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.
Now that Honolulu’s insanely expensive, low-capacity rail line is under construction (and over budget), Oahu land-use advocates are upset that the city wants to rezone 1,289 acres of farms for residential development. At least some members of the city council claim to have been shocked to learn that just 17 percent of the island is still suitable for farming while 27 percent has been urbanized.
Sadly, efforts to protect farmlands in Hawai’i are something of a joke considering that Hawai’i’s land-use laws–the strictest in the nation–were supposedly passed to protect farmlands and yet in fact are responsible for destroying Hawai’i’s agricultural industry. The land-use laws made Hawai’ian housing so unaffordable that farmers can’t pay workers enough for them to be able to live there. As a result, the state has lost most of its pineapple, sugar cane, and other crop production to other Pacific islands such as Fiji.
Comparing a map of Oahu land-use designations with the route of the rail line reveals that the rail line will cross only a few tiny areas of land zoned for farming. In fact, a lot of the land around Kapolei that is zoned urban hasn’t yet been developed and could still be used for farming, but why bother if you can’t afford to grow crops?
To stop climate change, Al Gore wants to spend a mere $90 trillion rebuilding all of the world’s cities so that everyone is living in such high-density neighborhoods that they don’t need cars. While a few curmudgeonly types might think that $90 trillion sounds like a lot of money, it really isn’t, say Gore and former Mexico president Filipe Calderon. After all, the world is probably going to spend the $90 trillion on something in the next few years anyway, so what’s wrong with spending it on this?
Gore wants to rebuild this dumb-growth city into. . .
Gore made the proposal at an economics conference in Davos, Switzerland attended by billionaires who fly in on private jets so they can tell other people they need to get used to consuming less. Of course, neither Gore nor the other millionaires and billionaires at the conference expect to be stuck living in a high-density apartment any time soon.
this smart-growth city (illustrations by Alain Bertaud).
Supporters of Portland’s authoritarian planning have responded to Portland State University professor Gerard Mildner’s critique of that planning in the spirit of the Christmas season. They welcomed his report, “Density at Any Cost, with open arms, agreeing to have a free and open discussion of the issues.
Just kidding. Instead, they responded like little children, calling Mildner names. “UGB denier.” “Libertarian activist.” “An outlier, unrepresentative of most of our relevant experts.” And that’s just what his fellow academics at Portland State University called him.
Mildner in fact agreed that his views were unrepresentative of others at PSU’s urban planning school. “Hiring in the School of Urban Studies and Planning self-selects for people sympathetic with Oregon’s urban planning system,” he suggests, so it’s clear his views aren’t going to align with others in that school. An economist himself, Mildner works at PSU’s Center for Real Estate, which has one foot in the urban planning school and one foot in the business school–and the Antiplanner suspects Mildner’s views have more support at the latter.
Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, recently released its 2014 Urban Growth Report, which projects that the region will gain 300,000 to 500,000 new residents between 2010 and 2035. The report suggests that it may not be necessary to expand the region’s urban-growth boundary to house those new residents because people are willing to live in smaller homes on smaller lots.
That’s an extremely distorted view of the future, says Gerard Mildner, an associate professor of real estate finance at Portland State University’s Center for Real Estate. In a paper titled, Density at Any Cost (which was also published in the Center for Real Estate’s quarterly report), Mildner argues that Metro’s report “distorts economic data and will lead the region to make decisions that will harm economic growth.”
Not only will Metro’s vision make single-family housing more expensive, says Mildner, it will increase the cost of rental housing. Contrary to claims that more people want to live in smaller quarters, achieving Metro’s goals will require “multi-billion dollar unfunded mandates on local government to subsidize housing and transportation projects.” Nor will Metro’s plans be good for the environment, since they will just lead a lot of people to move “from our region to places in the southeast and southwest United States where carbon emissions will be higher” because those places require more air conditioning and use more fossil fuels to generate electricity.