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?

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.



Smart Growth wreck in Austin

Unfortunately, Austin's Smart Growth

initiative has largely been abused as

a means for ultraconservative statewide

and business leaders to raze much of

the city's downtown arts infrastructure

and replace it with a soulless (and largely empty) industrial park. The

problem is not Smart Growth itself;

rather it is the abuse of such principles by cynical and corrupt leaders who have never been cool with the idea of a state with Fourth Reich ideology having a capital full of nonconformists, artists, and liberals. The result is the mass departure of creative people for places like, yes, Portland. For others (like me, who dearly misses Boston but left there because only tycoons can afford a house or car, and even Harvard professors live in slum housing), the unaffordability even of Austin (let alone those coastal cities we've left behind) has forced us beyond the suburbs into rural counties. My commute is now 70-75 minutes and rising. We have the spectacle of a city intended as a state capital where few state workers can afford to live. This won't be solved by Smart Growth, transit planning, or any other architectural or urban model. It can only be solved by replacing a filthy, banana-republic style of governance with something resembling democracy. But, since Texas has never known anything resembling a democratic government, I have little hope for such reforms.

The one standout in Texas urban planning is Fort Worth. However this successful plan depends on the wealth of a single family as investors and renovators and thus is not replicable elsewhere. (I have referred to it as Little Monaco on the Prairie.)

What about democracy?

Dave - I understand your desire to improve housing affordability via Smart Growth or whatever.

But, how do you justify overruling the repeatedly expressed desires of residents exercising their right to vote and, according to planning theory, decide on a community vision - albeit one you do not agree with and that might actually hurt them in the long run?

Are they evil and wrong?

Are they misguided and need 'educated?'

Are they a small interest group hijacking the planning process?

What if they are none of the above?

How do you justify overruling lawful democractic expression? and rather recent planning efforts?

Smart Growth Leads

I'll do my best to counter the initial complaints of David Goldberg's excellent essay, but it should be up to the more articulate defender of Smart Growth to present the more definitive argument.

The essay presents proponents of Smart Growth as the outstanding leaders in solution-building. This is surely the case.

Smart Growth's most critical shortcoming is housing affordability and the author forthrightly calls for implementation of these solutions, while defending Smart Growth principles and evidence of its success.

There is no intention of creating cookie cutter communities in Smart Growth principles. In fact, it has more formula for variety and diversity; more opportunity for small business and local autonomy.

I will say that it is correct to use the term "Smart Growth" to oppose affordable housing of the sprawling subdivision-type. Smart Growth recommends "mixed-use development" and a "single-use housing subdivision" does not fit that bill. If large lot McMansions are a more appropriate development in a suburban openspace or rural setting, then great; much better than another housing subdivision with a mini-mart/gas station.

Smart Growth - doesn't always work so well

Mr. Goldberg is correct that many of the loudest proponents of Smart Growth appear to be in favor of "growth over there" or perhaps "growth (especially high-density residential growth and affordable housing) in _your_ backyard (but not in mine)."

I reside in eastern Montgomery County, Maryland, in a community that was largely developed under what we might (_MIGHT_) call Smart Growth today - in 1981, when that plan, the 1981 Eastern Montgomery County Master Plan, was approved, it was called a "concept of transit serviceability." The main features of the plan were to increase residential density so that somehow a significant percentage of the residents of the new, high-density development would take transit because they lived in packed-in garden apartments and townhouses. My section of the county also took a lot of transferrable development rights (TDRs) from other parts of our county, notably the "Upcounty" Agricultural Preserve.

Looking back from 2002, this plan worked poorly. From 1986 (5 short years after it was approved) until now, we have been in a development moratorium under our county Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) for jobs and residences.

See the URLs below for details on APFO:



It seems we may be getting out of moratorium now, but only because of significant improvements to the major radial highway in our part of the world, U.S. 29, the Columbia Pike.

In my own community (small townhouses), we have suffered through over ten years of property value stagnation and decline (though things have started to rebound recently for reasons not entirely clear to me).

Some of the schools were damaged by this plan, notably Greencastle ES, which had for some years the highest pupil "mobility" (turnover) rates in our school district (Maryland generally has large, county-wide school systems).

The 1981 plan has been called a "fiasco" and a "failure" and the plans that superceded this document in 1997 contain explicit language that counsel against further attempts at "transit serviceability."

So I think the record is mixed. I like my community, but we have plenty of problems.

SmUG vs. Exurbia

David Goldberg concludes; "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."

Where have we seen this before? SmUG is the "only way," "We" are "non-partisan," our opponents are "knee-jerk no-growthers." At the risk of being pre-emptively labelled by such hyperbole, there is room to disagree without resorting to extremeism, scare tactics and insult. I'm particularlly amused by the call to our leaders to fall in behind a purely market driven process.

Smart Growth for all the high talk and mixed results is nothing more than a process of urbanization. That's in no way a value judgement by the way. That's also why I use the acronym SmUG (for Smart Urban Growth) with the intention to be more descriptive with a touch of humor.

SmUG is denser and carries with it all the benifits and shortcomings of increased density. What generally makes SmUG different is that its' geographic targets already has a resident population that has both opinon and investment and political power. Mr. Goldberg tacitly acknowledges these interests when mentioning reluctanace to accept anti-snob rezonings.

The simple fact is that SmUG is a top down attempt to remodel exurban areas or failed urban areas on a "new" urban pattern. Nothing new here either.

Why do you want to impose...

The 'models' of San Francisco, Boston and Portland on everyone else? America is a huge country, there are many different ways for people to live - and there's plenty of affordable housing in smaller cities. The problem is that corporations seem to like to move to these big cities because that's where their executives want to live. We need to redistribute jobs to smaller urban areas that don't have the problems of scale you see in the coastal megacities.

Goldberg makes a lot of good points, but the reality is that America has NEVER been about "social equity" and I do not see that changing any time soon. America has been about making money, period.

Smart Growth Abuse

The term 'Smart Growth' is abused by both sides, e.g., when development interests use it to justify spot up-zoning in outlying communities, which already have underutilized high density zoning. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish 'smart growth' from 'urban sprawl' and 'leap frog development,' based on current usage.

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