The cities investing the most in high-density housing

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Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

For decades, metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. have invested in high-density housing—building more apartment buildings, condos, and other multi-unit complexes. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting this long-standing demand for housing in high-density areas and buildings. Even as the distancing measures from COVID ultimately subside, recent research suggests that people may continue to seek housing in less densely populated areas and structures. Cities that have invested heavily in high-density housing may have trouble finding residents to fill these new units.

Since the early 1990’s, high-density housing—buildings with five or more units—has accounted for a growing share of total new residential development. Even after a brief decline during the Great Recession, the share of high-density housing has continued to rise. While in 1992, only about 13 percent of new housing units were in high-density structures, since 2012, that number has ranged between 30 and 40 percent. In 2019, 35 percent of the 1.4 million housing units authorized in the United States were high density.

Despite increased investment in recent decades, only 18.7 percent of existing housing units in the U.S. are within high-density structures of five or more units. However, across the country, the proportion of both existing and new housing developments that are high density varies greatly. Data from the Census Bureau’s 2019 Building Permits Survey shows that while Northeastern and West Coast states tended to authorize high-density housing at a significantly higher rate than the national average of 35 percent, many Southern states began very few high-density projects. For example, in Louisiana and Mississippi, less than 10 percent of new housing units authorized in 2019 are high density.

To find the metropolitan areas that have been investing most in high-density housing, researchers at Porch analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Building Permits Survey and 2019 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates. Their researchers found the proportion of 2019 building permits in each location issued for housing units in structures containing five units or more. To improve relevance, metropolitan areas were grouped into cohorts based on population: large (1,000,000 or more), midsize (350,000–999,999), and small (100,000–349,999).

Metropolitan areas that have been investing most in high-density housing are some of the nation’s largest, most expensive, and most densely populated. For example, Miami, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston—locations with already high population densities and rent prices—top the list of metros investing heavily in high-density housing. While these areas have been positioning well for growth, the shift in public preferences driven by COVID-19 may create an oversupply of the wrong type of housing.

Here are the metropolitan areas that have been investing the most in high-density housing.

The 15 metros investing most in high-density housing

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15. Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 44.6%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 16.1%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 2,574
  • Total new housing units (2019): 5,766

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

14. Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 48.3%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 17.3%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 7,540
  • Total new housing units (2019): 15,607

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

13. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 50.7%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 30.8%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 13,597
  • Total new housing units (2019): 26,804

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

12. Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 51.7%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 25.7%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 9,346
  • Total new housing units (2019): 18,085

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

11. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 51.9%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 23.2%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 8,719
  • Total new housing units (2019): 16,815

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

10. Salt Lake City, UT

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 52.2%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 21.9%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 5,572
  • Total new housing units (2019): 10,680

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

9. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 56.1%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 23.4%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 12,567
  • Total new housing units (2019): 22,414

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

8. San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, CA

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 57.0%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 29.8%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 4,681
  • Total new housing units (2019): 8,216

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

7. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 57.0%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 29.0%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 3,552
  • Total new housing units (2019): 6,230

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

6. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 61.8%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 29.5%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 16,426
  • Total new housing units (2019): 26,599

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

5. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 62.7%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 40.1%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 12,964
  • Total new housing units (2019): 20,688

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

4. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 62.8%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 33.4%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 19,196
  • Total new housing units (2019): 30,554

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

3. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 65.8%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 25.4%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 9,929
  • Total new housing units (2019): 15,088

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

2. San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 68.6%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 30.0%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 9,528
  • Total new housing units (2019): 13,881

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

1. New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA

  • Share of new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 76.9%
  • Share of existing housing units in high-density structures: 39.4%
  • Total new housing units in high-density structures (2019): 47,021
  • Total new housing units (2019): 61,168

Detailed findings and methodology

Data used in this analysis comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Building Permits Survey. To identify the places that have been investing most in high-density housing, researchers at Porch found the proportion of new building permits in each location issued for housing units in structures of five units or more. The analysts also calculated the share of existing housing units in high-density structures using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.

To improve relevance, metropolitan areas were grouped into cohorts based on population: large (1,000,000 or more), midsize (350,000–999,999), and small (100,000–349,999).