When it Comes to Housing Solutions, City Size Isn’t the Only Factor

September 26, 2019 - (4 min read)

When we think about the issues cities are facing, we mostly tend to categorize challenges—and solutions—by city size.

After all, it makes sense that a community with a population of 2,000 would require different solutions than cities the size of New York or Los Angeles. But while this approach holds some merit, the truth is that when addressing issues like housing and homelessness, size is just one piece of the puzzle.

In our new report Housing Market Conditions Across America’s Cities, NLC found that when we put population count aside and focus on other characteristics, the housing crisis in cities like Columbia, Missouri (population: 123,180) and New York City (population: 8.623 million) begin to look similar despite differences in size and geography.

Different Types of Housing Markets Across the US

The report examines all 754 cities with populations greater than 50,000 and uncovers six housing market types:

  • High-opportunity cities,
  • Growing cities,
  • Rent-burdened cities,
  • Multi-family deficit cities,
  • Wealth pocket cities and
  • Transit-desiring cities.

Exploring the interactions among demographic, economic and housing supply features in each city helps us understand how well each city’s permitting of single- and multi-family housing is meeting the income levels and job growth opportunities of residents.

New York City and Columbia, Missouri: Rent-Burdened Cities

In Columbia, Missouri—home to the famed University of Missouri and lovingly called Mizzou—residents have average college degree attainment compared to the nation, and low median incomes; 56 percent of residents spend over 30 percent of that income on rent, meaning they are rent burdened.

New York City is strikingly similar, where a little less than half of residents hold a college degree and have below average median income; 54 percent of residents are rent burdened.

Both Columbia and New York City are considered rent-burdened cities, characterized by having low median incomes and low job growth, though New York City has a much higher gender income gap of 28 percent (the percent by which male incomes exceed female incomes). In many cities classified as such, rent prices are rising, while wages remain stagnant.

In general, NLC found that rent-burdened cities approve more building permits than any other housing market type. However, they should generally be prioritizing affordable multi-family housing to meet the demands of their low- and medium-income populations.

Specific Housing Crisis Recommendations  

Columbia, in particular, is pretty evenly split between renter- and owner-occupied units. To reduce housing cost burdens, the city should target both populations through two policy changes that could benefit the city:

  • Prioritize multi-family permitting
  • Reduce barriers to homeownership, such as offering shared appreciation mortgages and increasing the existing down payment and closing cost assistance program

By increasing access to affordable housing options, Columbia could capitalize on some of the characteristics that make the city a great place to live.

For example, it is one of only five cities analyzed where female incomes are equal to male incomes. The city has also experienced considerable population growth, nearly 26 percent since 2010. It boasts a young population with 57 percent millennial residents and supports a bus system connecting surrounding areas to the downtown.

New York City shares many of these characteristics. The city continues to grow, is close to half millennial, and is home to the most comprehensive public transportation system in the country with over 11,000 public transit vehicles deployed.

A New Approach to the Housing Crisis

In the end, what cities need are well-rounded and well-integrated housing strategies. These strategies must connect opportunities for employment and new business creation with access to transportation options.

A deeper understanding of local housing markets will help us address the housing crisis more effectively. But to do that, we need to examine the contributing factors that have led to the national housing crisis—beyond size and geography.

To learn more, please read Housing Market Conditions Across America’s Cities.

Brenna Rivett small

About the Authors: Brenna Rivett is a principal research associate at NLC’s Center for City Solutions.



Anita Yadavalli small.jpg

Anita Yadavalli is a program director at NLC’s Center for City Solutions. Anita leads NLC’s Public Sector Retirement initiative, with a focus on research and education for city leaders on retiree healthcare benefits, as well as research and programming on other city fiscal policy issues.