Why “Cramming” Matters

by Ryan Sloan on Feb 2, 2011

A response to Joel Kotkin’s Why Affordable Housing Matters

Mr. Kotkin’s position is simple. Affordable housing leads to demographic and economic growth. This growth is a good thing. Land use restrictions lead to un-affordable housing and denser development (which he pleasantly refers to as “cramming”). These restrictions (and the people that support them) are bad things:

More recently, “smart growth” has been bolstered by claims, not always well founded, that high-density development is better for the environment, particularly in terms of limiting greenhouse gases. Fighting climate change (aka global warming) has given planning advocates, politicians and their developer allies a new rationale for “cramming” people into more dense housing, even though most surveys show an overwhelming preference for less dense, single-family houses in most major markets across the English-speaking world.

I do not take issue with the statistical findings supporting the correlation between housing-affordability and demographic growth, or with connecting more restrictive land use policy to less affordable housing. Where I do take issue, is Mr. Kotkin’s simplistic stance that growth is good, land use restrictions are bad, and that urbanists supporting “smart growth” are misguided.

His belief that these advocates for “smart growth” are misguided stems from the following two claims. First, contrary to what urbanists would have you believe, higher housing prices in “superstar cities” are more a reflection of restrictive land use than the relative “attractiveness” of these cities. Second, the environmental benefits of the dense development incentivized by land use restrictions are overstated.

In defense of the first claim, he cites, “a general trend of migration from high-end, unaffordable markets to less expensive regions”, driven by restrictive land use policy and a preference for affordable single-family dwellings. While I acknowledge that many of the rapidly growing regions in the US are regions with more affordable housing (and generally a lower cost of living), I do not think you can so easily dismiss the notion that denser, high-cost cities may have more to offer their populations.

Looking at the top 50 cities on the Mercer 2010 Quality of Living Survey, one will find many of the high-cost cities mentioned by Mr. Kotkin (London 39; New York 49; Sydney 10; Toronto 16; Melbourne 18; Adelaide 32; Perth 21). Furthermore, Australia, which Kotkin cites as a prime example of the ills of land use restrictions, holds six of the top 50 spots. Strangely, none of the cities noted as bastions of affordability grace the top 50.

Perhaps the bigger problem with the article, is the claim that the environmental benefits of dense development are overstated. In support of this claim, Mr. Kotkin conveniently cites two article published on New Geography, a website of which he is Executive Editor.

One of these articles cites LA as a prime example of how density is not necessarily good for the environment. This article makes the claim that density leads to traffic congestion and this congestion is bad for the environment . The claims seems to make sense: “LA has bad traffic, congestions leads to more air pollution, stop and go car operations use more gas, etc…” Besides the fact that urbanists often cite LA as a pariah amongst large cities, a car-dependent anomaly begging for better transit, it is incongruent to equate air-quality to carbon output.

According to figures from a 2008 report by the Brookings Institution, LA ranks second out of 100 metropolitan areas in per capita carbon emissions (only Honolulu has a lower per capita carbon footprint). Even more so, (and perhaps shockingly) LA ranks fifth in per capita carbon emissions from highway traffic. In fact, many of the cities cited as examples of unaffordable housing, are both dense, and boast a low carbon footprint per capita (see table below). Those cities noted by Mr. Kotkin in his article for their affordability were less dense and faired less well in the carbon footprint category (see table below).

While this does not categorically prove the connection between land use policy, density, and environmental impact, it does show that Mr. Kotkin must do more to make his case against land use restrictions and the urbanists who favor them. Regulating development is a delicate balance between individual utility maximization and the negative externality of environmental harm. To ignore either side of the equation is not only lazy, but irresponsible.

Tables and Data

10 Most Expensive Major Metropolitan Markets from Demographia Study
[table id=12 /]

Rankings are out of 52
* Demographia’s US Urbanized Areas by Density:2000
** 7th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2011
*** Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America
**** ibid

Ten Most Affordable Major Metropolitan Markets from Demographia Study
[table id=13 /]
Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Rochester were all excluded as “rust belt” cities, where affordability is more a reflection of hard economic conditions than land use policy

Data for 100 Metropolitan Regions
[table id=14 /]

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