In a survey of more than 100 mayors from across the country, more than half who responded said that high housing costs are the main reason that people are moving out of their cities.

Share story

Many of the nation’s mayors are concerned about the price of housing and the ability of residents to afford living in their cities, according to a survey of more than 100 mayors from across the country.

More than half the mayors who responded to the annual Menino Survey of Mayors said that high housing costs are the main reason that people are moving out of their cities, the leading cause above concerns about jobs, schools and public safety. Just 13 percent of mayors said they believe their city’s housing stock meets the needs of local residents. Even in the least-expensive housing markets, fewer than one in five of those mayors said the housing stock is well-suited to residents.

The annual survey, conducted by the Boston University Initiative on Cities, garnered responses from mayors of 115 cities nationwide, representing about 25 percent of the nation’s cities with more than 75,000 people. Experts said the housing crunch is affecting cities of all types.

“This is true of mayors of rich cities and poor cities and cities across the country,” said Katherine Levine Einstein, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University who conducted the survey. “It’s not just coastal cities.”

The mayors had concerns about a wide range of housing-related problems. A Midwestern mayor who responded to the survey said that “affordable housing is a beast” — an unwieldy issue at the local level as it rapidly grows. A Southern mayor said there is not enough housing stock in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. A Western mayor said people are concerned about the cost of housing but that there is opposition to new units being built.

There were regional differences to what mayors want: For example, mayors in the Northeast and Midwest said that their housing stock has to be modernized, while those in the West and South were less concerned. About one in five mayors from around the country wanted to see an increase in homeownership and the availability of housing stock with multiple bedrooms.

The survey also revealed other central topics in the nation’s urban areas and had many mayors noting a desire to push back against state and federal policies.

Mayors said they are concerned about climate change, and they feel as though they can make a difference on the local level, regardless of what happens federally. Sixty-eight percent of mayors believe that cities should play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Some believe cities bear that responsibility even if it means increasing expenditures or foregoing revenues, but it falls along party lines, with 84 percent of Democratic mayors and 24 percent of Republican mayors willing to do so.

In December, 45 mayors gathered in Chicago, committing to uphold the standards outlined in the Paris Climate agreement. President Donald Trump announced in June that the United States would pull out of the accord.

“Mayors are taking this issue head-on because it’s directly impacting their community,” said Ryan Whalen, director for initiatives and strategies at the Rockefeller Foundation. The survey was conducted with support from Citi and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Mayors are not pleased with the level of financial support they receive from the federal government, with slightly more than half saying they can meet infrastructure needs over the next five years. They also are concerned about their autonomy, with many mayors believing that state pre-emption laws, where states dictate what types of policies cities can and cannot enact, have gotten more restrictive.

“The 57 percent of the cities recording much less or less-than-average autonomy from their state governments, to me that just screams off the page of the urban/rural divide,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in an interview.

Fischer said his city has had issues with trying to enact gun-control measures at the local level, because it is prohibited from doing so by the state.

“Gun issues in the urban areas are very different than in the rural areas. It’s not an attack on the Second Amendment, it’s realizing the effect of people living together in a much denser environment,” he said. “It’s just very different perspectives but also very different living conditions.”

And as many cities are taking aim at the policies of the Trump administration, mayors surveyed said they believe they can counteract federal policy as it relates to policing and environmental issues. They believe they can have less of an impact on issues such as immigration and health care.