Debunking Coercion

The Congress for the New Urbanism has responded to my July policy analysis, Debunking Portland, with a paper titled, Debunking Cato. I am posting my reply on the Antiplanner blog.

New Urbanism refers to a recent architectural fad that includes mixed-use developments (retail and housing in the same complex), high-density housing (either multi-family or single-family on tiny lots), and pedestrian-friendly design (limited parking and storefronts on sidewalks instead of facing large parking lots). There is a demand for this type of development and no one objects to developers meeting that demand.

Portland, however, has decided to go far beyond market demand by imposing this type of development on many people. An urban-growth boundary has driven up the cost of single-family housing and the city uses subsidies, including tax-increment financing and below-market land sales, to promote high-density housing. A member of the Portland city council (and leading candidate for mayor) has even said that no new housing should be built in Portland that does not meet New Urban densities and designs.

My paper shows that Portland has achieved very little from this massive and cost coercion. The Congress for the New Urbanism basically argues that it has achieved slightly more than my paper says. But those benefits are still so tiny that they are overwhelmed by the costs to homebuyers, commuters, and taxpayers in the region.

Some people in the Congress for the New Urbanism say they merely want to build for the market and do not support coercive policies. Lovers of freedom can support New Urbanist efforts to dismantle obsolete zoning codes that prevent developers from meeting market demand for New Urban designs.

By the same token, I note in my reply, New Urbanists who oppose coercion cannot defend Portland’s policies, which are based almost entirely on coercive land-use regulations, taxation, and subsidies. Those policies don’t produce the benefits claimed for them and they do impose huge costs on the cities that apply them.