Category Archives: Housing

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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California Housing Is Expensive

The Wall Street Journal observes that high housing costs are hurting the California economy. This brilliant conclusion is based on a report by Mac Taylor of the state legislative analyst’s office. Unfortunately, the report misses a few important details and as a result comes to entire the wrong conclusion.

Housing is expensive, the report says, because California isn’t building enough of it. Well, duh. Why isn’t it building enough? According to the report, it’s because there is a “limited amount of vacant developable land.” The solution, the report concludes, is to build higher densities in the land that is available.

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Empty Nesters Moving into Bigger Homes

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune is “surprised” that retirees are moving into bigger homes, not smaller ones like the “conventional wisdom” dictates. Of course, that’s the conventional wisdom of urban planners, not demographers or economists, which means it is more like untested hypotheses, not wisdom. In any case, people who have accumulated a lifetime of toys and suddenly have time on their hands to play with those toys are not going to move into tiny downtown condos, or at least not all of them.

The Antiplanner is between planes so instead of going into this question in depth I’ll let the commenters take this and run.

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Someone Teach Him the Laws of Supply & Demand

With its “vibrant mix of residential, retail, commercial and green space,” Arlington County, Virginia is exactly where a lot of Millennials in the Washington DC area would like to live–at least according to one such Millennial named Harrison Godfrey. However, many can’t, as the median home price is $550,000, which is far more than two professionals who each earn $50,000 a year can afford.

Godfrey has apparently never taken an economics class. At just 26 square miles (compared with an average of 450 miles for the rest of Virginia’s 94 counties), Arlington County is in reality a small city. According to the 2010 census, it is 100 percent urbanized with a population density of 8,000 people per square mile.

By comparison, the urbanized portion of Montgomery County, Maryland is just 3,500 people per square mile. In other words, there really isn’t any more room to build in Arlington County, at least not without displacing a lot of people who live there now–which would probably mean some of the ethnic minorities that help make the county “vibrant.”

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner was in Austin yesterday speaking at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference for Texas legislators. I gave two presentations, both of which are available for download.

First, I talked about how Texas can keep the “Texas miracle” going by protecting property rights (8-MB PowerPoint show). I made three recommendations:

  1. Don’t give counties the authority to regulate land uses. Texas may be the only state that doesn’t allow counties to zone, and this keeps city zoning from being too restrictive because developers can simply avoid city rules by developing outside of the cities.
  2. Relax the financial requirements for municipal utility districts. Municipal utility districts allow developers to borrow funds to install infrastructure and then charge homebuyers and other property owners a fee for 30 years to repay the bonds. After the financial crisis, the Texas legislature required developers to put up more of their own funds for infrastructure, leading to a significant increase in housing prices. I argued that the risk of defaults was worth it to keep housing affordable.
  3. Retain city authority to annex land without the permission of the residents being annexed. Most debates over urban sprawl are really debates over who gets to collect taxes. In states where cities have a hard time annexing land, they use other tools, such as urban-growth boundaries, to limit land development. While annexations without voter permission are controversial, the alternative is worse. However, Texas cities are also allowed to have control over certain “extraterritorial” lands outside their city limits. This does not seem to be needed to keep housing affordable and eliminating that control would relieve many of the debates over annexation.

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