In California, Don’t Bash the ‘Burbs

Joel Kotkin
Editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University

For the past century, California, particularly Southern California, nurtured and invented the suburban dream. The sun-drenched single-family house, often with a pool, on a tree-lined street was an image lovingly projected by television and the movies. Places like the San Fernando Valley – actual home to the “Brady Bunch” and scores of other TV family sitcoms – became, in author Kevin Roderick’s phrase, “America’s suburb.”

This dream, even a modernized, multicultural version of it, now is passé to California’s governing class. Even in his first administration, 1975-83, Gov. Jerry Brown disdained suburbs, promoting a city-first, pro-density policy. His feelings hardened during eight years (1999-2007) as mayor of Oakland, a city that, since he left, has fallen on hard times, although it has been treated with some love recently in the blue media.

As state attorney general (2007-11) Brown took advantage of the state’s 2006 climate change legislation to move against suburban growth everywhere from Pleasanton to San Bernardino. Now back as governor, he can give full rein to his determination to limit access to the old California dream, curbing suburbia and forcing more of us and, even more so our successors, into small apartments nearby bus and rail stops. His successor as attorney general, former San Francisco D.A. Kamala Harris, is, if anything, more theologically committed to curbing suburban growth.

Sadly, much of the state’s development “community” has enlisted itself into the densification jihad. An influential recent report from the Urban Land Institute, for example, sees a “new California dream,” which predicts huge growth in high-density development based on underlying demographic trends – like shifts in housing tastes among millennials or empty-nesters rushing to downtown condos.

Yet it’s not enough for the planners, and their developer allies, to watch the market shift and take advantage of it. That would be both logical and justified. But the planning clerisy are not content to leave suburbia die; it must, instead, be cauterized and prevented, like some plague, from spreading.

Ironically, it turns out that the “new California dream” is more widely shared by planners and rent-seeking developers than by the consuming public. During the past decade, when pro-density sentiment has supposedly building, some 80 percent of the new construction in the state was single-family, a rate slightly above the national average. Over time, Californians continue to buy single-family houses, mostly in the suburban and exurban periphery. They do it because they are like most Americans, roughly four of five of whom prefer single-family houses, preferably closer to work but, if that proves unaffordable, further out.

This includes both working-class and upper middle-class markets. The more-affluent, including many largely Asian immigrants, have been willing to buy high-priced homes closer to employment centers in places like Irvine or Cupertino, near San Jose. Meanwhile, the less-affluent of all ethnicities continue to move further out, to places like the Inland Empire or the further reaches of the Bay Area. These peripheral areas have continued to represent the vast majority of growth in both greater Los Angeles and around the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, some of the urban-centric residential construction now being put up will, as occurred in the housing bust, may be fashionable but, in some cases, not so profitable  over time. Construction is being driven mostly by tax breaks, Uncle Ben’s essentially ultralow-interest money for wealthy investors and, in some cases, subsidies. Overall, the Wall Street Journal notes, the rental market is beginning to “lose steam,” as people again start looking into buying homes. This may suggest that new speculative building in places like downtown Los Angeles – where there’s good evidence that rents and occupancy levels are, if anything, getting weaker – may end up in tears.

To date, the anti-suburb jihad has been somewhat constrained by the recession and the collapse of the housing bubble about five years ago. But now that there’s an incipient housing recovery in parts of the state, including Orange County, the constraints could be problematical, particularly for younger buyers about to start a family or for people migrating into the state.

The impact may be felt first in Silicon Valley and its environs. The planners now dominating the Bay Area want only highly dense bus-stop- or train-oriented development in the valley. Yet, notes real estate consultant John Burns, this does not reflect market realities marked by what they describe “as a resilient and ongoing preference for single-family homes.”

Even more fanciful, they are promoting high density in areas, far distant from current employment centers, in dreary locales like Newark, south of Oakland, claiming workers there will take public transit to jobs in the Valley. The belief among planners and some gullible developers that aging millennials will choose to live in high density, far from costly San Francisco or Palo Alto, and commute to work by transit is somewhat north of absurd; today, a bare 3 percent of workers in Silicon Valley get to work by car, and downtown San Jose, the logical terminus of any transit strategy, is home to barely 26,000 of the region’s 860,000 workers.

Some tech workers may put up with a few years of high rents and shared apartments in San Francisco or Palo Alto, but not many will want to live in expensive towers far from both Silicon Valley’s primary employers and the amenities of the big city. Apple’s plans for a new headquarters in Cupertino has drawn criticism from green-minded urbanists precisely because they rest on the sensible presumption that Apple’s workforce will remain largely suburban and car-oriented. One can also wonder the effect on the start-up culture when workers have been forced to live in places lacking the proverbial garage or extra bedroom that historically have nurtured new firms.

More important still, forced densification, by denying single-family alternatives, is likely, and in some places, already is, spiking prices, which are up $85,000 in Silicon Valley in a year. This, over time, will force millennials, as they age, to look for other locales to meet their longtime aspirations. Generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, in their surveys, have found more than twice as many millennials prefer suburbs over dense cities as their “ideal place to live.” The vast majority of 18-to-34-year-olds do not want to spend their lives as apartment renters; a study by TD Bank found that 84 percent of them hope to own a home.

Much the same can be said of Asian immigrants, who are now driving much of the new-home sales, particularly in desirable places like Orange County or Silicon Valley. Nationwide, over the past decade, the Asian population in suburbs grew by almost 2.8 million, or 53 percent, while the Asian population of core cities grew 770,000, 28 percent. In greater Los Angeles, there are now three times as many Asian suburbanites as their inner-city counterparts.

If California is not willing to meet the needs of its own emerging middle class, there’s no doubt that other states, from Arizona and Texas to Tennessee – although not as fundamentally alluring – will be, and are already, more than happy to oblige.

Rather than seeking to destroy our suburbs, California leaders should expend their energy figuring out how to make them better. Rather than some retro-1900s urbanist vision, they need to embrace the multipolarity of our urban agglomerations. They could look to preserve open space nearby, when possible, or cultivate natural areas, parks, walking and biking trails that would appeal to families as well as to singles.

Instead of attempting to force employment into the center city, it would make more sense to expand home-based and dispersed work in order to cut down or eliminate commuting times. These moves would create both healthier suburbs and reduce carbon emissions without devastating the natural aspirations of most California families.

This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Crossposted on NewGeography 

Share this article: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.