Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cargo cult suburbanism

It seems that every time there's a proposal for a multiple unit apartment or condo building, some voices will pop up and whine, "why can't they just build some affordable single (or two-) family detached houses?!?!" Some will even go on to make the wild claim that multi-unit buildings "cause" single family detached house prices to rise.

This thought process is completely backwards: like blaming your runny nose for causing your cold. Instead, it is the rising prices on existing homes which attracts developers to build more homes, and eventually multi-unit buildings.

The reason the prices on single family homes are going up is because that kind of structure is an inefficient use of an increasingly valuable and limited resource: land.

It has nothing to do with the presence of multi-unit housing. In general, if land prices go up, then home prices will go up. If you want to reduce home prices on the open market, either: (a) find a way to reduce land prices, or (b) subdivide the land more efficiently.

Seeing this misunderstanding perpetuated, I get the feeling that some people in Boston believe in a fairy tale, what I've started to call: "cargo cult suburbanism."

In essence: the followers of this cargo cult remember a time in the past when giant single family homes were affordable, and even seemed to be the only option for families.

Therefore, they try to force everyone to build 1950s-style single family homes in the hopes of attracting families at reasonable prices. Followers of this cult have infiltrated city hall to the point where in most neighborhoods, the only development allowed by-right is this kind of suburbanism, even in areas of the city which have many apartment buildings.

The cultists believe that the ritual of forcing the development of such single family detached houses will magically, somehow, make them affordable to average families. There's no actual economic reason for that to work. It's an imitation of a form that sometimes works elsewhere under much different conditions, but is unsuitable for much of the city. That's why I'm calling it "cargo cult" thinking.

What's worse, not only does "cargo cult suburbanism" create unaffordable and unrealistic housing, the stock that remains ends up in slumlord hands, as they are the only ones with enough money to buy such large units. Then, the demand to live here is so strong, and the supply of homes is so weak, that some people feel that they have no choice but to fall into the hands of unscrupulous slumlords. The giant, detached single family homes, favored by the "cargo cultists," are easily subdivided into many illegal units. Some have been found to have twenty people living in them, such as the house which burned down this summer and claimed the life of a student.

Nobody wants to live in such conditions. We desperately need more legal, clean units to be created here. But the elected officials have failed their constituents. The zoning laws, barely changed from the 1950s, are completely out of touch with reality. The slumlords are the direct beneficiary of this screwed up situation. And who knows what kind of money changes hands behind closed doors to keep it this way.

The "cargo cultists" will claim that they just want to provide housing for families. I agree with the goal of finding ways to provide reasonably priced housing for families, but I don't buy into cargo cults. There's no reason why a diversity of housing options cannot serve families, or anyone else, just as well as (or better than) the stereotypical 1950s-style single-family detached house.

When land starts to become more expensive, it has to be used more efficiently, or else people of modest means will not be able to afford to live here anymore. Subsidized housing is a poor substitute. Some of that may be unavoidable, but for the majority of people, they ought to be able to find housing on the normal market. We need to put an end to the ridiculously bad zoning laws and arbitrary process which has defined Boston development for over two generations. The city got away with its dysfunction in the past during a time of decline and when the population was forced to sprawl. And people seemed to accept that fate. But that's no longer the case anymore. The population of the city is growing. This will be the challenge for the next mayor: to increase and provide a diversity of housing options for people of all different means and backgrounds. And to find a way to break the self-perpetuating cycle of corruption and NIMBYism which drags us down.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. In CT commuter towns, the objection is not only to multifamily, but even to small-lot single-family detached housing (so called "cottage housing"). It seems that the physical illusion of 1950s affordable suburbia must be preserved at all costs, even as the housing stock deteriorates (it often can't be legally replaced at the same density) and living standards fall. Urbanization would herald the apocalypse, no doubt.

    Although the argument is often couched in terms of family-friendliness, as you mention, young families are actually abandoning the area thanks to the zoning laws perpetuated by their parents' generation. For instance, New Canaan's average age is now 43, up from 40 in 2000, with more people over age 80 than between 25 and 34 -- the towns are becoming retirement communities, partly since young people can't afford the homes either to buy or rent, and partly because older people have nowhere to downsize to, so must remain in their homes or else relocate out-of-state.


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