Smart Growth's affordable housing failureAnother pass-along from Otis White's Urban Notebook at Governing.com, in its entirety because there are no permalinks. The problem he describes is less relevant to Houston, because we've been able to keep housing affordable, but it serves as a warning to not back ourselves into the same painful corner other cities have.
Bring Down the Cost of Housing
The Task Ahead for Smart Growth
It’s hard to be against smart growth. It’s like being against marriage or an orderly society. Its purpose is laudable: to bring more rational, sustainable and benign development to our metropolitan areas. And some of the best minds in urban America are laboring in smart-growth efforts. There’s just one problem: It isn’t working.
The most recent census numbers bear out the failure: Even as our inner cities revive, people continue streaming out of cities and close-in suburbs and settling in communities so far away it almost defies the notion of regions. One demographer, Robert Lang at Virginia Tech, doesn’t call them metropolitan areas anymore; he has coined the term “megapolitan” to describe the edgeless creep of development. Snapshot: Formerly booming San Diego County in Southern California was startled recently to learn it was losing population for the first time in memory. And where are San Diegans headed? To distant inland counties like Riverside.
It isn’t for lack of trying that smart growth has failed. There have been lots of good efforts aimed at tying new development to transit. As a result, rail transit is being expanded in most large metro areas, and transit-oriented development (where housing and retail are built in walking distance of stations) is catching on. Still, the exodus continues.
Why? Well, there are understandable reasons that some would willingly endure three-hour daily commutes. They might prefer living on a three-acre plot. Or they may value the schools over the ones closer in. Or they may have an exaggerated fear of urban crime. But there’s a fourth reason that’s pushing even more people to these distant places: This is where housing is being built that working couples can afford.
That’s the situation in San Diego, where the median price of housing is $502,000, up 6.4 percent from last year, well beyond what most couples with children can afford. Hence, the appeal of Riverside County, where housing is cheaper. “What’s driving this [exodus] is the cost of housing,” a demographer told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s just pushing people farther east.”
What it means is that smart-growth advocates have a much greater task ahead than cheering for transit and mixed-use development: If they’re serious about reversing development patterns, they must bring down the cost of housing in cities and close-in suburbs. Difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Not at all.
That’s because housing isn’t so expensive because the price of land and building materials has skyrocketed; it’s expensive because local governments discourage the construction of moderately priced housing. And they do so because neighborhood groups demand it. (People who live in $500,000 houses don’t care to see $250,000 houses built nearby.) If smart growth is to succeed, then, its promoters will have to convince neighborhood groups that it’s OK to have townhouses and mid-rise condo projects in their midst — that having more young people and retired couples in the neighborhood will actually improve things.Until they do, all the PowerPoint presentations, academic conferences and coffee-table books cranked out by smart-growth promoters won’t amount to much. Oh, they’ll lead to some attractively designed, mixed-use developments near train stations, but these places will be lifeless. There will be no young people, no children, no elderly living in their midst and certainly no waiters, fire fighters or teachers. Everyone in these developments will be the same: affluent 50-year-olds who’ll wonder why the neighborhood seems so dull.
(I actually think there will be some young professionals, but the overall point is still valid.)