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Housing Affordability: Is Smart Growth the Problem, or the Solution?

Does smart growth provide a means to forward the development of affordable communities? Or has it become an anti-growth tool to ban multi-family housing construction?
September 5, 2002, 12am PDT | David Goldberg
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David GoldbergThere 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 that brush.

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 that.

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,

  • Density bonuses in exchange for an affordable component
  • Regional, fair-share housing plans
  • Mixed-income projects that help defray infrastructure costs for lower-priced units
  • Travel options that reduce the costs of car ownership
  • Permissive policies on granny flats and accessory units
  • “Smart” rehabilitation codes that make it less costly to put older buildings to use
  • Re-use of vacant properties
  • Myriad tax incentives
  • Location-efficient mortgages

(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 rate.”

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.

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