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Can We Afford Smart Growth?

— There are anti-sprawl activists and there are pro-sprawl activists. The latter group may not claim to support urban sprawl. But they talk about “smart growth” in ironic tones and see it as one more way to put the brakes on a free society.

This mixed-use development in Oregon is smart growth. But some people think s...
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Above: This mixed-use development in Oregon is smart growth. But some people think smart growth drives up the price of housing by restricting land use.

I got this article in an email from Fred Schnaubelt, a former San Diego city councilman with a libertarian bent. The piece is entitled “The Costs of Smart Growth Revisited.” It lays blame for a good part of the American housing spike of the past decade on policies that restricted the supply of land for home building.

Housing markets with fewer land-use restrictions – Dallas, Houston, Atlanta – saw much smaller hikes in housing prices than cities with a lot of restrictions… name any big city in California.

Take a look at the article but take it with a grain of salt. I suspect one of its objectives is to put urban planning in a bad light.

It’s correct to say that limiting the supply of anything makes the thing in question more expensive. Paving and building without limit creates lots of cheap homes and makes housing more responsive to market forces. Unfortunately, market forces in the early 2,000s resulted in too many homes being built and a lot of them becoming vacant and bank-owned.

Also, home-building restrictions are less about the good intentions of smart growth and more about the NIMBY reactions people have to the thought of anything being built nearby. Any new housing development in San Diego faces a buzz saw of political opposition if people think it will increase traffic. It makes no difference if the growth, proposed, is smart or stupid.

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