"Smart growth" does not make housing unaffordable. But it does make conservatives and developers crabby.

Entering greenbelt
Public Domain Province of Ontario

Greenbelts, those agricultural preserves found around cities like Toronto, Portland and London, do tend to put a limit on suburban sprawl. That’s why conservatives and free marketeers want to get rid of them; they use the same arguments as our anti-preservation anti-height limit proselytizers like Edward “triumph of the city” Glaeser do, that restrictions on development drive up the cost of housing. So-called conservative planning expert Wendell Cox, he of the Heartland Institute and the American Highway Users Alliance, is quoted in the Globe and Mail by Konrad Yakabuski: “no major metropolitan market without urban containment policy has ever been rated with severely unaffordable housing.” and “strong restrictions on land supply drive up the cost of housing, which reduces the standard of living.”

Now one might point a few things. Perhaps the reason London, Portland or Toronto are so popular is that they are contained and surrounded by green lungs. Or that’s where the jobs are so people want to live there which creates a lot of demand, in a business where supply takes a lot of time to catch up.

And then it is time to pity the poor millennials. He quotes Joel Kotkin:

“The millennial ‘flight’ from suburbia has not only been vastly overexaggerated, it fails to deal with what may best be seen as differences in preferences correlated with life stages,” insists noted U.S. demographer Joel Kotkin, adding that “people with children tend to avoid urban cores, even in the most gentrified environments.”

I think you would be hard pressed in London, Portland or Toronto of find a downtown area that wasn’t full of kids. If you can afford it, that’s where you want to be. As for “preferences correlated with life stages”, this is where sprawl got us: old people living in houses and not being able to get around, kids trapped in their houses unless their parents drive them, social services almost non-existent because of the low density. You should be able to live all your life stages in one place; that’s where your connections are.

And if Kotkin was right, why are houses in the suburbs cheaper than apartments downtown? As Matt Ygesias writes in a rant about Kotkin,

If people hate dense urban areas so much, why isn't Manhattan one of the cheapest places in America to buy a house? Why isn't San Francisco cheap? If people are voting with their feet for sprawl, why is land in Georgetown so much more expensive than land in Georgia?

Province of Ontario/Public Domain

If you go out into Sprawlville, you find that all the town councils are filled with conservative lawyers and real estate types with a vested interest in development. No wonder they all want to get rid of greenbelts. That’s why the Ontario Conservative Party had this in its last policy statement before the election that they fortunately lost:

To listen to some politicians and urban planners, you’d think suburban development was a sin.... Not only is home ownership personally satisfying, but it’s also a big economic generator. Owning a house or condo is the foundation of middle-class life, and developing unused farmland is a major wealth creator for landowners, home builders and home buyers.

And another thing, Mr. Yakabuski, when you ask why prices are so high. When I was working in development, I asked the owner of another development company how he priced his houses. He looked at the maximum mortgage the average homebuyer was allowed by the banks to carry and priced his homes right there. When mortgage rates were high he built cheaper and smaller. When they are low, like they are now, he could build bigger and charge more. The rates and the income numbers are what mattered. the price of land is a factor, but not the biggest one by a long shot.

Yakabuski claims that “self-proclaimed “smart growth” policies have proven the opposite of smart, contributing to an affordability crisis with little to show in the way of a cleaner environment.”

© Hariri Pontarini Architects

He writes this as he is about to be evicted from his desk as the two storey Globe and Mail office building he works in is knocked down for yet another cluster of high-rise residential buildings containing two million square feet of residences, offices and retail spaces. People who don’t drive cars to get to work, who can walk to the parks on the waterfront. Who have carbon footprints that are a quarter the size of the family living in the suburbs. That is the direct result of smart growth.

Like Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin, he is just wrong about everything.

Tags: Cities | Housing Industry | Toronto | Urban Planning

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