I wish I had more time to address the ongoing conversation on zoning and sprawl, but I’m at a conference and I’m trying to keep up with normal Economist responsibilities. But I have to say a few things. I obviously want to associate myself strongly with Matt’s take on this. But here’s the main point. Kevin Drum says:
To get an idea of how strongly people feel about this, you really need to come live in a suburb for a while. But failing that, consider the balance of power here. Corporations would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. Wealthy land developers would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. And local governments hate single-family neighborhoods because they’re a net tax loss: they cost more in services than they return in property tax remittances. And yet, even with corporations, wealthy developers, and local governments all on one side, suburban zoning is ubiquitous. This is a triumvirate that, under normal circumstances, could get practically anything they wanted, but in this case it’s not even a close fight. Suburban residents have them completely overwhelmed.
That’s how strong the desire is for suburban sprawl. Again: I’m not taking a position on whether this is good or bad. And I’m not saying the fight is hopeless. I’m just saying that everyone needs to understand what they’re up against here. It’s not zoning per se that causes sprawl, it’s the fact that lots of registered voters actively want sprawl and have successfully demanded rules that keep density at bay. These kinds of land use regulations aren’t going away without the mother of all knock-down-drag-out fights first.
See, I think this gets the dynamics of zoning and sprawl entirely wrong. Zoning is about exclusion, more than anything else. Does anyone imagine that if you plunked down a copy of DC — its infrastructure and building stock — in the middle of Fairfax County, that it wouldn’t immediately become some of the most desirable real estate in the country? Everyone I know would love to live in that kind of community in close proximity to Washington, but no one can afford the District anymore, and not because of the physical cost of building the buildings.
But there is a problem in building a DC in Fairfax County, which is that it’s already developed. And because it is already developed, it is full of people willing to use any means necessary to prevent new entrants into their community. This isn’t about the popularity of sprawl — residents of dense neighborhoods in Washington, and indeed in Manhattan, fight new development just as vigorously. In-fill is difficult to accomplish anywhere and everywhere. And this is extremely costly to society, as people overwhelmingly want to live where other people are, which is why this issue is so important.
So people build where it’s easiest and cheapest to build, which is on the urban fringe. And walkability is difficult to build on the urban fringe because transportation will be overwhelmingly auto-oriented (the fringe being distant from employment and retail centers and unserved by transit). So you get acres of tract housing, which subsequently become filled with people, who then do what homeowners everywhere in the country do, which is try to exclude new people from moving in to their neighborhood. And development then moves further outward.
Why are people so anxious to exclude newcomers? Well, homeowners are extremely risk averse, since they have a great deal of money tied up in one, undiversified, immobile asset. Rates of homeownership are highly (and negatively) correlated with density levels. Unsurprisingly.
But the notion that suburban sprawl wins out simply because it is so popular is belied by housing cost data. People live where they can afford to live, and if they can’t afford to live in a walkable area, then they’ll opt to live in sprawl rather than go homeless. And once there they’ll act to defend their investment by fighting development projects that may have unpredictable impacts on the value of nearby single-family homes.
Meanwhile, Kevin asks if there are walkable areas built outside of urban centers. Yes, there are. In suburban Washington, municipalities have been extraordinarily successful building walkable neighborhoods around Metro stations. This is an increasingly popular model around the country. If commuter rail were built into the suburbs anywhere near as aggressively as roadways are, we’d see much more construction of walkable suburban development.