Tag Archives: census

Provo Homes are Pricey

Over the last few posts I’ve argued that Provo needs more housing for young professionals and families. But just how easy is it for people in those demographics to pay for housing?

Returning to the census data I’ve referenced before, I found that the median value of an owner-occupied home in Provo is $212,400. Among the four other cities I’ve used in past comparisons — Boulder, Ann Arbor, Chattanooga, and Ogden — that figure most closely resembles the median home value in Ann Arbor, which is $240,400.

According to these figures, Provo is right in the middle of the pack when it comes to home values. And that’s a lot better than previous comparisons, where Provo came up as an outlier for its poverty and low wages. It’s better to be average than awful.

But there are a few issues going on here. For starters, this graph from a previous post shows that Provo has a low median income compared to other cities, as well as compared to each city’s respective state:

The blue bars in the graph above represent median income in each city, while the red bars represent median income in those cities’ respective states.

Taken together, these two graphs indicate that Provo has a lower income but potentially higher housing costs than other, comparable cities. That means it might actually be easier to buy a home in a place like Ann Arbor than in Provo.

Houses in the Maeser neighborhood.

The reasons for this housing situation are complex and certainly have to do with BYU and the large student population. (But again, keep in mind that all of the cities in the comparison are college towns.) BYU also has a particularly byzantine and economically detrimental housing policy as compared to other universities, which distorts Provo’s housing market in downtown.

But I’ll save causal issues for later posts.

For now, it’s particularly worth noting the high median home values in Boulder, which come in at a remarkable $475,200. Boulder is very frequently compared to Provo — by myself and others — but these figures show that such comparisons are really kind of like looking at apples and (solid gold, diamond encrusted) oranges. The point is that Boulder is significantly richer than Provo and the disparity between the two cities’ wealth helps explain the very different realities on their respective streets.

In any case, it’s worth keeping in mind that housing values in Provo are yet another economic condition that make Provo… unique. Generally speaking, this situation is a function of supply and demand for housing and if nothing else the figures are actually reassuring: clearly there is demand for housing in Provo but not enough supply to depress values.



Filed under neighborhood

Why Is Poverty So Surprising?

When I learned recently from the census data that 31 percent of the people in Provo were living below poverty level, I was surprised. After several conversations with friends and family, I also discovered I’m not alone; it really is kind of shocking to think of every third person in the city living on very low wages (or in some cases no wages at all).

In reality, however, segregation according to income levels or so-called social class shouldn’t be too surprising. This is a common topic in city-related writing — indeed poverty is one of the primary focuses among urbanists — but Richard Florida recently offered a short and useful breakdown that may offer insights applicable to Provo.

Writing specifically about Vancouver and citing a new study, Florida points out that in reality three cities exist: an affluent one, a middle class one, and a disadvantaged one.

Provo and Vancouver are very different places, but the general surprise at Provo’s poverty levels — and even the median income levels, which are low compared to other cities — suggests that there is perhaps some income segregation going on here as well. It’s dispersion is certainly unique to Provo, but if it exists that segregation could pose an obstacle to actually making real change. It’s hard to fix something, after all, that seems invisible or only barely extant.

And in any case, as I’ve been arguing all along improving these levels in Provo will benefit everyone.

Provo has a lot of very well educated, high skill people. It also has a high poverty rate. Is it possible that people in those demographics don’t cross paths very often? Could segregation be an impediment to finding real solutions?

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Filed under community, Provo

Provo: The Poorest City in Its Class

In an effort to better understand why Provo differs from other cities of comparable size and composition, I recently combed through some census data. As it turns out, the government provides a handy QuickFacts page for every city in the U.S.

My goal in looking at this data was to understand why Provo doesn’t have as thriving a downtown, for example, as other cities like Boulder, Colorado. Boulder and a handful of other cities often come up in conversations about how to improve Provo, and there seems to be a sense that if Provo could just feel more like Boulder it would be similarly successful.

I compared Provo to four other cities: Boulder; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Ogden, Utah. All of these cities have colleges, comparable population sizes, and generally anchor medium-sized metros orbiting larger cities. Moreover, I included Ogden due to its proximity to Provo and its relationship to Salt Lake City, and Chattanooga because it’s one of the few cities of its size that consistently pops up in urban-oriented news.

How does Provo stack up against other cities? The points on this map indicate Provo, Boulder, Chattanooga, Ann Arbor, and Ogden, respectively.

What I found wasn’t encouraging. First, with 115,321 people, Provo is the second largest of the five cities and closest in size to Ann Arbor.

So far so good.

But when the median incomes for these cities are compared, Provo gets into trouble:

The graph above — where blue represents city income levels and red represents state income — reveals that Provo has the second lowest median income of all five cities. It just barely beat Chattanooga, and is even lower than Ogden. Here’s the data from both of the graphs, in case you want to see exact figures (click to enlarge):

The problem here isn’t just low income. As the second graph shows, the median income in Provo is also lowest of all five cities relative to its state. In other words the disparity between incomes in Provo and the surrounding community is larger than in any of these five cities.

Or, put another way, Provo is the poorest of all five cities. Only Chattanoogans may make slightly less, but that’s more characteristic of their state and, presumably, the lower state income levels indicate a lower cost of living.

It’s also worth pointing out just how much richer Boulder in particular is than Provo. The median income in Boulder is $13,887 higher than in Provo, and it’s much closer to the state median income.

Given these figures, it’s no wonder Provo struggles. People in Provo have thousands of dollars less to spend, meaning there simply isn’t as much wealth to support a vibrant retail sector, the arts, or entertainment, for example. Lower income also means less tax revenue, among other things, which translates into less money for the government to spend on various projects.

Frankly, it’s a wonder Provo has managed to compete at all given its comparably limited resources. I also have to admit I was surprised by these results; I knew that the median income in Provo would be lower than it is in Boulder or Ann Arbor, but I didn’t expect such a significant disparity, nor did I expect Ogden to be better off.

I’m not an economist — and I don’t want to oversimplify this data — but Provo’s relatively low median income seems like one of the biggest obstacles to downtown revitalization, neighborhood gentrification, and generally improving quality of life. In the end, none of those things are going to happen if people in Provo don’t have the money to support them.

And yet far as I can remember I’ve also never heard any discussion regarding this issue. Ever. Why is that? Though it may be a bit wonkish, this is extremely important because it directly impacts Provo’s ability to improve. Ultimately, wanting the city to improve and sprucing it up here and there is nice, but if Provo remains the poorest city in its class it’ll never be the most vibrant, lively, or successful.

Check back in the coming days for follow-up posts on how Provo’s home values, poverty levels, business environment, etc. compare to these five cities.


Filed under economics

The Census and Provo

The Census Bureau now has pages for states and cities, and they include some fascinating data. For example, the Utah page reveals that the estimated population of the state in 2011 is 2,817,222. More significantly, 31.2 percent of the population is under 18 while 9.2 percent is over 65. Those numbers are higher and lower, respectively, than national averages, suggesting that Utah has and will continue to have a young workforce.

And of course, that’s an economic advantage. Utah also has higher than average high school and college graduation rates and lower than average commute times.

Provo’s page is even more illuminative. Over the last 10 years, for example, the city’s population has increased by 7 percent to 112,488. Provo’s under-18 population is lower than the state average, as is its over-65 population.

Provo is 84.8 percent white, 15.2 percent Latino, and has very small percentages of other ethnicities. And as homogenous as those numbers are, they surprisingly indicate more diversity than the state as a whole.

Additionally, a whopping 40.3 percent of Provo residents over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree, and the mean commute time was 16.6 minutes — which isn’t bad given the national and state averages.

I’d recommend poking around this data; it’s fascinating and organized in an easy-to-read format.

The data hints at why Utah and Provo are ranked highly for business; the workforce is young, educated and — given commute times — closer to economic centers than in other parts of the country. That last point shouldn’t be discounted; commuting time is often wasted time, economically speaking, which means shorter drives (or bus rides) mean higher productivity.

This data also reveals that Provo may need to work harder to keep a competitive edge. If it has a lower population of children, for example, that suggests young families are gravitating to other cities. That might seem obvious just by looking at Utah County’s development over the last decade, but it’s nevertheless something that the city should try to combat over the next decade.

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Filed under Development, Provo, utah