In his reflections on the debate we had last week, Charles Marohn’s main comment is that he found my ideas “utterly impractical.” What were those ideas? Privatizing local streets. Privatizing utilities. Privatizing other common goods.
Just how impractical are these ideas? Most utilities in this country are, after all private. Many streets are private–I live on one. St. Louis has privatized some of its streets.
During the debate, Marohn called himself a libertarian, but his response reveals him to be a progressive. Progressives believe that commonly owned resources are a good thing because they value the tragedy of the commons. Without the tragedy, there is no need for government intervention. Without a need for government intervention, the role of progressives is greatly diminished.
For those who want to see it but can’t be in Lafayette this afternoon, the Antiplanner’s debate with Charles Marohn will be livestreamed at 5:30 pm Central Time, 6:30 Eastern and 3:30 Pacific.
Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, funds its hundreds of planners out of garbage fees, which is why Portland has the highest garbage collection costs in the Pacific Northwest. But Metro also encourages people to recycle in order to reduce their garbage refuse.
As a result, Portland garbage has declined enough to threaten Metro’s budget. Metro’s response, naturally, is to tax recyclables, which would probably lead some people to stop recycling.
Since transit is partly funded out of gas taxes, if most people actually stopped driving and started riding transit (which they show no inclination of doing in Portland or elsewhere), Metro would probably start taxing transit riders. And many places use inclusionary zoning or other housing taxes to pay for affordable housing for low-income families, so if builders stopped building high-end housing and started building exclusively for low-income families, Metro would start taxing the poor to pay for their housing. It seems likely that Metro hasn’t really thought this through.
Yesterday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved a new fair housing rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. This follows the Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowing HUD to use disparate impact as a criterion for determining whether a community is guilty of unfair housing practices.
Racists. Wikimedia photo by Bernard Gagnon.
In one form of disparate impact analyses, HUD compares the racial makeup of a city or suburb with the makeup of the urban area as a whole. If the city doesn’t have enough minorities, it is presumed guilty and must take steps to attract more. Under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, that could mean subsidizing low-income housing or rezoning land for high-density housing.
The Economist laments that cities are shrinking all over the world. More than a third of the cities in Germany are losing population, as are nearly one in ten in the United States. What the Economist fails to note is that most of the cities it uses as examples–Detroit, cities in the former East Germany–were once dominated by strong governments that taxed people heavily and often tried to control how people lived.
American urban planners are no longer trying to make people live in high-rise housing that is so common in eastern Europe. Instead, they are trying to make people live in mixed-use, mid-rise housing, so-called transit-oriented developments. The type locale for this kind of housing is New York City’s West Village, where Jane Jacobs lived when she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs was convinced that the urban planners of her day didn’t understand how cities worked, but she was just as convinced that she did understand how cities worked, and in her mind the West Village was the model.
Her book, in turn, became the model for New Urbanists. Indeed, some call her the mother of what passes today for urban design. Unfortunately, she was as wrong about how cities work as the planners she criticized.
The Antiplanner spoke in Spokane last Friday at the annual meeting of Spokane chapter of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights. The focus of my presentation was how cities have eroded the property rights protections of the Fifth Amendment in order to promote the density schemes of urban planners.
The Fifth Amendment, which says that government may not take private property for public use without due compensation, was once interpreted to mean that government cannot take private property for private use at all and must pay compensation when it takes it for public use. But over time it has come to be reinterpreted to mean that government can take property rights through regulation without compensation and it can take private property from one owner and give it to another private party with compensation.
Several Supreme Court decisions have led to this result, but three are probably the most important: The Euclid decision legalized zoning to prevent nuisances; the Penn Central decision approved takings of property rights through land-use regulation even when there was no danger of a nuisance; and the Kelo decision allowed cities to take peoples’ land by eminent domain to give to private developers even when the land wasn’t blighted. All of these rulings have one thing in common: the Court said that the cities involved could ignore the traditional interpretation of the Fifth Amendment because they had written an urban plan. No wonder urban planners have so much power: the Supreme Court has given any city that employs one a get-out-of-the-Fifth-Amendment-free card.
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.
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.
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.
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.