Acton Commentary

Marriage in the City


Marriage and family are taking a beating these days. Yet getting married and having kids continues to be an important goal for most people. What makes this goal so elusive? Quite apart from all the ideological and cultural forces that work against life-long married love, economic factors conspire to make household formation more expensive than it needs to be. And that in turn, makes it unnecessarily difficult for the young to live up to Christian standards of saving sex for marriage.

One of the contributing factors to delayed marriage is the high cost of setting up an independent household. The biggest expenses for young people are taxes, student loans, and housing. And if you stop and think about it, each one of these expenses can be influenced by public policies.

For instance, the price of housing is greatly influenced by zoning and environmental regulations. A recent article in the Journal of Law and Economics accounts for why housing prices in Manhattan are so high.

The authors, Joe Gyourko, Edward Glaeser and Raven Saks, explain that the high cost of housing in Manhattan isn't as simple as a fixed amount of land. Developers can still produce more housing units by putting more stories on existing buildings. Extra stories don't require any extra land.

How expensive is Manhattan real estate? The median value of an owner-occupied housing unit in Manhattan rose from $245,633 in 1980 to $377,246 in 2000 (both in 2002 dollars), which implies a real appreciation rate double the national average for the same twenty year period. Another way to look at it: for condominiums sold in 1984, the price per square foot was $373. By 2002, the mean sales price (in constant 2002 dollars) had soared to $621 per square foot.

Obviously, increases in demand are a part of the picture. But, why didn't supply respond enough to keep the prices stable? In spite of skyrocketing prices, the housing stock has grown by less than 10% since 1980. Tens of thousands of apartments were built in Manhattan in the 1950s, and the prices remained flat.

Increases in production costs are nowhere near enough to account for price increases. Gyourko, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, and his co-authors at Harvard estimate that construction costs of the typical Manhattan apartment was at most $300 per square foot, about half the average sales price. This gap between construction costs and price cries out for an explanation.

So why have housing costs in Manhattan risen? The authors believe the answer lies in housing regulation. They cite things like zoning regulations, use permits, and building inspections. They also point to landmark preservation requirements, which can absorb resources in public relations battles, and trigger expensive construction delays.

Now, what does this have to do with family, marriage and sex? How does the high cost of housing make it harder for people to live up to the demands of Christian morality?

Look at it this way: our bodies are physically ready to reproduce when we are in our teens. The average age of first menstruation has actually been falling, so more and more thirteen year-old girls are biologically prepared for motherhood. But we aren't ready for economic independence until our late twenties.

That means that we may have a gap of 15 years between the time we are biologically ready and the time we are economically ready. All those raging hormones are trying to get us to reproduce. That gap between the age at first menses and the age at first marriage creates, shall we say, a certain tension in society. Right now, we manage that tension through contraception for the middle class and welfare for the poor.

Middle class teens are told that pre-marital sex is OK, as long as no pregnancy results. So we may have 10, 15, or maybe 20 years of sterile sex before we are ready to settle down, get married and have kids. We create habits during those years, habits of how we view sex, how we treat our partners, what we expect from our partners and from life in general. These habits actively hinder our ability to build happy, life-long marriages. When we finally do want to have kids, we have to unlearn a lot of those habits.

Not to mention that delayed fertility often means reduced fertility. Many smart women who thought it was prudent to wait until their thirties to have kids find to their dismay that they can't.

Wouldn't it be a good thing to make it economically feasible for people to get married during the peak fertility years of their early twenties? In previous generations, a couple of 18- year-olds could get married and make a go of it.

The constituency for housing regulations is existing homeowners. They typically favor regulations that increase the value of their homes. My husband and I live in Southern California. We own a home. Every time the housing market booms, our balance sheet improves. But those very same price increases make it more difficult for our children ever to live anywhere near us. Unless they move in with us. I don't know about you, but I'm looking for a better way.

Of course, there's no excuse for sin. On the other hand, adults have some responsibility to do what they can to help the young live in accordance with Christian teachings. We can do something about the high price of housing. We can lighten up on the historic preservation requirements and the environmental impact statements and the rest of the housing regulations. We shouldn't artificially jack up the price of housing so high that thirty-somethings have to live with their parents.

That is why the high cost of housing really does have something to do with sex and marriage and babies.

A version of this column originally ran on TownHall.com.