Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth
I was very pleased to see an email from Todd Litman in my in box this morning. He sent me the link to his new free report on Smart Growth. It is a pdf that I suggest you download and read, and keep for future reference.
Like all Todd’s work it is carefully researched, well documented and clearly reasoned. I wish one could say the same for the people that make the production of such reports necessary. For what Todd does is dismantle the claims of people like Wendell Cox and Alan Pisarski – but also the legion of those who love to recite the same mantra about “reducing choice” and “social engineering”. The kind of place we live is partly driven by the housing market, but in recent years in North America it was driven by a philosophy which has been shown to be bankrupt. Nevertheless, in our region and our province it is that philosophy that we re-elected, and it is that philosophy which is promoting sprawl across the Fraser Valley and some of the best farmland in Canada. The South Fraser Perimeter Road and the widening of Highway #1 is being undertaken under the subterfuge of “need” for port expansion and international trade, but in reality is about making money from real estate. Especially from converting real estate that commands a low price – mostly agricultural, but some “marginal” land as well – into highly profitable speculative housing development – as well as the usual highway oriented services that are then “required”.
The one thing that seems to me to be missing from Todd’s analysis is the real estate bubble that was promoted in the United States from securitized mortgages. The removal of regulatory controls – first on the savings and loan business and later on banks in general – fed the seemingly insatiable desire for ever larger homes and the consumer lifestyle that could be financed from the equity of homes in an ever rising market. It was even known at the time that this could not be sustained – as the first S&L crisis had demonstrated. But somehow the irrational optimism that characterizes all market bubbles held sway.
“It is clear that most people, excepting a small but often very loud minority, opt for lower density living when income permits.” Pisarski
Actually their income did not permit it. What did permit it were lax lending rules – and methods of selling mortgages which ignored long established links between proven income and lending policy. After all this fell apart very quickly – when it was finally admitted that was impossible to place any value on the bundles of mortgages being traded in huge quantities. And instead of allowing the market to work, all of a sudden the “invisible hand” and “wisdom” of market was forgotten and publicly financed bailouts were arranged – mainly to ensure that a few very well rewarded but clearly incompetent (if not fraudulent) people continued to enjoy a luxurious life, at public expense. Very little of the bailout money actually went to households who had got caught out. Those people simply had to walk away from their homes and hope to find someone who would let them share their home. The fall out from the vast amounts of money created to paper over the cracks in the system has yet to be completely worked through, and those who think we are climbing out of recession now seem to ignore the huge and highly unstable pile of debt which has yet to topple over, as it inevitably will.
Todd is probably right to ignore this too. After all he is arguing about land use, and he is also addressing a Canadian audience which is currently being a bit smug about he fact that our banking system seems to be a bit more robust than that of the US or UK. And Canadian metropolitan areas have managed to sprawl, if not as much as their American counterparts at least enough to threaten our ability to grow our own food – which is going to be a very important concern in the coming years.
One thing that Canada did much better than the US was to build public housing in ways that avoided the worst excesses of “the projects”, which so effectively disgraced the whole idea of publicly funded and provided housing. It is still possible to find pockets of very well designed homes In Canada that people on low incomes can afford but anybody would want to live in, given the opportunity. For a while there was a variety of housing tenures available here, which meant we did not have to obsessed with home ownership to the exclusion of all else. There was even a regulated private sector for rental housing which produced some decent housing. One of the sadder results of the obsession with reducing public spending and “getting the government out of people’s lives” is that these advances were thrown away and seemingly forgotten about.
The point that Todd does make, and I am happy to endorse, having made it myself here before, is that the alternative of low density, car oriented development is just as much about “social engineering” as any other option. The dominant pattern of development in the US is also the product of regulation – and some very complex zoning and transportation planning regulations and requirements. It is not simply the result of a “free market” that expresses consumers’ desires so much as a highly manipulated system that produces outcomes that are favourable to the very small number of corporate investors who control Wall Street. And who spent a great deal of time and effort to sell this “American dream” – not just there but around the world.
Not much is likely to change here in the short term, but research and well though out policies will be needed eventually. And that is when this document will be really useful. In the meantime I hope it has some influence in the few municipalities that are not entirely in the pockets of the real estate developers.