Friday, 18 of April of 2014

Category » Suburbia

Our Phony Preference for Smart Growth

The good folks at New Geography published the first of my two-part commentary on Smart Growth.  The article is, ”Smart Growth and The New Newspeak,” and in it I address the tendency of Smart Growthers to claim their preference of high density, compact develpment is what people really want.

Stating the Obvious

Alan Pisarski, friend of the ADC and author of the Commuting in America series, makes the point that Smart Growth advocates and the mainstream media would like to ignore: Suburban life is still cheaper.

Promoting Sameness with Comprehensive Planning

The Milford Daily News in Massachusetts is heralding a new statewide “strategy for smarter growth,” called the 495/MetroWest Development Compact Plan.

In commenting on the plan, one of the participants said, “We’re trying to repair the sprawl that has been the hallmark of a lot of development until recently, and now I think we’re taking a more thoughtful and comprehensive look.”

The irony is that advocates of central planning always pitch the community of the need to reverse “business as usual” in order to preserve their “unique sense of place.”  But the plans they end up adopting all look the same no matter where you are: much higher densities and a preference for compact (apartments & condos) development and mass transit.  If everyone adopts plans that look like Portland, what then remains “unique”?

All across the country there is a fixation on comprehensive planning with the unfounded assumption that more central, command-and-control will work on the regional level despite having failed so miserably on state and national levels.

Don’t Bet Against Joel Kotkin …

… when he says, “Don’t Bet Against The (Single-Family) House.”

When Persuasion Fails, Use Intimidation

All elected and appointed officials in Maryland are supposed to march in lock-step with Governor O’Malley’s coercive statewide growth management plan known as PlanMaryland.

If dissent is expressed, over-the-top measures will be taken to de-legitimize it.  Back in October 2011, I participated with several other speakers at a public forum organized by Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild.  “PlanMaryland: At the Crossroads” identified technical errors and faulty assumptions that undermine the plan’s viability.  It was widely publicized and about 150 people were in attendance from members of the Governor’s cabinet to state senators to county commissioners to local activists.  Additionally, the media was present and provided lots of coverage, even live-blogging the event.  All the presentations were posted on the County website (available here).  A nominal fee was proposed to cover costs, but only about 1/4 of the participants paid it proving that the fee was not an impediment to attendance.

There was no call to order, no motion set before the board, no votes taken, no direction given to staff.  In other words, there was nothing at this forum that in any way could be confused with a meeting of an elected body set to take action.

But the hypersensitive environmentalist community was offended that a forum would be organized that challenged their precious assumptions, so they sought a ruling from the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board who has issued an absurd ruling that the event was a “closed meeting,” thus violating the state’s open meetings law.  The Carroll County Board of Commissioners has posted a response on its website showing that there is at least some common sense left in Maryland.

Bruegmann’s Important Essay

Every year Wendell Cox of Demographia (United States) and Hugh Pavletich of Peformance Urban Planning (New Zealand) publish their International Housing Affordability Survey (IHAS).  This year’s survey is the eighth edition.

The IHAS includes a wealth of graphs and charts all structured to explain and illuminate the impact of land use policy on housing and homeownership.  This year’s survey is introduced Robert Bruegmann and he succinctly explains why this matters: “Nothing in the world today affects citizens more directly than the home in which they live.”

Bruegmann, who wrote the concise and critical book Sprawl: A Compact History, goes on to identify the tension surrounding housing policy.

“At one end of the political spectrum have been societies in which land is owned in common and is supposed to be allocated to individuals and families on the basis of merit or need.  Such has been the case with many Utopian and Socialist societies.  At the other end of the spectrum have been societies where individual ownership of land and homes is considered a bedrock condition of a democratic society, where ownership is widely dispersed, and individual rights and preferences have been zealously safeguarded from all but the most necessary intervention.”

Of course, housing policy is not at the extremes but somewhere within that continuum.  However, the International Housing Affordability Survey convincingly shows that the closer policy moves toward the Utopian/Socialist ideal, the less affordable housing becomes for people.  Smart Growth planning policies move the needle toward the Utopian/Socialist end while a less regulated housing market is championed by people who believe in property rights and individual freedom.

As Bruegmann concludes, “Whether [Smart Growth] policies were intended to enhance the environment or limit sprawl, they clearly had an effect on the price of housing,” adding that “land use policies in places like coastal California, Vancouver, Britain and Australia, have dramatically driven up the cost of housing, and that the less intrusive policies of places like Atlanta and Houston has kept prices down.”

I hope we’re entering a No Excuses era when local policymakers can no longer get away with claiming they simply had no idea that restrictive land use regulations artificially increase housing costs to the point that low and middle income Americans are priced out of homeownership.

Not a Headline You See Every Day

Three Cheers for Urban Sprawl … says Martin Durkin in New Geography. With Britain – where 90 percent of the people live on 9 percent of the land – as his reference point, Durkin argues:

“Hemming people into towns and cities with ‘Green Belts’, has acted like a pressure-cooker on property prices. The planning system, by limiting the amount of land available to build on, has created an artificial shortage of living space, forcing up the prices of houses and flats to such astronomical heights that many young couples can only dream of affording one. The less affluent dare not get a job for fear of losing housing benefit. There are families in London where the children sleep three and four to a room – a tiny room in a dingy flat.”

What Does ‘The American Dream’ Mean?

The American Dream is America’s creed.  For this organization, it means freedom, mobility, and affordable homeownership that results from market conditions rather than governmental mandates.  But The American Dream means different things to different people.  The Washington Post has a recent piece on “Five myths about the American dream“:

  1. The American dream is about getting rich
  2. Homeownership is the American dream
  3. The American dream is American
  4. China threatens the American dream
  5. Economic decline and political gridlock are killing the American dream

I take issue with only the first three as they relate to the ADC.  First, I don’t know of many people – outside critics of American culture – who say the American Dream is about “getting rich.”  To those who believe in it, The American Dream means pursuing happiness on your terms, not someone else’s.  For some it means starting your own business, for others it means seeing your children go to college.  Or moving out West to ”start over again” or something as simple as restoring a ’57 Chevy.  Ultimately, it is driven at the individual and family level.

In these varied pursuits, some people become fabulously wealthy … and some don’t.  Some strive for riches and come up short while others don’t pursue wealth at all because it doesn’t fit with their definition of happiness.  The Post article essentially affirms this in linking to a study by Xavier University:

“Thirty-two percent of our respondents pointed to ‘freedom’ as their dream; 29 percent to ‘opportunity’; and 21 percent to the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”

As for homeownership, registering just 7 percent in the Xavier study, I would say that in indicating “freedom,” “opportunity,” and “pursuit of happiness” as part of their American dream, many people are probably incorporating homeownership into it.  If I had answered the survey, I don’t think I would check-mark the “homeownership” category if “freedom” was also on the list, for the latter would allow me to pursue both homeownership as well as premium barbeque.  One is a distinct goal while the other is a broad ideal.

Lastly, the third “myth” is, again, not really a myth but a conceit held by our … er, sophisticated betters.  Oh, those flag waving rubess … so sure that only Americans have dreams. The reality is this: We know that people all over the world have dreams of a better tomorrow, but there are few places on earth where they can be pursued and even realized.  That’s why, despite all our troubles, we remain the world’s foremost destination for people seeking freedom, opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness.

Let us pray we never abandon those principles on which such opportunities rest.

If You’ve Got 10 Minutes …

… check out this interview by of the ‘Partisan of Suburban Places.’

Hey, Kids, What Time Is It?

Time for more “death of the suburbs” proclamations!

Christopher B. Leinberger is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and has a piece in the New York Times declaring, “The Death of the Fringe Suburb.”  (I thought, by definition, all suburbs were on the fringe.)

And a new documentary is out predicting, “The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream

This has been a standard talking point among progressives and planners for a long time even as people “vote with their feet” and continue to move into single family homes in the suburbs.