Tag Archives: suburbia

The Hidden Costs of Suburban Housing

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 25, 2018

People understandably assign value to being proximate to things they desire or need. Walkscore.com shows this quite well, as does the real estate values seen in central cities such as Manhattan. Not only do the per square foot costs of real estate tend to be higher due to proximity, but centrally-located real estate also tends to be more resilient in economic downturns. We saw that clearly in the 2007-8 housing crash, where land in the burbs crashed significantly and many in-town properties were hardly affected at all.

Therefore, the burbs offer a “false economy” in many cases. Lower per square foot costs means you can typically buy a lot more house in the burbs than in a town center. But there are many (mostly hidden) trade-off costs. You tend to pay less in the burbs for your home, but in exchange you must pay the costs of less convenience, less free time (due to longer times needed to get to places), less “social capital” (in other words, less interaction with others), poorer health (due to your not biking or walking as much in the burbs), much higher travel costs due to the need for a household to own more cars and use cars more often, and much more aggravation due to the inability to escape traffic congestion. In my mind, all of these mostly hidden costs in the burbs far outweigh per square foot savings for suburban homes.

In a well-functioning economy, buyers of suburban homes would clearly see the above-listed costs, which would reduce the (artificially high) demand for suburban housing. Likewise, there would be higher demand for town center homes if the mostly hidden benefits of such housing were easier to see.

Fortunately for our society, the younger generations are placing more value on town center living and less value on suburban living. Unfortunately, America has spent several decades mostly building suburban housing (partly due to artificially high demand), which means that pretty much all US cities now have far too much drivable suburban housing and far too little town center housing. This inflates the per square foot cost for town center housing. Therefore, American cities need to devote a lot of effort toward better balancing the supply and demand of walkable town center housing by building a lot more of it — partly by incrementally making a lot of suburban housing more compact and walkable. Increasing the supply of town center housing will eventually reduce the per square foot cost of it. This will be a major task in the coming decades. Plenty of demolition and renovation jobs are on the horizon.

I am not saying suburban housing will disappear or that no one will want it or that it should be prohibited. There are likely to always be people in our society who greatly value a lifestyle featuring a lot of driving, a lot of social isolation, large private greenspaces, large homes, etc. (they place so much value on such things that they compensate for the downside costs). For the sake of equity, however, such a lifestyle must be better coupled with suburban homeowners paying higher fees to compensate for the higher detrimental societal impacts their lifestyle imposes on the community.

It needs to be noted, too, that suburban development tends to be a Ponzi Scheme for cities. That is, their initial costs look attractive to elected officials, but cities tend to experience unaffordable, rising costs that suburban housing delivers over the long term — costs that are much higher than the relatively meager tax revenues that such lower-density housing produces. This helps explain why so many cities are severely suffering financially with things like road and bridge maintenance.

https://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/

Communities need to grow the number of “YIMBYs” they have (YES in my backyard). That generally means the community needs a higher percentage of people who love cities (rather than drivable suburbs). This will be a slow process and take a lot of time, as cities have spent several decades cultivating and encouraging the values of suburbia. Therefore, even many who live in town centers are, oddly, holding suburban values.

Over time these suburban values will decline as such values have very little sustainable staying power (such a lifestyle is growing increasingly expensive, for example, for households and cities), and younger people with walkable values will constitute a growing percentage of the population.

Officials and staff can nudge communities to more quickly move toward having a higher percentage of citizens with walkable values by electing leaders who are willing and able to see to it that “on the ground” models of high quality walkable developments are created in the community. That allows people to “see with their own eyes and ears” how pleasant walkable design can be.

That can persuade a larger number of community residents to be amendable to walkable design, which then encourages developers to take advantage of that growing market by building more walkable developments. And gives elected officials more political courage to adopt walkable development regulations.

Elected folks can also show leadership by tweaking “price signals.” For example, leaders can adopt or increase parking fees, increase the gas tax, add a toll to roads, increase suburban impact fees, or adopt a land value tax. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax

Currently, almost all of our price signals are nudging people toward suburban lifestyles and value systems — mostly by pampering motorists and not having motorists pay their own way.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

The Growth Ponzi Scheme

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2016

In Charles Marohn’s 2012 book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, we find a five-part essay about how suburban growth is an unsustainable Ponzi Scheme.

New suburban development initially costs little for local government, infrastructure like roads is built by the developer then handed over to local government for free, and tax revenue starts flowing in quickly. Looks like a great deal.

Initially.

But what is not well understood is that the long term maintenance and repair cost is huge. And the tax revenue from the low-density development comes nowhere near paying for the ongoing costs for those roads and sewers. The “solution” has been to try to endlessly promote even MORE suburban growth. The revenue from the new growth is used to pay for the old growth. But endless new suburban growth is impossible. Particularly in Boulder and Boulder County.

The result of having new growth pay for old growth is a classic Ponzi Scheme.po

Could the road funding controversy in Boulder County be at least partly explained by Marohn’s Growth Ponzi Scheme?

Compact, slower speed, human-scaled urban development creates wealth. Lower density, higher speed, car-scaled suburban development destroys wealth.

How can suburban development pay for itself? We can start, implies Marohn, by nearly doubling property (and other) taxes in new suburban neighborhoods.

Since this is not politically feasible, the future will be, shall we say, challenging.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

The Second Hand Smoke of the Driving Citizen

 

By Dom Nozzi

In an urban to rural transect, suburbs are drivable (and private spaces are emphasized) and town centers are walkable (and public outdoor spaces are important). Our future needs imagesto be one where those who drive from their suburban privatopia into the sociable town centers are seen as introducing toxins such as second-hand smoke into the walkable town centers. The higher speeds and larger asphalt spaces degrade the quality of life in the town center portion of the transect.

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Filed under Environment, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Random Thoughts Regarding Town Planning

By Dom Nozzi

We must avoid further subsidizing dysfunctional suburban locations at the financial and quality-of-life expense of urban residents (for the sake of equity, among other reasons). And stop throwing good public money after bad.

Congestion, in cities, is our friend. It effectively delivers infill, redevelopment, multi-story buildings, less car use, more walking/bicycling/transit travel, healthier in-town retail by smaller and locally-owned business, more density, more compact development, more migration from remote to in-town locations, less severe crashes, less speeding, less air pollution and gas consumption (at the regional level), and more political support for non-car travel.

I like the idea of passively letting dysfunctional suburban development become white elephants that are increasingly abandoned. I like the idea of people increasingly looking upon urbanists as saviors for our cities.

I like the idea of leveraging envy. Having suburban folks increasingly look with desire upon a walkable lifestyle.

Having worked as a city planner for 19 years, there is little that is more naïve than the idea that we can create more connectivity in suburbia by buying Right-Of-Way and demolishing homes to build new, connecting roads (both of which are essential in creating travel choices). With the exception of places wiped off the face of the earth by hurricanes, has this happened ANYWHERE?

I am concerned that urbanists might squander scarce resources fighting, in a futile way, for such things as more connectivity or other efforts against the suburban juggernaut.

I believe we are rapidly approaching the time when we can no longer afford the road fly-overs. The road widenings. The sound walls.

I’m a materialist. I don’t believe we can convince a meaningful number of people to agree to progressive change (such as increased connectivity, compactness, or more transit) through education-based persuasion. Such change in values comes from changes in material conditions. Effective persuasion and meaningful behavior change comes, in this case, from dramatically increased financial costs and inconvenience associated with our transportation system.

Until suburban auto dependency becomes intolerably costly, there is little that can be done to shift our system toward a sustainable, equitable way of doing things. We’ll continue to privilege cars. The habitat for Fords and Chevys will “improve” while the habitat for Dick and Jane declines.

Given all of the above, the best I can do is work to equitably increase the costs of auto dependency. And establish envious urbanism. An urbanism that, as Andres Duany once said about Winter Park FL, stands as an indictment to Kunstler’s suburban fiasco.

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Should the Development Transect Include a Suburban Option?

By Dom Nozzi

The “Urban to Rural Transect” is an idea pioneered by the new urbanist movement. The concept acknowledges that individuals have a range of different lifestyles and forms of travel that they desire. Instead of having a community establish only one set of design regulations for new development in a community (a set which tends to offer only a suburban, drivable lifestyle), it is most equitable that regulations should be tailored to the full range of choices: walkable for the town center, suburban and drivable for the suburbs, and rural/conservation for the periphery of a community.

Not only is this tailored approach much more fair and equitable than the typical one-size-fits-all approach, it is also more resilient: The future is likely to be rather different than today, particularly due to likely resource, financial, demographic, energy and climate changes. It is obviously most prudent to have a full set of community designs so that a significant community shift to a new way of living and getting around will not be as painful and costly.

In addition, establishing a range of regulatory zones is more sustainable, politically. Conventionally, the community must engage in endless, angry philosophical battles to determine the most acceptable one-size-fits-all lifestyle preference (which inevitably means that the regulations must be watered down to a mediocrity that no one likes as a way to minimize objections). Instead, when lifestyle zones are established (urban, suburban, rural) and regulations are calibrated differently for each lifestyle zone, political battles are minimized and the regulations can be more pure and aggressive. “You don’t like the restrictive parking regulations we are applying to the town center? Fine. If you prefer less restricted parking rules, you clearly should be opting to live in the drivable part of the community.”

Given the clear fairness and prudence of the approach, I am always surprised when I hear people express reservations about the transect.

Many advocates of a “greener,” more “walkable” and “compact” lifestyle will claim that we should simply PROHIBIT the drivable suburban portion of the transect, since that form of design is inherently anti-socical, anti-environmental, and unsustainable. Several who subscribe to this position traffic jam on huge hwyargue that we will not be able to survive as a civilization if we retain the suburban designs of our community for the long term, given the likelihood of “peak oil,” climate change, or various forms of resource constraints in our future.

I believe there is some validity to this point.

 

However, for several decades, nearly every American community has established development regulations that seek to establish the drivable suburban lifestyle EVERYWHERE in the community (an anti-choice, one-size-fits-all approach).

For the first time since before WWII, thankfully, we are now seeing a large number of people and organizations saying NO!!!! to this one-size-fits-all approach. That approach is ruinous, they rightly say, and eliminating lifestyle choices!

The transect – which is a concept which wisely includes a suburban zone — is the only system I know of that can start to move us out of that downwardly spiraling rut of one-size-fits-all suburbia.

Given that communities have mostly applied only suburban development rules throughout the community for so long, it seems highly unlikely that we can abruptly eliminate the community-wide suburban approach in our lifetimes. It is strategically unwise to suddenly replace drivable regulations with walkable regulations community-wide. The vast majority of people are extremely supportive of a suburban lifestyle, as can be seen by the fact that this interest group has succeeded in inappropriately forcing suburban design down the throats of urban and rural areas, as well as suburban areas throughout the nation.

Given the common (albeit wrong) assumption that suburbia is a consensus desire, abruptly eliminating that lifestyle option community-wide is akin to vegetarians suggesting we should abruptly end the sale of any meat in a grocery store.

Clearly, it is appropriate that communities need to stop assuming that everyone prefers the suburban lifestyle. To stop applying suburban regulations everywhere in the community. But going from suburban regulations EVERYWHERE to suburban regulations NOWHERE is not politically feasible. Or fair.

If some people desire the relatively anti-social, inconvenient aspects of a suburban lifestyle, and are able to afford the expensive nature of such a lifestyle without harming others seeking another lifestyle, we are right to continue to allow it.

We need to fight community battles that have a chance of success, instead of squandering our efforts on something that will only happen via a pie-in-the-sky “green” dictatorship.

Striving to prohibit suburbia might also distract us and slow down our important, pressing need to politically gain acceptance of some of the crucial transect concepts. We must IMMEDIATELY start applying compact and walkable development regulations in our town centers.  We must IMMEDIATELY start applying rural/preserve development regulations in our outlying areas. And we are able to politically buy such changes by allowing suburban development regulations to remain – at least for the time being.

Sure, while we do that, we can continue to believe that we will probably need to bulldoze suburbia in the future, or see it be abandoned on its own because corrected price signals make such a life undesirable for most.

But in this interim period, politics and the on-going lifestyle desire for many requires that we retain the suburban option.

Similarly, when it comes to transportation, it is clear that we must eventually put some suburban roads on a diet – taking, say roads that are five lanes and dieting them down to three lanes. But rather than calling for suburban road diets NOW, I believe it is politically wise and fair at this time to do no more than put a moratorium on widening those roads (i.e., let’s not let them get worse than they already are). In the meantime, we can let residents of those suburban places voluntarily ask for road diets (and traffic calming) if they so choose (after seeing the obvious benefits of diets in other parts of the community).

Of course, this “moratorium” approach can also happen on its own, as we are increasingly unable to afford to widen roads.

In the meantime, we DO put in-town, walkable areas on the right path. In those places, we happily put roads on a diet and employ lots of traffic calming and sidewalk installation and walkable development requirements.

And we do so with less political opposition because we have retained the suburban option.

Such an approach allows us to minimize antagonism. Suburban advocates can have their suburban utopia as long as they give us what we desire outside of those fiasco locations. Locations that will increasingly be seen – even by today’s suburban advocates – as a failed paradigm compared to the increasing value, profitability and desirable nature of the walkable locations of the community.

We will more quickly see walkable locations become shining and enviable preferences to suburbia if we follow the savvy approach of allowing suburbia in the interim period. By allowing suburban advocates to opt for suburbia, we give ourselves the ability to employ the politically unhindered road diets and strong walkability development regulations in the walkable locations of the community.

A transect that includes a suburban option, in sum, is the preferred approach.

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Filed under Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking