New Urbanism: Not Suitable for Large Families November 1, 2010

Jonathan V. Last has written an excellent article on natality in America and why we have few large families now, whereas 50 years ago they were very common.  (I can testify, being of a certain age myself, that I as an only child was very unusual in my own childhood.)  While I do not have time to discuss the entire article, I will comment here on those aspects of it that hit my favorite hot button, land use and land use law.

Mr. Last declares, “Studies show the same results over and over – all things being equal, women living in apartments or condominiums have fewer babies than women living in single-family homes.”  The implication of this is, I would say, forbid not New Urbanism or higher density, but we need both density and non-density.  What I distrust about single-family homes is not the single-family home lifestyle, but the tendency of the inhabitants to wish to restrict the lifestyle of everyone around them to a similar lifestyle.  I’m not sure about this, but it is possible that if a developer wanted to build a single-family tract with no zoning or covenants against the conversion of lots to higher density at the will of owners, he would not get financing.  So in this case government interference with the “marketplace of landowners,” or a private covenant interfering with the same, would be necessary for the single family houses to get built.  I don’t know how it is for financing the building of houses individually on individual lots without a subdivision builder.

On the outskirts of my own urban area, Victorville and Hesperia have housing tracts, but Phelan and Pinyon Hills do not; they have individually built houses, and not by extremely wealthy people – but the area gets more thickly populated every time I drive through it.  I don’t know whether these houses are built with or without financing, or whether for construction financing or long term mortgages an area like Phelan – Pinyon Hills has to have the county (because I don’t think there is a large landholder in the area; interesting that the appearance of urban and suburban California is very different where there were no Mexican land grants, or they broke up early, from where they remained intact until recently.  It is where they stayed intact that we have the famous or notorious “planned communities.”) interfere with the marketplace and forbid the building of dingbat multifamily houses on these lots, or whether the lot owners are free to build whatever density they think pencils out.  In other words, in our current financial culture, is government interference with land use a necessity if any single-family homes are ever to be financed?

Even though higher density housing is less likely to be a good environment for larger families, I think that a socially just city will be slightly overbuilt – or at least, over-entitled – in terms of family-oriented housing of higher density.  This is not so much for ecological reasons, in my view, as to keep the prices and rents down by entitling a lot of supply.  To the extent we can have more affordable housing without subsidies or price controls by simply making more of it in the same space, more power to that, I think. And if the market doesn’t justify that density, the land that will in some future be dense housing can for the time being be trailer parks.  These are as effective as dense housing in keeping property values surrounding them from soaring to the point that people will fear that values will be decreased by putting dense housing there.  The other issue is the traffic.

For Mr. Last also declares, “Parents trying to balance work and children need the flexibility automobiles provide.  The solution is building more roads.”  I am willing to concede that the burden of cost for roads, public transport, and any needs of new infrastructure caused by new growth will have to clearly fall on the new residents.  I think that homebuilders selling new homes ought to be able to advertise like retailers do, “$699,999 plus tax” or whatever.  At least infrastructure taxes should not be hidden.  And we have had a rather curious alliance, in many boroughs, of suburban sprawlers allying with greens to restrict further growth because of ‘traffic.’  I am in favor of good public transport, too, though it can’t be everything to everyone.

Certain parts of cities will not be suitable for the automobile; and we will have lines running from there, where the parking is bad, to other places that have clusters of “Transit Oriented Development” interspersed with tall garages.  More than ½ mile away from these stations, low density development, even single family homes (maybe with granny flats) may continue to prevail.  I think that we will never go completely “New Urbanist” or “transit dependent” unless technology changes radically; but we can and will have transit-oriented “cities within cities.”  It is foolish, however, to think that urbanist lifestyles will displace suburban ones altogether.

The needs of the smaller families in the city should be considered, too.  For example, vouchers and tax credits and charter schools are an important matter of social justice in the city, because one of the things discouraging families from the city is low-quality public education.

As for commuting:  Yes, the jobs-housing imbalance between regions is serious.  But it can be approached in two ways.  The first is to enable people to live closer to their jobs.  The second is to encourage jobs to move closer to where their workers are.  Either would have the same result.

This is a different issue from the “ownership vs renting” issue, which I should probably address on another occasion – together with the peculiar nature of “property values” today and how they differ from “property values” at the time of the American Founding.  I should address this at another time; this post is long enough already.

Article cited: “America’s One-Child Policy” by Jonathan V. Last at The Weekly Standard

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