Tuesday, June 10

On with the Missoula smart growth debate

After a month or so of hemming and hawing around the smart growth issue, Jeff Patterson of the Bonner-Milltown land use committee has laid his cards on the table with an editorial entitled "Smart growth" policies devastate communities. You see, cities like Portland and Boulder are not merely uncomfortable to live in, they are simply uninhabitable wastelands utterly devastated by smart growth. Alright, we can look past the hyperbole and get to the substance of his point. A solid critique of smart growth could only help Missoulians decide whether it would work for us or not.

All of his information comes from a 2006 paper written by Randal O'Toole for the American Dream Coalition, a group which, according to their website, promotes "single-family houses with yards" and "automobiles." I suppose that's what they mean by the American dream. Randal O'Toole, who calls himself the anti-planner, has staked his career on the perpetuation of automobile-centered land use patterns. The groups affiliated with this paper would all consider themselves libertarians, but they apparently have a very specific lifestyle in mind that they think Americans ought to be free to pursue.

Here's a factoid cited by Patterson,

"smart growth penalties raise the cost of a $150,000 home to $281,000"

Without any context provided, who knows what this means? We have to look at O'Toole's report. The $150,000 is referring to a particular four-bedroom home that was recently sold in Houston. Where in Houston? Who knows. Does it come with a two hour commute? The $281,000 figure is not in the report at all, but O'Toole does claim that a similar home in Portland would cost twice as much as the one in Houston. At $300,000, maybe that's what Patterson is getting at. But Houston and Portland are apples and oranges. A similar house in sprawling Orange County, CA would be off the charts, but there are so many factors other than smart growth policies to consider. These raw numbers are misleading, at best.

The effects of growth management on housing affordability have been extensively researched, but the results are very complex and not blog-size material. See this well-balanced Brookings Institute report on the topic for more. But it's worth adding that Bonner-Milltown already has land-use restrictions that mandate low densities. Smart growth policies would hardly be imposing regulation on a libertarian's paradise, but merely exchanging one vision of growth for another. And we have to ask ourselves whether
paying marginally more for land may be worth the price of not turning Missoula into the Houston of Montana. Have you ever been to Houston?

A couple of other quibbles with the editorial.

This same MPI study rates Portland, Ore., at the top of the list for unaffordable living due to smart growth penalties and similar planning."

No it doesn't. And Portland is nowhere near the most expensive city in the United States. According to 2005 government data, Portland had an average housing price of $225, 900, about the same as Minneapolis. Not bad for the West Coast, with cities like San Fransisco hitting $726,700. Geez, some perspective, please.


This trend started in California, moved to Oregon and is now on its way to Montana."

There's nothing like the specter of the California menace to get us riled up. But it didn't start in California. The earliest cities to adopt growth management policies were Boulder, CO, and Lexington, KY, and smart growth has been employed by hundreds of locales evenly distributed across America. Smart growth was not thought up by Hollywood celebrities relaxing in their Beverly Hills' estates, I assure you. In fact, the easiest way for Missoula to look more like Los Angeles would be to do nothing about the population influx of Californians looking for their very own chunk of the "last best place."

Finally, the kicker:

We must ask ourselves, with the price of fuel how will those who have been pushed out of town because of unaffordable housing survive the commute to work?"

Huh? The whole point of smart growth is to allow compact development so we won't have to use our cars as much. If someone really wants to live far out in the countryside and also enjoy the economic benefits of an urban area, yes, there probably will be some costs involved. But if smart growth is done well, there will be a nice house available in town when you want it, and there will be land available in countryside to ranch if you'd rather have that.


micah55555 said...

Portland actually is one of the most unnaffordable cities in the US. Along with Seattle. A lower average price of a house doesn't necessarily mean that it is more affordable to the average person living in that city. You have to look at how much money the average person makes in that city.

Daniel Nairn said...

Right. You do need to look at that. The link I provided gives that data. Here are the price to income ratios for a few cities:

Portland 5.32
Chicago 5.97
Seattle 7.81
Boston 9.88
New York 10.34
San Francisco 12.64

These cities are all expensive compared to many other cities around my country. My point wasn't that Portland is a cheap place to live, but only that its not the "top of the list" for unaffordable places.

Zed said...

Ah, yes, Randal O'Toole ... the guy who advocates Houston as a model for urban planning, who hates Light Rail, and who loves 'user fees' (aka toll roads).

I wonder who funds this guy?

Hmmm, let's see ... the Mellon/Scaiffe oil fortune ... ahh ... the ultra-conservative Koch brothers ...uh, huh ... and the privatization crew, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation!

Gosh, do you think Jeff might have got his leads from the Heartland Institute, those same folks who deny Global Climate Change?

Carol Minjares said...

Portland has an urban growth boundary, doesn't it? I think Bend does too.

I hope we don't go there...

J.W. said...

"O'Toole does claim that a similar home in Portland would cost twice as much as the one in Houston." Has O'Toole considered that this might be precisely because Portland is a more enjoyable/desirable place to live than Houston? I would love to see a comparison of the price index between Portland and one of the central neighborhoods in Houston, e.g. Rice Village or Montrose.

Daniel Nairn said...

Zed, thanks for following the money trail. Always helpful.

Carol, I believe the entire state of Oregon set up urban growth boundaries in 1973. How well these have worked is something I'd like to spend some time digging into in the future.

J.W., exactly. It seems like common sense, but the best way to make these walkable areas cheaper would seem to be to build more of them. Certainly not less of them.

It's also disingenuous to leave transportation costs completely out of any "affordability" discussion.