Category Archives: Housing

Portland’s Housing Future

The Antiplanner spent yesterday in the Portland, visiting the neighborhood where I grew up and seeing the new homes springing up in people’s backyards, sideyards, frontyards, and just about anywhere where there is a little open space. Portland planners say that 55 percent of new homes built in the next two decades will be multifamily or single-family attached homes (row houses). If the single-family homes being built in my old neighborhood are good examples of the kind of single-family planners want for the remaining 45 percent, they won’t be any more attractive than the 55 percent.

Economist Bill Reid argues that Metro planners are greatly overestimating the desire for multifamily housing. Based on a survey published by Metro itself, Reid predicts that Metro’s plans will result in a shortfall of more than 40,000 single-family detached homes. Unfortunately, Reid’s study doesn’t seem to be available on line, but it is described in this Portland Tribune article.

Predictably, one of the comments on the Portland Tribune article lauds Metro and urban-growth boundaries for protecting Oregon from becoming like “overcrowded California.” In fact, these policies are deliberately designed to turn Portland into another overcrowded California urban area.

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The Cost of Regulation in San Diego

Last week, economists at the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute released a report estimating that government regulation increase San Diego housing prices–for both buyers and renters–by an average of about 40 percent. The report says that only 16 percent of San Diego County has been developed (the 2010 census says 18.5 percent), and almost all of the remaining land is off-limits to homebuilders. Yet, the report notes, a significant portion of that land “is geographically suitable for development.”

Although the land shortage is responsible for much of the regulatory cost, there are other costs as well. “The time involved in what is often a prolonged and complicated process . . . can add 15% or more to the price of a new house,” or more than a third of the total regulatory cost, says the report. This process can take 12 years or more before developers can start building a single home. Of course, the Antiplanner has argued that cities can only get away with imposing such an onerous process if they have shut off most vacant land from development through urban-growth boundaries and other regulatory tools.

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Lafayette Presentations

Lafayette, Louisiana would seem to be the last place in the world that you would expect to adopt a smart-growth plan. Yet the city adopted one recently and is now beginning to implement it by revising its zoning code. The Antiplanner believes that this code will make housing and other developments more expensive and slow the economic growth of Lafayette.

I suspect the problems can be traced to a decision made a couple of decades ago to consolidate the city and parish government. The argument at the time was that most people lived in one of six Lafayette cities and towns, and the few people scattered across the rural parts of the parish couldn’t afford to maintain the roads and other infrastructure. Consolidation was supposed to fix that.

Today, the roads are in worse shape than ever, both in the city and the parish, and congestion is a major local problem. When the parish asked for a tax increase to improve roads, the parish council at that time refused to guarantee that the money would actually be spent on roads, so the voters rejected the increase.

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U.S. Land Worth More Than $23 Trillion

A new study from the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that America’s land, exclusive of buildings or other improvements, was worth nearly $23 trillion in 2009. It has undoubtedly increased since then. The analysis, which was summarized in a Wall Street Journal blog post yesterday, presents estimates by state (for the lower 48 states only) broken into three categories: federal, developed, and agricultural.

Nationwide, the three categories add up to about 76 percent, leaving 24 percent in an implied “other” category. However, in a few states, the three categories add up to more than 100 percent, suggesting that developed federal lands are counted both in the developed and the federal categories. There may also be some overlap between federal and ag land.

Most of the important data are found in table 3, which the Antiplanner transferred to a spreadsheet for a more detailed review. The table shows that, nationally, ag land is estimated to be worth an average of about $2,000 an acre. However, it is worth much more–$5,000 to $16,500 an acre–in a few smaller eastern states including Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The higher values in these states probably reflect the competition for that land by exurbanites.

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Oregon’s Next Bad Idea

Oregon’s House of Representatives passed a bill to legalize inclusionary zoning. In memory of Bart Simpson, this should be called the “I Didn’t Do It Act,” as the reason for Oregon’s low housing affordability compared with most other states is the legislature’s continuing support for land-use regulation and urban-growth boundaries.

Inclusionary zoning requires home builders to dedicate a fixed share–usually around 15 to 20 percent–of the housing units they build to low- and moderate-income buyers or renters. Research by economists from San Jose State University has conclusively proven that inclusionary zoning laws actually make housing less affordable. This is because builders respond by building fewer homes and by charging more for the non-subsidized units to pay for the ones that they are required to subsidize.

Inclusionary zoning is legal in California, where housing is far less affordable than in Oregon. But inclusionary zoning is not really about making housing affordable; it is more about assuaging liberal consciences for adopting policies that make housing less affordable. If they can force greedy homebuilders to supply a handful of homes for less than market value to needy people, then they don’t have to feel so bad about everything they did that mucked up the housing market.

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“Little Boxes” Was About Skinny Houses

In 1962, folksinger and Quaker activist Malvina Reynolds wrote Little Boxes, the theme song of the anti-sprawl movement. Popularized by Pete Seeger in 1963, the song is popularly supposed to be a protest against suburban homes and is often associated with Levittown.


Aerial view of homes in Westlake.

In fact, the Levittowns in New York and Pennsylvania were planned and built years before Reynolds wrote her song, and it is quite likely that Reynolds, a Californian, never saw them. Instead, according to her’ daughter, “My mother and father were driving south from San Francisco through Daly City when my mom got the idea for the song. She asked my dad to take the wheel, and she wrote it on the way to the gathering in La Honda where she was going to sing for the Friends Committee.” Pressed to define exactly where she was when she was inspired, Reynolds said it was in the Westlake District.

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Turning Portland into San Francisco

Portland is “going to look like San Francisco in 10 years,” predicts real estate broker Douglas MacLeod. That’s because people like him are buying homes, demolishing them, and replacing them with two, three, or four skinny houses–houses as narrow as 15 feet in width but (unlike row houses) with around ten feet of space between them.

This continuing process has enough Portlanders upset that the city council recently voted to require developers to notify nearby homeowners at least 35 days before they begin demolition of a home, not that the homeowners will be able to do much about it. It has also led the Oregonian to commission these interactive graphics showing where homes have been replaced and how fast they are being demolished.

Of course, few are willing to discuss the real answer, which is to abolish or at least greatly enlarge Portland’s urban-growth boundary. The 2010 census found that Oregon is 98.8 percent rural, and more than 80 percent of its residents are confined to the remaining 1.2 percent that is urbanized.

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About That Trillion-Dollar Cost of Sprawl

The Antiplanner’s loyal opponent, Todd Litman, has come out with a new report claiming that urban sprawl costs Americans more than a trillion dollars a year. While it is rather quaint that people are still worried about the costs of sprawl, the Antiplanner has to point out that there are several problems with Litman’s analysis.

Many of Litman’s Numbers Are Hypothetical

First, many of Litman’s numbers are hypothetical. He casually presents data describing such things as “optimal regional densities” and “optimal vehicle ownership rates” without ever defining “optimal” or proving that his numbers are, indeed, optimal. In fact, any actual optima change from day to day and to claim that one “knows” what the optima are is to claim an omnipotence that simply does not exist. Such claims are what leads people to think they can engage in central planning which almost invariably leads to more harm than good.

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Housing and Wealth Inequality

American Nightmare hasn’t sold as well as the Antiplanner’s other books, which is too bad because in some ways it is the most profound of them all. It covers a wide range of issues, including a detailed explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. But the overarching theme is that urban planning and zoning are best viewed as a form of economic warfare by the upper and middle classes against the working and lower classes. While that might not have been the original intent, to judge by the smug attitudes of the beneficiaries of such planning and zoning, they are perfectly happy with the results.

The book, therefore, was really about inequality, an issue recently made popular (and controversial) by Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s thesis is that income inequality is necessarily rising because the returns to capital wealth are greater than overall economic growth, thus giving people one more reason to hate capitalists.

Last month, a paper by an MIT graduate student in economics named Matthew Rognlie, examined Piketty’s thesis in detail. Rognlie found that the return on most kinds of wealth and capital has not been greater than overall economic growth, and therefore hasn’t been contributing to income inequality. The one exception, Rognlie found, was housing.

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Making Density Affordable

The Antiplanner once wrote that “the definition of a socialist is someone who doesn’t understand that subsidizing something is not the same thing as making it affordable.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has often been called a socialist, and seems to fit the mold, proposing to make some housing “affordable” by confiscating money from others.

Specifically, de Blasio’s administration has demanded that, in order to get a permit to build a new school building, Collegiate School–a private school that traces its roots back nearly 500 years–must contribute enough money to build 55 units of “affordable housing.” Worse, those 55 units are estimated to cost at least $50 million (nearly $1 million per unit is affordable?), and if they cost more, Collegiate has to pay the difference. (If they cost less, the city pockets the difference.)

Even if the housing cost far less than $1 million per unit, 55 units of affordable housing aren’t going to have any influence on the affordability of New York City housing. Nor is it likely that whoever ends up living in those housing units falls into a conventional definition of the truly needy. Instead, like many of the beneficiaries of New York’s rent control and other housing laws, they will probably be middle- or upper-middle-class people who happen to be friends with the right people.

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