Tag: urban planning

Will Obama Make Housing Affordable?

Property-rights and housing-affordability advocates were surprised and elated that the chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, gave a speech blaming housing affordability problems on zoning and land-use regulation. They shouldn’t be: while Furman is correct in general, he is wrong about the details and the prescriptions he offers could make the problems worse than ever.

There is no doubt, as Furman documents in his speech, that land-use regulation is the cause of growing housing affordability problems. Yet Furman fails to note the fact that these problems are only found in some parts of the country. This is a crucial observation, and those who fail to understand it are almost certain to misdiagnose the cause and propose the wrong remedies.

Citing Jane Jacobs (who was wrong at least as often as she was right), Forman blames affordability problems on zoning that “limits density and mixed-use development.” Such zoning is found in almost every city in the country except Houston, yet most cities don’t have housing affordability problems. Thus, such zoning alone cannot be the cause of rising rents and home prices.

Based on this erroneous assumption, Furman endorses what he calls the administration’s agenda, which is its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing program. Rather than making housing more affordable, this program is aimed at ending racial segregation of middle-class suburbs by requiring the construction of multifamily housing in suburbs that are not racially balanced relative to their urban areas. It assumes that multifamily housing is less costly (and thus more affordable to low-income minorities) than single family, but that is only true because units are smaller: on a dollar-per-square-foot basis, multifamily costs more than single family, especially for mid-rise and high-rise apartments. Multifamily also uses more energy per square foot than single family, which means heating bills will be higher.

Housing and Wealth Inequality

American Nightmare is in some ways the most profound of the three books I have written for Cato. It covers a wide range of issues, including a detailed explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. But the overarching theme is that urban planning and zoning are best viewed as a form of economic warfare by the upper and middle classes against the working and lower classes. While that might not have been the original intent, to judge by the smug attitudes of the beneficiaries of such planning and zoning, they are perfectly happy with the results.

The book, therefore, was really about inequality, an issue that of course has been made popular and controversial by Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s thesis is that income inequality is necessarily rising because the returns to capital wealth are greater than overall economic growth, thus giving people one more reason to hate capitalists.

Last month, a paper by an MIT graduate student in economics named Matthew Rognlie, examined Piketty’s thesis in detail. Rognlie found that, contrary to Piketty, the returns on most kinds of wealth and capital have not been greater than overall economic growth, and therefore haven’t been contributing to income inequality. The one exception, Rognlie found, was housing.

Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. Those technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictable, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so. Consider these unknowns:

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car-sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or do other tasks that don’t require much supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

Selling Big Government

The front page of the Washington Post Metro section has an interesting headline today:

Silver Line may be tough sell in Va.

You have to know that the Silver Line is a new line for Washington’s subway system, intended to run to Reston, Va., and Dulles Airport. But when I saw it, I thought – especially with subheads indicating that Virginians prefer cars to the Metro system – it meant that it’s going to be tough to persuade frugal Virginians to agree to spend tax money on a subway line they’re not eager to use.

But no. Turns out the line is already mostly built (to Reston, though not to Dulles), and planners are worried that nobody will use it. Just like Obamacare, it looks like the planners bulled ahead with an expensive big-government scheme that wasn’t exactly popular and are now working on how to persuade people to use it.

Thursday Links

Your Tax Dollars at Work (1)

The District of Columbia pays outside lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars, but its top in-house lobbyist, who heads a staff of nine, doesn’t know about them:

The District pays outside lobbyists, who were hired when Adrian M. Fenty (D) served as mayor, but their work has attracted little notice.

U.S. Senate records show that Mitch Butler — a former Interior Department official in the Bush administration — has lobbied on behalf of the District since October 2009 on “public lands issues” and “land development.” Through the end of 2010, the city paid Butler at least $100,000 for his efforts.

Separately, the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development has paid the firm Van Ness Feldman $200,000 since November 2009 for “Anacostia Waterfront Initiative appropriations, St. Elizabeths development matters and federal land transfers,” according to registration forms.

Neither [Del. Eleanor Holmes] Norton nor Janene D. Jackson, the director of the District’s Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs, was aware the city had lobbyists on the payroll until they were informed by a reporter.

Maybe if nobody knows about them, the city could save a few bucks by terminating their contracts. But then again, maybe the best lobbyists are the ones who slip money silently out of the appropriations process and then melt away in the night, drawing no attention to themselves.