John Hood: Americans increasingly swinging suburban

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 31, 2021

RALEIGH — It’s my go-to slide. I’ve shown it to all the classes I teach at Duke University. The slide is striking. It’s revealing.

And now it’s out of date.

The slide in question is based on a longtime poll question from the Pew Research Center. It asks respondents which of two kinds of communities they’d prefer to live in. One option is described this way: “a community where the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.” The alternative is a community “where the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.” The former is essentially the urban option and the latter the suburban one, although neither is labeled that way.

Why have I used this question about housing preference to teach students about political differences? Because the results served to depict both a closely divided electorate and a huge divide by ideology.

While the preferences of Americans tended to split roughly evenly between the two lifestyles — 49% suburban and 48% urban in 2014, and 48% suburban to 47% urban as recently as 2017 — about two-thirds of self-identified liberals picked the urban option and two-thirds of self-identified conservatives picked the suburban one.

To observe this partisan skew was never to deny that some conservatives enjoyed living in downtowns and some liberals like having more elbow room. Political views and partisan coalitions are messier than any one poll result can capture with precision. Nevertheless, the relative proportions told us something important. They certainly fascinated my students.

I’m going to have to go back to the drawing board, however, because what had been a stable trend over many years of polling has changed dramatically. In a Pew survey taken earlier this summer, 60% of Americans chose the suburban option, with only 39% opting for the urban one.

There’s still a partisan skew, to be sure, but some liberals have changed their minds. And many Americans who used to be on the fence, not just politically but also in their residential preferences, have now swung suburban.

I know what you’re thinking: this has to do with COVID-19. That’s true — in part.

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, housing markets and other indicators have confirmed a shift away from urban cores. People have recalculated the risk-reward ratio and concluded that living in a lower-density environment is more attractive than it used to be. Moreover, as employees were forced to work from home for many weeks or months, some found that they really liked the arrangement. It eliminated time-consuming commutes and allowed for a healthier work-life balance.

They won’t all get their way, of course. There are sectors and companies for which working from home makes it hard to build teams or evaluate performance. Still, we’ll never go back to where we were. Many more people will telecommute than before COVID. Freed from the necessity of living close to an office, their range of housing options is now greater expanded. Especially if they have children at home or enjoy outdoor recreation, many are shopping for their next home out in the suburbs.

So why did I say COVID is only a partial explanation for the swing towards suburbia? Because it actually began in 2019, not 2020. A Pew survey from September 2019 found that 53% of Americans preferred the spread-out community and 47% the denser one.

My argument to my students was never that living in urban areas made you more progressive or living in suburban areas made you more conservative. Rather, differences in housing preferences reflect deeper divisions in lifestyles and priorities that also correlate with voting behavior.

Some surely think this suburban swing will be a disaster. They assume it will bring environmental degradation and social inequality. I think their analysis is outdated. More importantly, it is irrelevant. If this is what an increasing share of Americans want, good luck telling them they can’t have it.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (