Smart Growth isn’t so Smart Anymore

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that because of the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 virus or urban unrest dense housing would be less in vogue than it used to be.  After all, wasn’t there a high rate of contamination of the virus in residentially compact New York City?  And didn’t the city council there – at the urging of the mayor, and living with the worst incidence of shootings in history – recently slash the budget for neighborhood law enforcement?  By $1 billion? 

Hailed as the centerpiece of “smart growth” denser housing – or “urban cram”, as some builders liked to call it – was presented by environmental advocates and city planners as the answer to a variety of growth problems in California, and the nation.  They promised that placing more people in ever-smaller urban spaces would systematically revitalize downtown neighborhoods and, in doing so, would curtail further single-family “sprawl” into the hinterlands.

Smart growthers also adopted the belief that increased density meant lower cost and, therefore, would lead to the construction of lots of affordable housing.

It didn’t turn out that way, though.  Developers of infill housing soon found building it required steel framing, instead of wood, and the necessity of using massive amounts of concrete.  This atypical construction type – coupled with strict, local design standards – meant ever more expensive housing.  

Moreover, the decision of residents to venture out to the suburbs – and buy a single-family home – didn’t diminish as hoped.  Those sentiments have remained – over 80 percent of housing consumers prefer owning to renting.  (In light of today’s chaos in urban areas – highlighted below – the number has likely grown.)  

In many communities homelessness has been allowed to thrive in cities – causing even more frustration and dislocation.  Street encampments are virtually everywhere and some localities are even permitting homeless individuals to stay in hotels – letting them loiter and expose themselves in lobbies and hallways.  Meanwhile, human feces and used hypodermic needles litter streetscapes.

Perhaps the most compelling symptom of what is clearly a sign of serious urban decay is the universal breakdown of authority.  It’s as if decency and the rule of law have been abandoned.  According to an increasing number of local officials, it’s no longer considered offensive behavior for thugs to purposely wreck property or take over governance of certain sectors of the downtown areas.  Relaxation of bail rules and backtracking prosecutors have put criminals in charge of cities.

Recent surges in violence in some of the nation’s bigger metropolitan areas are contributing to greater urban flight.  Endless rioting and increasingly unsafe neighborhoods are chasing people out of urban centers.  Indeed, parts of downtown Chicago have become war zones.  Likewise in New York City, where gun violence is already as bad as it was all of last year.

All the while our elected representatives are condoning not condemning these policies and practices.  Instead, city councils are raising taxes and reducing police budgets in California and nationwide.  None of the council members in Seattle even flinched recently when, after extensive cuts to her department, the community’s police chief quit.  

Given these conditions – and no discernible way out except to flee – it’s no wonder people are leaving urban areas.  In droves.  U-Haul and other moving companies report being overwhelmed with customers leaving downtown neighborhoods.  They say they can’t keep up with the new business.

The situations in our cities will only get worse.  Fewer people mean lower tax revenues and fewer cops mean reduced law enforcement.  The results are predictable.  Where are the environmentalists and planners now?

Suddenly, smart growth doesn’t look so smart after all.

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