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The Guru Is In:129: Where You Stand Depends On Where You Live

5 min read

If the pandemic itself doesn’t decide the upcoming election, the voters’ judgment of their elected officials’ policy responses to its consequences will. And voters’ pandemic experiences are wildly diverse based on many things – most especially on their housing, what it is and where it is.

In 1948, Rufus E. Miles Jr., then in the Bureau of the Budget (now OMB), coined what should be his epitaph: Where you stand depends on where you sit. Thirty years later he expanded it in a 1978 essay, written when he was safely out of government and a senior fellow at Princeton, and added, “Not surprisingly, the more conscious one becomes of Miles’ Law’s operation, the more frequently its effects are noticed.” One such effect has struck me repeatedly: Where you stand depends on where you sleep.

This idea also peeks through the interstices of a lively recent research report by Matthew Pointon of the terrific Capital Economics, The Outlook For Housing in a Post-COVID World. In it, he writes that the pandemic’s aftermath “may alter where people choose to live.” Actually, it already is changing people’s living choices, in ways that are playing out in the current electioneering.

When it comes to living, the city and the suburbs offer two distinctive social value propositions:

  • Cities. High economic growth, the productivity premium, cultural diversity, excitement and public transportation.
  • Suburbs. Homestead dwellings, large houses and large yards, integrated and abundant green space, better schools, safety, health and security.

The pandemic has hit these propositions differently: the cities have taken a drubbing, especially in health insecurity. Compared with half a year ago, if you live in the suburbs or an exurb your life today is modestly different, whereas if you live in the vertical, elevator-dependent city, the differences are vast. You’re worry about in-building health security; your previous office commute is now kaput; and you must either substitute an entirely new one or adjust to working at home ‘for the duration,’ not knowing how long that duration will be.

The divergence of location, experiences and voting preferences plays out in every state in the union. Overlay maps of living situations (home size, home tenure), COVID-19 rates and voting patterns in Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin or many other states, and the visual correlations of the city-versus-suburbs divide are striking and consistent: geography is a powerful predictor.

The post-COVID pendulum is swinging suburban.

Pointon forecasts that:

Even by the end of 2022…50 percent of workers [may] be working remotely in some form, with a little over 20 percent working at home full-time and 30 percent doing so for at least one day per week.

I think he’s underestimating the shift to white-collar work-at-home, especially among urbanites:

Cities—where office work dominates—will be most affected by the shift to home working.

Shifting where you work, and by extension how you get to work, translates into a shifting mindset about where you live now and where you envision where you’ll next move to. Skyrocketing broadband speeds have changed the commuting-working-living economics of suburbs and invite re-evaluating one’s strategic living choices. If you can work at home and not have to surrender two hours a day in urban commuting via potentially infectious public transportation, wouldn’t you relocate too? Place this alongside interest rates that have plummeted and the result is a suddenly-open home-buying window for Millennials:

The arrival of the Coronavirus has convinced a bulge of young workers in their late-20s that now is a good time to move [to the suburbs].

Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City are all seeing dramatic metro-emigration from the city to their nearby ‘occasionally commutable’ exurbs, where the visible result is a surge in homebuilder confidence, especially in those areas. For the cities, Capital Economics offers only the flimsiest of consolation prizes:

In the long run, the virus will not drive an exodus from cities any more than the high level of house prices already has.

For cities, all this spells trouble: budget trouble for their services and public workforce and political trouble for their elected officials.

Meanwhile, social distancing amplifies echo-chamber reinforcement of our existing beliefs by the small thought bubbles of our immediate residential neighbors (who self-selected to live near where we live) and our pre-existing internet affinity pals (who similarly self-selected to like what we like). Extrapolating our personal lockdown experience to everyone else’s, we don’t notice what we don’t see – and we’re not seeing the physical movement from city to suburbs, nor the emotional movement in value systems implied by Miles’ Law.

Change your dwelling and you change your views. Whether we acknowledge it right away or not, moving home changes beliefs, and changing beliefs motivate people to move home. Either way, where they move is telling.

Personalities and surface froth aside, the upcoming election will be an argument about the value systems implied by and offered by different places. The cities have the media; the suburbs have the movement.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at dsmith@affordablehousinginstitute.org.