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Home Prices Afire

Smart Growth is the solution, not the problem

September 30, 2002 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  You can’t pin the housing affordability crunch on the Smart Growth movement, though certain libertarian apologists for sprawl and some, though not all, homebuilder groups are laboring mightily to do so.

My family and I can't afford our neighborhood anymore. Chances are, you can't afford yours either.

As in most growing regions, housing prices in my area of metro Atlanta have risen much faster than most folks' wages, including mine. In fact, if I were house hunting today, there's no way a bank would give me a loan to buy the home we now live in. What's more, I'm not sure where we could find a place for our family of six.

We could try moving farther out to the developing fringe, where land prices are cheaper. But most local governments out there are mandating such huge house and lot sizes that we couldn't afford to buy there, either. I know enough others like me to know that we are not alone.

You can pin this unfortunate set of circumstances on a lot of things: Rapid population growth, low mortgage rates, the bidding-up that occurred during the stock market bubble, exclusionary zoning practices, etc. But you can't pin the housing affordability crunch on the Smart Growth movement, though certain libertarian apologists for sprawl and some, though not all, homebuilder groups are laboring mightily to do so.

The basic tactic is guilt by association. The movement's critics note that Smart Growth takes its inspiration from beautiful, well-designed cities with a high quality of life - places like Portland, Boston, and San Francisco. The critics then point out that those cities are experiencing rapid growth in housing prices and declare their point made.

Never mind that only Portland is implementing something close to the full range of Smart Growth principles. Never mind also that Portland's suburbs are economically integrated to a point unheard of in most regions. Or that the accumulating academic evidence shows that competition for homes in great places and green spaces, not land restrictions, is the greatest influence in driving up housing prices. Smart Growth, in other words, produces the quality locations that people want.

Despite such evidence, the false assertions made by Smart Growth critics are having an effect. Gubernatorial candidates from Michigan to Pennsylvania, fearful that the smear will stick, are shrinking from talking about the progressive measures that are really needed to manage growth.

Certainly part of the problem is that Smart Growth proponents have been victimized by "no-growthers" who have appropriated the movement's language to oppose just about every kind of development.

In suburban Boston, for instance, town governments use anti-sprawl rhetoric to oppose affordable, multi-family housing.

When New Jersey's highest court recently upheld its Mt. Laurel doctrine, which says courts can order critically under-supplied localities to permit affordable housing, officials wailed that it would undercut their ability to control sprawl.

Another part of the problem is that Smart Growth leaders aren't putting housing affordability front and center in their message about the need to change American patterns of development. It's not enough to push for open space preservation; difficult as it can be sometimes. Open space protection is the low-hanging fruit in the Smart Growth orchard. Likewise, the Smart Growth advocate's work is not done with the imposition of an urban growth boundary.

Smart Growth advocates need to be very clear: This is a quality-of-life movement, and good housing in well-functioning neighborhoods is fundamental to quality of life. If it's not expanding housing choices and opportunities for all income levels, it's not smart.

But we must be equally clear about who is bringing the discussion of housing affordability to the civic table. It is Smart Growth advocates who have pointed out that, in most metro areas today, no one in government is responsible for ensuring that working families can find and afford a decent home within reasonable proximity to jobs and essential services. Meanwhile, virtually every jurisdiction has the right to abuse zoning provisions to exclude them - and too many do.

Until the movement made it an issue, the current critics of Smart Growth never voiced such concern about affordable housing. Instead, a comfortable development machine advocated sprawling growth and grew rich at the expense of the land, water, and working people.

The ground is indeed fertile for a movement whose motivation is all about creating more housing that is both affordable and located near jobs and amenities. The National Association of Realtors itself found in a recent poll that "nearly seven in 10 participants said they're being forced to work more or sacrifice to afford their current home," and 63 percent agreed that "the cost of housing is forcing my spouse or members of my family to work more to meet mortgage costs."

America can provide plenty of new housing, office and industrial space, schools, parks, and services. It can do so while also preserving open space and giving everyone easy access to rural retreats. We can do it by using land that's been developed, but using it more efficiently - putting housing on abandoned parking lots, establishing offices upstairs from shopping malls, and replacing abandoned gas stations with corner stores and apartments.

I signed on with the Smart Growth movement because I think it offers the best hope of expanding choices for people of all incomes and ages, whether that's a choice of housing types, neighborhood styles and locations, or travel options. Smart Growth is a non-partisan, market-driven movement. It's also the only way to design livable communities while keeping housing affordable and providing enough space for economic growth.

David Goldberg, a former member of the editorial board of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is the communications director for Smart Growth America. A version of this article was published by Planetizen.com. Reach Mr. Goldberg at dgoldberg@smartgrowthamerica.org.

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