was an important piece in USA Today last week about how exclusionary
zoning practices and land conservation efforts in many suburbs are helping to
drive housing prices beyond the reach of working families. It was valuable because
it was one of the few times a national, general-interest news outlet had called
attention to the scourge of no-growth measures that are really anti-low and
moderate income measures.
But it was troubling. I was reading along, nodding in agreement, until I got
to the part about how the anti-growth forces pushing for more expensive houses
on larger lots and bans on multifamily construction had “latched onto
the smart growth movement.”
Wait a minute, I thought. That’s not the smart growth I know. After all,
I support the movement because I think it offers our best hope of expanding
choices for people of all incomes and ages, whether that is a choice of housing
types, neighborhood styles and locations, or travel options. Smart growth is
not about making it harder for less-than-affluent, working families to find
a good place to live. Yet I keep encountering attempts to tar the movement with
Certainly, part of the problem is that smart-growth proponents have been victimized
by no-growthers who have misappropriated their critique of sprawl to oppose
just about every kind of development. In suburban Boston, town governments have
gotten away with using anti-sprawl rhetoric in opposing affordable, multifamily
housing being built under the state’s “anti-snob zoning” law.
When New Jersey’s highest court recently upheld its Mt. Laurel doctrine,
which says courts can order critically under-supplied localities to permit affordable
housing, local officials wailed that it would undercut their ability to control
sprawl. In both places, media accounts used “anti-sprawl” and “smart
growth” almost interchangeably.
Meanwhile, opponents of smart growth (libertarians and some, but certainly
not all, homebuilder groups), frustrated in their poorly-received defense of
sprawl as the perfect realization of a free market, believe they have found
an Achilles heel in housing affordability. One would like to think these critics
would automatically be discredited since they hardly uttered a word in support
of affordable housing until smart growth came along. But we can not count on
Their basic tactic is guilt by association. They note that smart-growth advocates
take inspiration from beautiful, well-designed cities with a high quality of
life – places like Portland, Boston and San Francisco. They then point
out that those cities are experiencing rapid growth in housing prices, and declare
their point made.
Never mind that only Portland, of all American metros, is implementing something
close to the full range of smart-growth principles, and that Portland’s
suburbs are economically integrated to a point unheardof in most regions. Or
that the academic jury is out as to whether and to what degree growth management
efforts affect home prices (please see The Link between Housing Affordability
and Growth Management: The Academic Evidence, Brookings Institution, 2002).
But my concern is that, valid or not, the smear might stick if proponents do
not begin to put housing affordability front and center in the smart-growth
program and rhetoric. This is a quality-of-life movement, and good housing in
well-functioning neighborhoods is fundamental to quality of life.
It is not enough to push for open space preservation; difficult as it can be
sometimes, open space protection is the low-hanging fruit in the smart-growth
orchard. Likewise, the smart-growth advocate’s work is not done with the
mere imposition of an urban growth boundary. Winning a transit funding initiative
is great, but it’s just the beginning.
Smart-growth advocates need to be very clear: If growth is not expanding housing
choices and opportunities for all income levels, it is not smart.
But we must be equally clear about who is bringing the discussion of housing
availability to the regional table. We are the ones who pointed out that, in
most metro areas today, it is no one’s responsibility to ensure that low
and moderate-income families can find a decent home within reasonable proximity
to jobs and essential services. Meanwhile, virtually every jurisdiction has
the right to abuse zoning provisions to exclude them, and too many do.
Something is fundamentally wrong with this picture and smart growth advocates
are the people with the gumption to keep saying so despite vociferous blow-back
from the ossified beneficiaries of the status quo.
We also need to stress that, though much more research and refinement needs
to be done, smart growth literature already is replete with policy solutions
to affordability issues. Namely,
(For more, see Housing Affordability and Smart Growth at www.smartgrowth.org)
Meanwhile, apart from advocating continuation of a status quo that is working
for almost no one, what are the nay-sayers offering?
The ground is fertile for a movement whose motivation is all about creating
more housing that is both affordable and situated near jobs and amenities. A
new poll by the National Association of Realtors found that, according to their
news release, “high housing costs have also contributed to a stressed,
suburban lifestyle where families have to work more, sacrifice leisure time,
move farther away, or live in areas with fewer good schools or a higher crime
It goes on: “Nearly seven in 10 participants said they're being forced
to work more or sacrifice to afford their current home, with 63 percent agreeing
that "the cost of housing is forcing my spouse or members of my family
to work more to meet mortgage costs" and 62 percent agreeing that "the
cost of housing may force me to make sacrifices in lifestyle and leisure time."
America can provide plenty of new housing, office and industrial space, schools,
parks, and services, while preserving regional open space and giving everyone
easy access to rural retreats. We can do it by efficiently redeveloping land,
putting housing on abandoned parking lots, offices upstairs from shopping malls,
and replacing abandoned gas stations with corner stores and apartments.
Smart growth is the only way to provide livable communities while keeping housing
affordable and providing space for economic growth. It is a non-partisan, market-driven
movement. Until our leaders and industries start following smart growth, we
can expect the knee-jerk no-growthers to keep gaining in power.
David A. Goldberg, a journalist who has written about metropolitan growth
and planning issues for nearly a decade, is now the communications director
for Smart Growth America, a nationwide coalition of more than 70 environmental,
preservation, housing, social equity and other groups.