The following essay is from Strong Towns member Steven Shultis' blog, Rational Urbanism, and is republished with permission.
The trade-offs—the opportunity costs of our decisions—are front and center for those people who live the examined life. I choose affordable, walkable, beautiful urbanity and the trade-off is living in a poor neighborhood with all that that entails. The only way for me to alter the equation would be for me to give up one of the other qualities of my living arrangement.
A co-worker is at that stage in life—mid thirties, recently married—when purchasing a home becomes what is viewed societally as standard behavior. He is a deep thinker. I’ve never had a conversation with him in which he didn’t show an almost immediate grasp of the connections of one idea to another and another and another. He is a vegan, he bikes or walks as much as possible, and he is choosing to buy a home in a beautiful, traditional, walkable neighborhood, yet, unlike my neighborhood, it is anything but poor.
West Hartford, Connecticut has quite a few blocks of authentic New England town center attached to a faux town center called Blue Back Square. The popularity of the two has created an environment which, having retained and attracted the well-off, provides walkable/bike-able access to grocery shopping, banking, and perhaps most importantly, peer group members for the upper middle class. My friend is willing to pay a premium for all of this; affordability is what he has decided to forego. His potential new home is easily four times the price of an equivalent home in most parts of Springfield. The property taxes, too, are around four times as high, and I imagine home insurance will be substantially higher.
I’m not sure what hurts more—knowing that people are willing to trade off that much of their income to not live “here”, or that someone I really respect has to pay so much to live in a way which, apart from the size of the home, is just a standard living arrangement in most parts of the developed world; a neighborhood which provides for the needs of its residents. What’s more, I think that it could be a disastrous choice: most real estate in this country is over valued and I can’t help but think that the likeliest outcome will be some sort of financial hardship. For Springfield, it means that we have a lot of work to do in order to attract the people who should be attracted here because of what we have to offer.
That we are tribal, social creatures is a fact of our evolutionary development and it is to be expected that we feel more comfortable with people who share our customs, traditions, and values. The extent of our unwillingness to experience out-group discomfort is illustrated by the gulf in price between otherwise comparable places. Between the difference in price compounded with interest payments over thirty years, and taxes which are thousands more a year, my colleague is willing to pay out nearly half a million dollars to live within walking distance of this:
instead of this:
(Top image of Blue Back Square shopping area. Source: ragesoss)