need to make restaurant reservations. Good public schools are available, too—and good private ones are quite affordable for those living on San Francisco dollars. Overall, these “flyover” cities offer an ideal quality of life for families.
Some may see a looming diaspora from coastal cities as a threat to the creative gathering that has been a basis of innovation and foundational appeal of urban life. But, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, cities are places where new ideas are born and then grow to scale elsewhere. Such a shift, if it happens, could ease the housing-affordability crisis that has gripped California, New York, and Boston. The assumption that low-rent housing can only be achieved through subsidies will be harder to maintain, if we see the American population rebalancing itself, relieving pressure in high-density coastal cities and driving demand elsewhere.
Since the term “inner city” gained currency in the 1960s, the U.S. has struggled to find policies to revive its older cities. The aftermath of a deadly pandemic may not only contain a cure for the virus but also for this chronic problem.
Photo: Severance Hall, home of The Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland, Ohio (tifonimages/iStock)