Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Smart Growth's affordable housing failure

Another pass-along from Otis White's Urban Notebook at, 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.)


At 6:33 AM, April 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a platter full of red herring!

At 7:50 AM, April 13, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

Affordability is no doubt an issue, but it doesn't fully explain the situation in Houston. You can get a new townhome near downtown for around $200,000-300,000, and condos are even less. Still, the suburbs are winning.

Granted, the suburbs are even cheaper, but the truth is that they also offer more amenities. That's where smart growth really loses. It acts as if families should forsake a 3 bedroom, single family home with a yard, and move into an inner city condo and use light rail. However, that's just not what families want. That style of living is attractive to some young people, sure, but only for a short period of time, and even they often prefer getting more for the same price in the suburbs.

This isn't to say that you can't revitalize the inner city; I'm merely saying that the suburbs will always probably be absorbing most new growth. Smart growth is an interesting sideshow, but that's about it.

(This coming from a person who's closing on a 19th century shotgun home today in Central City New Orleans! I've lost all credibility!).

At 9:37 AM, April 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is off topic, but your readers absotively need to check out this article on Houston and Katrina from that powerhouse NYC publication, the City Journal. It's not up on their splash page yet, they dribble out the new Spring articles, but a little creative url guessing revealed it. ATSRTWT (as they say read the whole thing.)

At 11:19 AM, April 13, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

John: I have yours in my "print and read" queue. Looks very interesting. Thanks for the heads up.

David: That is a very thoughtful response, and well worth reading. Thanks for the pointer. The permalink is

At 1:01 PM, April 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding San Diego, I think people overthink the reasons why it's so expensive.

Imagine if in Houston, everything south and east of US 59 was the Gulf of Mexico (instead of land that could be / is used for housing), and downtown was smack up against the Gulf (meaning no commutes possible from several directions), and the coastline itself was breathtakingly gorgeous, and the Gulf helped to keep temperatures around a pleasant 72 degrees virtually all year with continuous gentle breezes. Oh yes, and then sprinkle in some mountains. Sound idyllic? If that were true, our prices would be quite similar to San Diego's.

This coming from a person who's closing on a 19th century shotgun home today in Central City New Orleans!

Congratulations. What's the status of the real estate market in central New Orleans... are people buying again? You realize of course that the word mortgage means "death promise"?

At 8:07 AM, April 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with most of Otis White's piece except on one key point:

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.)

The city of San Diego has placed so many fees on development that houses, condos, and town houses have to be expensive to cover the cost and allow the developer to make a profit. It has nothing to do with the kind of neighbor and the NIMBY mentality it has to do with the city wanting to cash in on development.

The big farce here is the city allows developers to pay a hefty fine in lieu of providing some number of affordable units. The premise being that the city can then use that money and some of it's many real estate holdings to provide affordable housing, but the city uses the money for other things and then complains about the lack of affordable housing.

At 6:36 PM, June 08, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The issue is this: Most people do not like being packed in like rats. Most people like having some space, they like their cars and yards. Smart Growth types ignore this. Rather than planning for efficiency and making cars and single family homes more affordable the Smart Grwoth types just keep pushing a bankrupt idea. Of course the massive irony of this is that I know many urban planners, architects and anti car academic types all of whom live in big houses in the country and drive SUVs....


Post a Comment

<< Home