One of the first things President Trump did when taking office was to block implementation of a reduction in mortgage insurance premiums that President Obama had ordered a few weeks before. Obama’s order would have reduced FHA insurance premiums by 0.25 percent of the value of the value of the loan. Since FHA’s fund balance is just 16 percent above the legal minimum, Obama’s order would have turned it from a solvent program to a money loser. By reversing Obama’s order, Trump was giving incoming HUD Secretary Ben Carson a chance to review it.
Another recent rule that Trump should cancel or postpone is a final rule on metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that was issued on December 15. As the Antiplanner noted last October, this rule would force adjacent MPOs to either combine into one or coordinate together when writing plans. The assumption is that, if writing regional plans is good, writing super regional plans is even better.
The flaw in that assumption, of course, is the notion that writing regional plans is good. Regional planners necessarily have less information about their regions than local planners, who have less information than landowners. The idea that people with less information can do a better job of planning your property than you can do is one of the basic flaws in all government land-use planning.
The Antiplanner is flying to the East Coast today to help some local activists fight a proposed urban-growth boundary. Coincidentally, the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, released his annual international survey of housing affordability today.
As the Antiplanner has done for American states and urban areas, Cox shows that, among international urban areas, there is a high correlation between urban containment policies–whether through growth boundaries, greenbelts, or other tools–and unaffordable housing. Simple supply and demand says that when you restrict supply in the face of rising demand, prices will go up–and that’s exactly what we see all over the world.
Cox supplements data he has gathered himself from eight countries (plus Hong Kong) with additional data for urban areas in China and Malaysia. With a little work, it should be possible to add urban areas in non-English-speaking Europe. Perhaps we can have this done in time for the 2018 survey.
Geographic mobility–the movement of people from place to place in response to changing job trends–had declined in the United States, which in turn contributes to the reduction in economic mobility. David Schleicher, a Yale University associate law professor, has written a paper arguing that this reduction is due to government regulations, including land-use regulations that make it expensive to move and occupational licensing that makes it expensive to enter new markets.
This is an important paper, partly because it gained the attention of media ranging from Slate to Reason Magazine, and partly because it documents in detail some things the Antiplanner has said for years.
In Best-Laid Plans, I wrote, “A researcher in England has found higher levels of unemployment among people who own their homes. But this is because Britain’s growth-management planning has made housing there the least affordable in the world. Such high-priced housing greatly increases the cost of moving and discourages people who own homes from relocating to a city with more jobs. To date, this effect is much weaker in the United States, but continued housing shortages could potentially reduce American mobility.”
President-elect Trump has “the opportunity to preside over a Great Wave of suburbanization and give another generation the opportunity to unlock the modern version of the American Dream,” says Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest magazine. Mead is a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College. While the Antiplanner appreciates Mead’s ambition, he greatly underestimates the barriers to such a vision.
Mead inaccurately claims that American suburbanization took place in two waves: one between World War II and the 1960s (which he associates with Eisenhower) and the second in the 1980s through the early 2000s (which he associates with Reagan). Since both of the previous waves, he says, were led by Republican presidents, its natural for Trump to lead a third wave.
In fact, suburbanization began in the 1840s and hardly slowed down at any time since then. Mead’s first wave saw a large amount of working-class suburbanization, but even that began in the 1920s. In any case, much of that wave took place under Truman, not Eisenhower, and contrary to popular belief, Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System had almost nothing to do with it.
How many cities and regions are basing their land-use and transportation plans on the notion that most Millennials want to live in dense cities? Officials in those areas should read a new report from the Urban Land Institute. Among other things, the report says that three-quarters of Millennials in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas live in the suburbs.
That’s not much less than the 79 percent of everyone in those metro areas who live in the suburbs. Moreover, 76 percent of minorities live in the suburbs, again not much different from the overall average. The Urban Land Institute has a history of promoting smart growth and other urban planning fads, so these conclusions aren’t based on any hidden agendas.
Most of the ULI report is spent dividing suburbs into one of five categories: high-end, middle-class, “economically challenged,” “greenfield lifestyle,” and “greenfield value.” Greenfield lifestyle refers to master-planned communities that include parks and other amenities while greenfield value tend to be ordinary subdivisions with fewer amenities. This kind of classification may be useful to realtors, but if urban planners attempt to use it, perhaps to “fix” the economically challenged areas, the result is likely to be a disaster.
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner posted commuting data from the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. But I haven’t compared commuting with urban densities since the 2000 census. The chart below shows this comparison for 226 urbanized areas.
For each decennial census, the Census Bureau maps the land around each major city that is urbanized. The agency’s definition of “urban” is lengthy, but basically it is about 1,000 people per square mile, or 500 people per square mile if the land around them is developed for urban but non-residential purposes. The agency does not remap areas between decennial censuses, so I used the 2010 boundaries to calculate both population density and how people get to work in 2015.
When I was about 12 or 13 years old–this would have been about 1964 or 1965–my elementary school principal gathered the upper classes into the auditorium and gave a lecture about megalopolis, the huge expanse of urbanized land stretching from Boston to Washington. I don’t know why he did that–as far as I can recall, he never gave a lecture on any other subject while I was at that school–but he was obviously inspired by French geographer Jean Gottmann’s book, Megalopolis.
At 810 pages in length, the book was as massive as its subject, but its thesis was simple. As stated in his introduction, Gottmann held that “The Northeastern seaboard of the United States is today the site of a remarkable development–an almost continuous stretch of urban and suburban areas from southern New Hampshire to northern Virginia and from the Atlantic shore to the Appalachian foothills.” This unique (at least in the United States) area has unique problems, Gottmann contended, including “Transportation, land use, water supply, cultural activities, use and development of resources.” Moreover, because it was chopped into eleven states or parts of states, the region’s residents weren’t able to solve those problems. As a result, he predicted, poverty, resource shortages, and pollution were likely to get worse.
Last week, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable development, Habitat III, adopted the New Urban Agenda. Is this a new version of Agenda 21 aimed at controlling how we live and use our land?
Yes and no. Yes, it is an update to Agenda 21. No, it won’t control how we live any more than the original. If you are worried about such control, look to the city planners on your local government’s staff rather than to some United Nations document.
A close reading of the New Urban Agenda suggests it was heavily influenced by first-world urban planners. But it is filled with so many fudge words and modifiers that it ends up with no meaning at all. Certainly, the United Nations is more interested in eliminating poverty and improving sanitation in developing countries than in interfering with the daily lives of people in developed countries.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs defined a “region” as “an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution.” A proposed rule published by the Obama administration would take the next step in this process, demanding that planning organizations for what were once multiple regions combine or coordinate to produce single regional plans for their now enlarged regions.
The rule states that if multiple metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) exist within a single urbanized area, they must merge or jointly prepare single transportation plans for their area. According to a DOT estimate, about a third of metropolitan planning organizations are affected by the proposed rule.
Congress requires that MPOs write and update two key plans: the long-range (20-year) transportation plan, which must be updated every five years; and the short-term (4-year) transportation improvement plan (TIP), a list of projects the MPO wants to fund, which must be updated every year. As defined by the Census Bureau, urbanized areas often cross state boundaries. However, since MPOs are designated by state governors, they generally do not cross state boundaries. This means the New York urbanized area has separate MPOs for the New York and New Jersey parts of the area, while the Philadelphia urbanized area has three separate MPOs. These would all have to work together to write single long-range plans and TIPs to submit to the federal government.
A new Housing Policy Toolkit from the White House admits that “local barriers to housing development have intensified,” which “has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.” The toolkit, however, advocates tearing down only some of the barriers, and not necessarily the ones that will work to make housing more affordable.
“Sunbelt cities with more permeable boundaries have enjoyed outsized growth by allowing sprawl to meet their need for adequate housing supply,” says the toolkit. “Space constrained cities can achieve similar gains, however, by building up with infill.” Yet this ignores the fact that there are no cities in America that are “space constrained” except as a result of government constraints. Even cities in Hawaii and tiny Rhode Island have plenty of space around them–except that government planners and regulators won’t let that space be developed.
Instead of relaxing artificial constraints on horizontal development, the toolkit advocates imposing even tighter constraints on existing development in order to force denser housing. The tools the paper supports include taxing vacant land at high rates in order to force development; “enacting high-density and multifamily zoning,” meaning minimum density zoning; using density bonuses; and allowing accessory dwelling units. All of these things serve to increase the density of existing neighborhoods, which increases congestion and–if new infrastructure must be built to serve the increased density–urban-service costs.