Tag: regional planning

Ignoring the Law of Supply and Demand

A recent report from Fannie Mae finds that baby boomers are not leaving their comfortable suburban homes for lively inner-city communities with walkable streets. As a news article about the report observes, this challenges the “conventional wisdom that ‘empty nester’ baby boomers would eventually downsize from the homes where they raised families, flocking instead to apartments or condos.”

Rather than conventional wisdom, it would be more accurate to say that this notion was wishful thinking among urban planners who believe more Americans should be packed into high-density “compact cities” where they will get around by foot, bicycle, or transit rather than by automobile. In contrast, demographers have known that populations of virtually all age groups, whether millennials or empty nesters, are growing faster in the suburbs and exurbs than in the cities. After all, the baby boomers’ parents overwhelmingly preferred to “age in place” rather than move when their children left home; why should baby boomers be any different?

Despite this, regional planning agencies all over the country are writing plans that presume America will need no more single-family homes, especially on large lots, and instead will need lots of apartments, condos, or townhouses. Many of these plans effectively zone away the possibility of new single-family homes on large lots while they subsidize construction of high-density housing. For example, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Plan Bay Area mandates that 80 percent of all new housing be in high-density urban centers.

To justify these plans, the planning agencies often hire Arthur C. Nelson, the University of Utah urban planning professor who in 2006 predicted that the U.S. will soon have 22 million surplus single-family homes on large lots. Nelson wrote a 2011 report predicting that the Bay Area, which has one of the most acute housing shortages in America today, would have a surplus of nearly 572,000 single-family homes by 2040; Plan Bay Area relied heavily on this report to justify its strict land-use policies.

Bus Shelters for the Poor, Trains for the Rich

Low-income residents of the Twin Cities can rest easy, as planners at the Metropolitan Council, the area’s regional planning agency, are proposing a regional transit equity plan. According to the Metropolitan Council’s press release, this equity plan consists of:

  1. Building 75 bus shelters and rebuilding 75 existing shelters “in areas of racially concentrated poverty”; and
  2. “Strengthen[ing] the transit service framework serving racially concentrated areas of poverty” by building bus-rapid transit and light-rail lines to the region’s wealthy suburbs.

Bus shelters for the poor, light rail for the rich: that sounds equitable! Of course, the poor will be allowed to ride those light-rail trains (for example, if they travel to the suburbs to work as servants), just as the well-to-do will be allowed to use the bus shelters. But for the most part, the light rail is for the middle class.

As with most American urban areas, Twin Cities poverty is concentrated in the core cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul have less than a quarter of the region’s population but more than half of the poor and more than 60 percent of the poor blacks. On average, 23 percent of residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul are in poverty, compared with just 7 percent of their suburbs.

Yglesias Is Baffled

Progressive blogger Matthew Yglesias says he is baffled by my previous post here about whether urban sprawl is the result of individual choice or government regulation. Ben Adler, a Newsweek blogger, weighs in as well.

You can read my detailed response to Yglesias on the Antiplanner blog. In a nutshell, Yglesias claims that my argument is a “complicated counterfactual hypothetical about whether or not most people would still prefer to live in large single-family homes even in the absence of regulatory restrictions.” In fact, my argument is that the government regulation that he claims forces people to live in urban sprawl does not even exist.

As near as I can tell, Yglesias has lived his entire life in New York City, Massachusetts, and the DC area, all of which have had highly prescriptive land-use regulation during most of Yglesias’ life. So he might be excused for thinking everywhere else is just like that. In fact, most of the country has never had such regulation. Instead, what regulation exists, in the form of zoning, has been entirely responsive to the market.

As a libertarian, I have repeatedly challenged progressives like Yglesias to join me in supporting the abolition of all zoning codes and other forms of government land-use regulation. Instead of accepting my invitation, Yglesias and Adler would rather pretend I am a hypocrite for supporting such regulation.