The latest Census Bureau population estimates. Courtesy of the Census Bureau.

Residents of Southwest and Southside Virginia puzzle over the skyscrapers rising in Alexandria or Arlington as businesses crowd into Washington, D.C. Why is all that investment going to a few cities, while other great places to raise a family get starved of resources?

That doesn’t mean life is great in Washington (or Boston, where I live, or sad old San Francisco). In places like these around the world, housing is the top concern of millions—not just the cost of renting or buying a place to live, but the difficulty of getting any housing at all. In many of the largest and most popular cities in the world, housing costs are a crisis for most of the population.

For years I have supported social policies that add more housing for rent and purchase in cities that suffer from overcrowding. But recently I’ve questioned the assumptions behind this purported solution. Let policy-makers turn their eyes back to Southwest and Southside Virginia instead.

Thinking unintuitively

How can I talk this way? Doesn’t a housing shortage obviously require the building of more housing? Compare that approach to some other policy dilemmas, and you can start to rethink the obvious.

For instance, policy-makers have learned that building more highways doesn’t relieve traffic congestion. When cities widen a highway, people take advantage of the new capacity to do more driving. They may, for instance, move farther from the city center to enjoy suburban living, or go out more often for a class or a concert.

The changes enabled by adding highway lanes may enhance the quality of life, but they don’t fix the traffic problem. Meanwhile, they’re environmentally destructive because ot the increase in carbon emissions, air pollution, and resource consumption.

I am wondering whether the same considerations apply to the housing crisis. The thrust of this article is that we have to make a wider range of geographical locations attractive in order to relieve the housing pressure in popular hub cities. We need investment in the communities that are losing population.

A cost-effective, equitable, and sustainable solution to the housing crisis is to add housing to areas that have the space for it—along with high-speed mass transit, Internet access, and support for job development in those areas.

A disjointed crisis

Housing prices are a challenge in countries around the world, but only in particular cities or regions of those countries. Many other places are hemorrhaging population (at least young people of work age).

The housing crisis is therefore a crisis in popularity. Hub cities hold out an irresistable temptation. London, Berlin, Shenzhen, New York—these cities set off stars in the eyes of people seeking to improve their prospects. The COVID-19 pandemic might have temporarily slowed movement to hubs, but it hasn’t solved the underlying problems.

Large cities have appealed to rural populations throughout history. The cities come into being because they’re near a good harbor or some other source of income, and then develop vibrant cultures that draw artists and other creative people—what sociologist Richard Florida called the “creative class” in a series of influential books from the early 2000 decade (and now a slick web site).

The 1990s and early 2000s were also when the Silicon Valley became world-famous as the cradle of successful computer firms, providing the model that other cities and regions desperately tried to emulate. Policy makers ignored the detrimental effects of Silicon Valley’s growth and chased the wealth they imagined they could derive by imitating it.

Thus, a mania has seized hub cities over the past few decades. These cities suck in industries, research centers, and other places of work that bring in more people, leading yet more places of work to move or spring up there. The cycle is unrelenting and detrimental to the entire country: both the places filling up with people and the places losing people. Housing shortages are a symptom of this unhealthy cycle.

In their pursuit of affordable housing, advocates adopt proposals of dubious value. For instance, rent control reduces investment in housing. And banning short-term owner rentals such as Airbnb? Such bans place put barriers in the way of business and tourist visitors, who are a necessary part of a healthy economy.

Subsidies for development often lead to more luxury housing, not housing for working-class people. Complaints by existing residents that developments are stressing the infrastructure and natural environment clash with development priorities. Finally, communities often pressure new developments to exclude families, producing places only for new workers streaming into hub cities to grab choice jobs.

Quelling the fever

Population growth, augmented by immigration, is normal in many places. So housing should be built to handle the people who want to be there. But we need to squash the desire to be where all the cool kids are. We need to encourage people to stay where they are and build opportunities in places that are losing population.

Remote work is a great boon to spreading people across the country. When COVID-19 hit in early 2000, most companies had to send people home. Some managed the transition well and some did not. They ones who managed the transition well became even more productive than they had been when people were working in corporate offices.

Managing people remotely takes special attention and strong communication skills. Management must make some processes explicit that were implicit before. The result can be a greater recognition of people’s real skills and contributions, along with more opportunities for people who were marginalized before because the didn’t fit the dominant culture.

To support remote work, many areas need revitalization, such as better Internet access and other infrastructure. High-speed rail connections to other parts of the region can also encourage people to spread out while remaining connected and taking advantage of cultural opportunities outside their small towns.

We also need to embrace diversity, because many regions have ideas to contribute that are ignored by people and companies that dominate central hub cities. More education, funding, and publicity must be devoted to people innovating locally in small but powerful ways.

Remote education also offers new possibilities. Brining together students on college campuses can spark wonderful conversations and group experiences. But why shouldn’t students take online classes while sparking new conversations and group experiences in their home towns? The wisdom of the community can intersect with the intelligence of the classroom in ways that enhance both.

Regional inequity has become more and more toxic over time. We have to fix the sources of this problem instead of running an unwinnable race to keep up with the housing needs of overheated hub regions. Let’s make it easier for people to work where they want – not be forced to choose between a good job and a livable location.

Andy Oram

Oram is a writer and editor in the computer field. He is based in Boston.