When will New Jersey reverse its sprawling ways?

by Stephen Smith

New Jersey has always been an odd state – it’s the most densely populated of the fifty, and yet it lies just outside of the core of both of its metro areas (Philadelphia and New York). North Jersey does have a formidable number of mid-sized cities, but the biggest – Newark – is a posterchild for urban neglect, and New Jersey’s urban areas play a tepid second fiddle to their much larger counterparts across the Delaware and the Hudson. New Jersey’s appeal lies undeniably in its suburbs, which are connected by a network of government-built roads and enabled by anti-density development rules.

Despite New Jersey’s predilection for sprawl, the New York Times reports that the state may literally be running out of horizontal space. A Rutgers study claims that around the middle of the 21st century New Jersey will become the first state to develop all its unprotected land development trends remain unchanged.

The NYT article then claims that denser redevelopment is on the rise and cites a few of anecdotes as evidence, but frankly I’m not convinced that the state is very reform-minded when it comes to its density-limiting regulations. Even among the examples given by the Times we see the limits of reform: a 217-unit luxury rental apartment building near the Morristown NJ Transit station – an area that was supposedly rezoned as a “Transit Village Core” a decade ago – was only allowed to go forward after the developer agreed to build 722 new parking spaces.

On a more general level, New Jersey’s experiment with zoning reform in the ’70s and ’80s has been severely disappointing in terms of liberalization. Researcher James Mitchell used decisions handed down around the same time by both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Supreme Courts to compare the effects on housing in the Philadelphia suburbs, which are split between the two states. Pennsylvania’s courts essentially forced municipalities to upzone parts of their towns and allow for attached townhouses and apartment buildings, whereas New Jersey’s courts’ famous Mount Laurel decisions created a precedent that relied heavily on inclusionary zoning, which offers zoning bonuses and financial incentives in exchange for a certain proportion of the units being designated as “affordable housing” – i.e., sold or rented below cost. Mitchell found that Pennsylvania’s approach was more effective at promoting development of townhouses and apartment buildings, without relying on any of the bonuses, subsidies, or developer mandates of the New Jersey model.

Recent events in the state have not been kind to the cause of urbanism and density, either. While I’m not as sold on the necessity of the expensive and ill-conceived ARC project to build another commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson, the bigger crime is that Governor Chris Christie is scraping the project because he wants to use the $2.7 billion to make good on his pledge not to raise the state gas tax (already one of the lowest in the country) – a clear electoral giveaway to suburban constituents who want the whole state to subsidize their driving. It demonstrates that New Jersey’s legacy of interstates and highways is not easily left behind, despite the vague nationwide trend towards cities.

So, could a lack of undeveloped land actually force New Jersey to overcome decades of inertia and reverse its sprawling ways? California has survived with similarly stringent land use rules despite being a poorer state, and New Jersey has significant geographic and economic assets to sustain itself despite a rise in housing costs. New Jersey probably has a ways to go before sprawl’s negatives overwhelm the state’s positives, so the real question is, will it wisen up before it gets to that point, or will it have to hit rock bottom before it allows itself to densify?

Must Read: The Demand Curve for Sprawl Slopes Downward

Sandy Ikeda’s latest article at FEE’s “The Freeman” is a great summary of the libertarian sprawl debate.

There has been a lot of Internet chatter lately about what libertarians ought to think about urban sprawl and its causes, including pieces by Kevin Carson, Austin Bramwell, Randal O’Toole, and Matthew Yglesias. The title of Ben Adler’s post basically sums it up: “If You Love the Free Market, You Should Hate Mandated Suburban Sprawl.”

Sandy includes a mention of the ongoing minimum parking debate. Sandy concludes that the more the government subsidizes items related to low-density development, the more low-density development we’ll get.

But the bottom line is that the law of demand still holds – other things equal, the cheaper you make something the more of it people will want to buy, and that includes low-density development. You’ll get more of that, too, if those direct and indirect subsidies make it cheaper for people to get it. Government intervention has done just that, and it’s hard to understand how you can argue, whether you’re a proponent or (especially) an opponent of Smart Growth, that the free market alone is responsible for the amount of sprawl that we actually have.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Smart Growth regulations are the place to begin. Instead, if you think sprawl is a bad thing, it would seem logical to first remove the vast array of interventions that over the decades have pushed it along.

On this, I would have thought all market urbanists could agree.

Well said!

Do We Need “New Urbanism” To Fix “Unwalkable Sprawl”?

At Volokh, Ilya Somin discusses a recent piece in the American Prospect (also linked from here) that favors “New Urbanism” to prevent “unwalkable” sprawl.  Somin favors “voting with your feet” as the preferred method of satisfying location preferences.  Unfortunately, voting options have been whittled down through government interventions:

To the extent that we do need to enable more people to live in densely populated urban areas, it’s far from clear that government planning is the best way to achieve that goal. We can better achieve the same objective by cutting back on planning rather than increasing it. In many large cities, the cost of housing is artificially inflated by restrictive zoning laws, which tends to price out the poor and some middle class people. In the suburbs, as Adler points out, zoning policies sometimes artificially decrease density, for example by forbidding "mixed use" neighborhoods where commercial and residential uses are in close proximity to each other.

The ultimate question is whether we should trust deeper interventions into land use to fix the complete failure of past interventions.  Long before “New Urbanism” was the progressive utopian ideal, sprawling, auto-friendly and trolley-free, single-family suburbs was their “American Dream”.  But, progressives quickly forget their history when it turns out their past visions created something they are now supposed to hate:

Like previous generations of planners, the new urbanists often ignore the diversity of human preferences. Some people do indeed like high-density "walkable" environments. Others prefer to have more space and more peace and quiet. Neither preference is inherently superior to the other. To paraphrase a popular liberal slogan, we should celebrate diversity, not seek to use urban planning to force everyone to live the same lifestyle whether they want to or not.

The post evokes the typical variety of comments ranging from standard defense of suburbs as a rational choice to the favored Market Urbanist arguments.  (Happily, market urbanist ideas seem to be gaining popularity.)  As guest Market Urbanism writer, Stephen Smith correctly pointed out to the commenters:

It’s so sad when supposed libertarians defend the current transportation/land use situation, because in my opinion it’s one of the most profoundly damaging interventions in the American economy today.

“Misbuilding” the Future, Again…

From "Highway to hell revisited", a Financial Times article by Christopher Caldwell:

The Highway Act probably has more defenders than detractors. But Mr Obama should be among the latter. The act, which budgeted $25bn in federal money to build 41,000 miles of motorway, exacerbated the very problems Mr Obama has been most eager to solve – spoliation of the environment, dependence on foreign oil, overburdening of state and local budgets, abandonment of the inner-city poor and reckless speculation in real-estate development, to name a few.

The article goes on to discuss the history of the Highway act of 1956, some of the problems it caused, and critiques of the sprawl caused by the dangerous feedback-loop created by over allocating resources to infrastructure.  I recommend reading the whole article, which concludes:

The infrastructure network that came out of the Highway Act had higher overheads than the one it replaced. It became a bottomless pit of spending.

The largest building project in Mr Obama’s Recovery Act is $27bn for roads, and there have been no complaints that the government will have a hard time finding things to spend it on.  The US has big economic problems. But they have been made worse, and harder to resolve, by a half-century in which, at federal urging, the country was misbuilt.

There is an inherent bias in favour of government projects. The successes can be mythologised through commemoration, goading future generations to imitate them. The failures are fixable only through equally extensive projects to undo them. This makes it easy to forget that there is no social or economic problem so big that a poorly targeted government intervention cannot make it worse.

On the subject of “misbuilding”, this Onion video is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while, and is pretty much how I view highway spending:
In The Know: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?

Redistribution (a follow up)

I threw up Friday’s Redistribution post somewhat hastily during my break, but there isn’t much more that I haven’t said before.  As a follow-up, I’d like to tie it in with some other interesting reads.

Ryan Avent at The Bellows agreed with Yglesias’ post and added:

Anyway, I saw in Google reader that libertarian intellectual Will Wilkinson had shared Matt’s post, presumably because he agreed with it. And indeed, this is one of those times when libertarians and liberals can find common cause. On the other hand, most of Cato’s planner types vigorously defend suburban sprawl and highway construction, and vigorously oppose smart growth and transit construction, despite the obvious point that it takes an immense web of regulations and subsidies to support rapid suburban and exurban growth.

Over here! Ryan, Will! We’re over here!…

Definitely check out The Bellows post. Will Wilkinson stopped in to comment, too.

I think the “common cause” concept was conveyed well in Ed Glaeser’s recent NY Times piece, called The Case for Small-Government Egalitarianism. Harvard’s Glaeser reaches out for “common cause” between libertarians and progressives – kinda like the links between Free-Markets and Urbanism:

Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged. Was the Interstate Highway System such a boon for the urban poor? Has rebuilding New Orleans done much for the displaced and disadvantaged of that city? Small-government egalitarianism suggests that direct transfers of federal money to the less fortunate offer a surer path toward a fairer America.

and

Many of my favorite causes, like fighting land use regulations that make it hard to build affordable housing, aid the poor by reducing the size of government. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I also argued that it would be far better to give generous checks to the poor hurt by the storm than to spend billions rebuilding the city, because those rebuilding efforts would inevitably help connected contractors more than ordinary people.

Urbanism is an area where free-market folks and progressive city dwellers can work together and share knowledge on so many concepts – I think we’ll find we have more in common than what’s on the surface.  As Noah Millman puts it:

But forgive me if I question the proposition that any political group is actually purely rational, and actually acting entirely out of concern for the common good. People who are, fundamentally, more distrustful of big government because they are convinced it will inevitably become the tool of special interests against the common good will be more alive to the kinds of things that can go wrong with big-government solutions than will other kinds of liberals who lack that basic distrust. By the same token, libertarians might be more likely to be won over to liberal perspectives if liberals can articulate arguments that libertarians would respect about how their policy proposals will actually limit government capture by special interests.

Taxing Land Speculation

Bill Hudnut at the Urban Land Institute wrote a post that attracted some attention at Austin Contrarian and Overhead Wire. Hudnut discusses a different approach to taxing land:

How about restructuring the property tax across America to install a two-tiered system? More tax on those horizontal pieces of empty land and asphalt, less on the buildings. That is, reduce the tax rate on homes and other improvements, and substantially increase the rate on the site value. I think such a system would induce more compact development and more infill work.

It sure would induce more development.

Higher taxes on the land, lower taxes on the building, discourages a land holder from leaving his land fallow and speculating on its increased value, and conversely, encourages improvements on the land and redevelopment. The monograph used Sydney Australia as a case study, but its general point, that a site value tax system puts “pressure on owners to sell their property for redevelopment if they cannot or will not redevelop it themselves.”

Note that ULI is an organization primarily of real estate developers, investors, and related professions. (I am a member.) So, I can see why developers would favor a mechanism that would force more land into development.

Overall, this type of scheme will help drive development in the short run, but be harmful in the long-run.  By encouraging development in the present by discouraging land speculation, we can expect a few consequences:

  • Speculators play an important role in the land market, even if we don’t like the surface parking lots they often operate on their land.  Speculators essentially hold the land until development is optimal for the site, and all sites cannot be optimally built at once. Discouraging speculation drives the land into the hands of developers at cheaper prices than current market prices.
  • At the same time in reaction to the new tax regime, all the new developers will compete for users of the space they are building on the vacant land. This either means they’ll build smaller in anticipation of the glut of new development, or vacancy rates will be much higher.
  • The new supply of space will likely serve to lower rents and condo prices, but this will only be temporary as available development sites quickly disappear.
  • Had speculators been forced to build on their lots, less dense, and less optimal buildings would be in their place, and a future developer faces the opportunity cost of demolishing that building. This would be similar to developing in New York, where vacant parcels are very rare, compared with developing in Chicago where developable parcels are relatively plentiful.  There is a huge affordability gap between New York and Chicago, which can be partially attributed the the availability of development sites.
  • It will harm the diversity of building age that Jane Jacobs claims as a key ingredient that makes for great cities. The stock of buildings will be disproportionately represented by buildings built shortly after the tax scheme is enacted. As new development occurs, affluent people will be attracted to the developing areas. As these buildings depreciate, the more affluent will relocate. Without enough diversity, over a long period of time a neighborhood will be predominantly lower-class residents.
  • This under-developed scenario will breed NIMBYism over the years, as the new development will be of lower density than under current taxes.  Residents will likely be resistant to future higher density development of sites to meet market demand.  However, new development would necessarily involve demolition of existing lower-density buildings, which is costly from an opportunity cost point of view, as well as community relations.

I do favor some regional, state, or other tax based upon acreage. (if offsetting income tax or other productivity-stifling taxes)  However, I would implement the tax to discourage sprawl, not to discourage speculation.  Thus, I would tax each acre equally, whether developed or vacant.  Encouraging development of vacant land may only serve to encourage lower density development as a “tax payer”, as opposed to a more optimal use of the land. As long as density isn’t overly restricted, speculation can allow for higher density, and more optimal land use in the long run.

By burdening speculators, we should expect speculation to shift to under-optimal “development” like this:

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Urban[ism] Legend: Is Houston really unplanned?

by Stephen Smith

It seems to be an article of faith among many land use commentators – both coming from the pro- and anti-planning positions – that Houston is a fundamentally unplanned city, and that whatever is built there is the manifest destiny of the free market in action. But is this true? Did Houston really escape the planning spree that resulted from Progressive Era obsessions with local planning and the subsequent grander plans of the post-WWII age of the automobile? Michael Lewyn, in a paper published in 2005, argues that commentators often overlook Houston’s subtler land use strictures, and recent developments in the city’s urban core reaffirm this.

It is definitely true that Houston lacks one of the oldest and most well-known planning tools: Euclidean single-use zoning. This means that residential, commercial, and industrial zones are not legally separated, though as I will explain later, Houston remains as segregated in its land uses as any other American city. But single-use zoning is not the only type of planning law that Houston’s government can use to hamper development.

As Lewyn lays out in his paper, minimum lot sizes and minimum parking regulations abound in this supposedly unplanned City upon a Floodplain. He discusses a recently-amended law that all but precludes the building of row houses, a stalwart of dense urban areas (the paper is heavily cited and poorly formatted, so I’ve removed the citations):

Until 1998, Houston’s city code provided that the minimum lot size for detached single-family dwellings was 5000 square feet. And until 1998, Houston’s government made it virtually impossible for developers to build large numbers of non-detached single-family homes such as townhouses, by requiring townhouses to sit on at least 2250 square feet of land. As Siegan admits, this law “tend[ed] to preclude the erection of lower cost townhouses” and thus effectively meant that townhouses “cannot be built for the lower and lower middle income groups.” Houston’s townhouse regulations, unlike its regulations governing detached houses, were significantly more restrictive than those of other North American cities. For example, town houses may be as small as 647 square feet of land in Dallas, 560 square feet in Phoenix, and 390 square feet in Toronto, Canada.

Though this law was eventually changed to allow denser homes within Houston’s ring road (though not nearly as dense as some American cities allow), this change only affected a quarter of Houston’s homeowners, leaving the rest still as regulated as ever. Not to mention the fact that even for those within the ring road, the rules only matter to new construction, leaving the vast majority of the building stock in compliance with the old rules.

typical parking lot encouraged by minimum parking standardsNot to be outdone by minimum lot restrictions, the parking planners are also hard at work in Houston. As Donald Shoup explains in his magnum opus on parking regulations and the free market, minimum parking regulations are an oft-used and under-appreciated way for city planners to decrease density, push development farther from the city’s core, increase an area’s auto dependency, and decrease walkability and the viability of mass transit. Houston’s planning code mandates that developers, regardless of what they perceive as the actual demand, build 1.25 parking spaces per apartment bedroom, and 1.33 spaces per efficiency apartment. Retail stores are also saddled with these parking minimums, and even bars as Lewyn notes are required to build “10 parking spaces per 1000 feet of gross area,” flying in the face of common sense. To add insult to injury, the city requires that structures on major roads have a significant setback from the street, and the only rational thing to do with this unbuildable space is to put the mandated parking there, meaning that Houston actual codifies the hideous and inconvenient parking lot-out-front model of sprawl that is so typical across the US.

Another form of planning that Houston has, which is celebrated by the self-titled Antiplanner, is the institution of supposedly voluntary deed restrictions, or private land use covenants agreed upon by the owners of the property under restriction. I’m personally torn over the “libertarianness” of such schemes – are they truly voluntary? Can an individual owner of a property opt out of them once they’ve been signed? What’s the statute of limitations? One thing that makes me suspect that they perhaps aren’t as “free market” as they seem is that though the contracts are between individuals, Houston’s city code allows the city attorney to prosecute these lawsuits at no cost to the supposed victims – fellow property-owners. In this way, as Lewyn explains, Houston’s land uses are just as “Euclidean” as in other American cities:

But in Houston, restrictive covenants are so heavily facilitated by government involvement that they resemble zoning regulation almost as much as they resemble traditional contracts. Houston’s city code, unlike that of most American cities, allows the city attorney to sue to enforce restrictive covenants. The city may seek civil penalties of up to $1,000.00 per day for violation of a covenant. Thus, Houston forces its taxpayers to subsidize enforcement of restrictive covenants even when litigation is too costly for individuals to pursue. In its covenant litigation, the city focuses on enforcement of use restrictions (that is, covenant provisions requiring separation of uses), as opposed to enforcement of other restrictions such as aesthetic rules. By subsidizing enforcement of use restrictions, Houston’s city government subsidizes segregation of land uses–and in fact, land uses in Houston are only slightly less segregated than in most cities with zoning codes.

More recently, Houston’s supposedly laissez-faire attitudes towards planning have again been tested by the proposed 23-story tower at 1717 Bissonnet Street. The tower would have been in a low-rise residential neighborhood, within walking distance of Rice University. After years of wrangling, the project was finally denied by the city, on grounds that the developers failed to prove that the project would not adversely affect traffic flow (a pretty arbitrary and un-libertarian requirement considering Houston’s legendary congestion and the fact that developers have little say over where the city places its roads). And this, despite the fact that many of the tower’s prospective residents – Rice students and staff – could have either walked or biked to school/work.

Boosters of Houston’s land use policy – those who believe that Houston’s land use patterns are the free market, revealed – never mention the restrictive minimum lot size and minimum parking requirements. They mention deed restrictions as free market innovations but fail to see how the city’s prosecutors turn private concerns into public budget drains. And though the Antiplanner in his aforelinked comments on Houston recognizes the anti-density movement that reared its ugly head after the 1717 Bissonnet proposal, he evidently doesn’t see this as seriously detracting from Houston’s anything-goes land use policy.

This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.


This post is part of an ongoing series featured on Market Urbanism called Urbanism Legends. The Urbanism Legends series is intended to expose many of the myths about development and Urban Economics. (it’s a play on the term: “Urban Legends” in case you didn’t catch that)

To receive future Urbanism Legends posts, subscribe to the Market Urbanism feed by email or RSS reader here. If you come across an interesting Urbanism Legend, let me know by email or in the comments and I’ll make a post debunking the myth. Of course, I’ll give you credit for the tip and any contributions to the post you make…

Euclid’s Legacy

While well intentioned, like many progressive interventions of the eary 1900s, zoning has contributed to sprawl (which has begun to be demonized by progressives over the recent decades) and served to inhibit the vitality and diversity of urban neighborhoods. The triumph of the core philosophy behind Euclid vs. Ambler later enabled destructive urban renewal projects using eminent domain to displace entire neighborhoods, the emergence of unfriendly NIMBY activism, and more recently helped give legitimacy to the decision in the highly controversial Kelo v. New London Supreme Court Case.

Steve at Urban Review STL, a Saint Louis-based urbanism blog, wrote a great summary of Euclidean Zoning in the US.

The solution to these urban ills was zoning. Cities would create “land use” maps segregating industrial, office, retail, and housing. Early efforts were often used to keep industry from spoiling more pleasant areas of town. In Ohio the Village of Euclid, a Cleveland suburb, enacted zoning in 1921 to keep Cleveland’s industry out of its jurisdiction.

A property owner viewed the restriction on the future use of their land as a “taking” by the government and filed suit. The case, Village of Euclid, Ohio v Ambler Realty, went all they way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A lower court had ruled the zoning law to be in conflict with the Ohio & U.S. Constitutions. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed and reversed the lower court’s ruling. Their November 22, 1926 ruling declared use zoning as legal. Since then it has been known as “Euclidean zoning.”

In the 82 years since the Supreme Court validated the zoning ordinance for the Village of Euclid, Ohio we’ve managed to take a simple concept — keeping out heavy industry — to a point beyond reasonable. Cities and their suburbs now over regulate uses on land. Residential areas, for example, are broken down by single-family, two-family, multi-family. Even within Single-family you have different sections requiring different minimum lot sizes.

“Exclusionary zoning” is the term used when zoning is such that it excludes that which might be perceived as undesirable. For example, if a municipality has al their residential zoning so that lots sizes must be at least 3 acres in size. Minimum house size is another way to keep out more affordable housing options. Similarly, maximum sizes for apartments means those will end up being kid-free zones. It is one thing for a developer to set project specific standards but another for government to mandate it.

Houston is famous for its lack of Euclidean zoning. It does, however, have regulations such as 5,000 sq. ft. minimum lot size for a single family house. In Houston, according to Wikipedia, “Apartment buildings currently must have 1.33 parking spaces per bedroom, and 1.25 for each efficiency.” These sorts of rules produce the same results – sprawl and auto dependency.

Here’s a link to the source (Planetizen: Zoning Without Zoning) of that Wikipedia quote.