Can we have both protected open spaces and affordable housing?

Conservatives argue that the affordable housing issue is simple: stop protecting open space and let developers build more housing units.

But, beginning in the 1970s, housing prices in these communities skyrocketed to three or four times the national average.

Why? Because local government laws and policies severely restricted, or banned outright, the building of anything on vast areas of land. This is called preserving “open space,” and “open space” has become almost a cult obsession among self-righteous environmental activists, many of whom are sufficiently affluent that they don’t have to worry about housing prices.

Some others have bought the argument that there is just very little land left in coastal California, on which to build homes. But anyone who drives down Highway 280 for thirty miles or so from San Francisco to Palo Alto, will see mile after mile of vast areas of land with not a building or a house in sight…

Was it just a big coincidence that housing prices in coastal California began skyrocketing in the 1970s, when building bans spread like wildfire under the banner of “open space,” “saving farmland,” or whatever other slogans would impress the gullible?

When more than half the land in San Mateo County is legally off-limits to building, how surprised should we be that housing prices in the city of San Mateo are now so high that politically appointed task forces have to be formed to solve the “complex” question of how things got to be the way they are and what to do about it?

The argument goes that this is an example of supply and demand: open more space for development and housing prices will have to drive as supply increases. Is it really this simple? Here are at least a few other factors that matter in this equation:

  1. The actions of developers. Even if more housing units could be built, there is no guarantee they could build cheap or affordable housing. They want to make money and they argue the money is not in affordable housing.
  2. Is cheap suburban housing (what is typically promoted by conservatives in these scenarios – keep building further out) desirable in the long run? Opponents of sprawl might argue that having a cheap single-family home 30-50 miles out from the big city is worse in the long run than a smaller, more expensive unit close to city amenities and infrastructure.
  3. What exactly is the value of open space? Conservatives sometimes argue this is another sign of the religion of environmentalism but there are realistic limits to how much housing and development land can hold before you end up with major issues. (For example, see the regular flooding issues in the Chicago area.) If green or open space is simply about property values – keep my home values high by not building nearby housing – this is a different issue.
  4. There is a larger issue of social class. I’m guessing there are few Americans of any political persuasion that would choose to live near affordable housing. There is a stigma associated with it even if the housing is badly needed. Lots of people might argue affordable housing is needed but few communities want it in their boundaries and middle and upper class residents don’t want to be near it.
  5. Another option for affordable housing is to have denser urban areas. Think cities like Hong Kong where a lack of land and high demand have led to one of the highest population densities in the world. If a region wants to protect its open and green space, why not build up? Many city residents don’t want this – the single-family home urban neighborhood is a fixture in many American cities – and conservatives fear a government agenda pushing everyone into dense cities.

Opening more land to development might help lead to cheaper housing but it would take a lot more to get to affordable housing that is within a reasonable distance from job and population centers.

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