Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth

with 3 comments

I was very pleased to see an email from Todd Litman in my in box this morning. He sent me the link to his new free report on Smart Growth. It is a pdf that I suggest you download and read, and keep for future reference.

Like all Todd’s work it is carefully researched, well documented and clearly reasoned. I wish one could say the same for the people that make the production of such reports necessary. For what Todd does is dismantle the claims of people like Wendell Cox and Alan Pisarski – but also the legion of those who love to recite the same mantra about “reducing choice” and “social engineering”. The kind of place we live is partly driven by the housing market, but in recent years in North America it was driven by a philosophy which has been shown to be bankrupt. Nevertheless, in our region and our province it is that philosophy that we re-elected, and it is that philosophy which is promoting sprawl across the Fraser Valley and some of the best farmland in Canada. The South Fraser Perimeter Road and the widening of Highway #1 is being undertaken under the subterfuge of “need” for port expansion and international trade, but in reality is about making money from real estate. Especially from converting real estate that commands a low price – mostly agricultural, but some “marginal” land as well – into highly profitable speculative housing development – as well as the usual highway oriented services that are then “required”.

The one thing that seems to me to be missing from Todd’s analysis is the real estate bubble that was promoted in the United States from securitized mortgages. The removal of regulatory controls – first on the savings and loan business and later on banks in general – fed the seemingly insatiable desire for ever larger homes and the consumer lifestyle that could be financed from the equity of homes in an ever rising market. It was even known at the time that this could not be sustained – as the first S&L crisis had demonstrated. But somehow the irrational optimism that characterizes all market bubbles held sway.

“It is clear that most people, excepting a small but often very loud minority, opt for lower density living when income permits.” Pisarski

Actually their income did not permit it. What did permit it were lax lending rules – and methods of selling mortgages which ignored long established links between proven income and lending policy. After all this fell apart very quickly – when it was finally admitted that was impossible to place any value on the bundles of mortgages being traded in huge quantities. And instead of allowing the market to work, all of a sudden the “invisible hand” and “wisdom” of market was forgotten and publicly financed bailouts were arranged – mainly to ensure that a few very well rewarded but clearly incompetent (if not fraudulent) people continued to enjoy a luxurious life, at public expense. Very little of the bailout money actually went to households who had got caught out. Those people simply had to walk away from their homes and hope to find someone who would let them share their home. The fall out from the vast amounts of money created to paper over the cracks in the system  has yet to be completely worked through, and those who think we are climbing out of recession now seem to ignore the huge and highly unstable pile of debt which has yet to topple over, as it inevitably will.

Todd is probably right to ignore this too. After all he is arguing about land use, and he is also addressing a Canadian audience which is currently being a bit smug about he fact that our banking system seems to be a bit more robust than that of the US or UK. And Canadian metropolitan areas have managed to sprawl, if not as much as their American counterparts at least enough to threaten our ability to grow our own food – which is going to be a very important concern in the coming years.

One thing that Canada did much better than the US was to build public housing in ways that avoided the worst excesses of “the projects”, which so effectively disgraced the whole idea of publicly funded and provided housing. It is still possible to find pockets of very well designed homes In Canada that people on low incomes can afford but anybody would want to live in, given the opportunity. For a while there was a variety of housing tenures available here, which meant we did not have to obsessed with home ownership to the exclusion of all else. There was even a regulated private sector for rental housing which produced some decent housing. One of the sadder results of the obsession with reducing public spending and “getting the government out of people’s lives” is that these advances were thrown away and seemingly forgotten about.

The point that Todd does make, and I am happy to endorse, having made it myself here before, is that the alternative of low density, car oriented development is just as much about “social engineering” as any other option. The dominant pattern of development in the US is also the product of regulation – and some very complex zoning and transportation planning regulations and requirements. It is not simply the result of a “free market” that expresses consumers’ desires so much as a highly manipulated system that produces outcomes that are favourable to the very small number of corporate investors who control Wall Street. And who spent a great deal of time and effort to sell this “American dream” – not just there but around the world.

Not much is likely to change here in the short term, but research and well though out policies will be needed eventually. And that is when this document will be really useful. In the meantime I hope it has some influence in the few municipalities that are not entirely in the pockets of the real estate developers.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2009 at 9:12 am

Posted in housing, Urban Planning

3 Responses

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  1. Right now families in Canada, and most especially in the lower Mainland, don’t have much of a choice. We have to buy whatever the developers build.
    For a given (absurd) price we can get a tiny downtown condo with a Juliette balcony OR a midtown townhouse (without a garden) that only “feels” big because it is stacked on several floors OR a bigger townhouse on 2 floors -still without even a mini garden– in the suburbs right over some bridge OR a bigger than the above–but not huge by any means– house in the boonies with a bit of a garden.
    A multiple choice that is no choice at all …reminds one of who to choose in an election…

    Besides the usual deficiencies in workmanship and poor lay out owners of new homes here also must accept the same fixtures, appliances etc. (already obsolete in other parts of the world) as in every other development build that year..

    Contrast this with the way it is done in other countries..houses, even for families with moderate means, are pretty much custom-built and no they aren’t any more expensive–and quite often less in fact, everything considered, than the new places we buy from developers here.
    A buyer will buy an empty lot in a new subdivision and the builder will ask him to choose one house, out of many he has in his portfolio, that match his budget, the size of the family etc. then modify it to suit. The layout of the house and everything inside will be as you like it-so to speak.

    Most people do not choose to live in a high or low density area. The first and only true criteria is the price. This is how I ended up in Coquitlam after years of renting close to Downtown. After the birth of another child a colleague sold his now too small condo in Metrotown. After a 8 months search he very reluctantly got an older house in Surrey. We both HAD to be close to a SkyTrain stop. Everything else was beyond our control (tastes, expectations etc.)

    Anyone familiar with towns in Eastern Canada and the Eastern USA (and old enough to have lived in many places) has likely had the experience of living in solid old row houses (close to downtown even in Toronto and Montreal) that had a backyard..Houses somewhat reminiscent in basic layout of the row houses found in Europe, Asia etc.
    Or they have lived in old fashioned apartment buildings with big rooms and high ceilings etc. Both these “old fashioned” row houses and apartments are medium density housing yet much more pleasant that what we can find here. And more to the point they are part of a whole dense neighbourhood.

    I once lived and worked in a “new town”, one of many similar ones built within a few years during the Middle Ages. These towns were built on what had formerly been woods or fields so they could have spread out far and wide yet they all adopted the relatively compact format of towns built by the Romans, Chinese and other old civilizations. Streets on a rectangular grid, housing lots that were deep but relatively narrow in front, a central square with stores all around it and also public buildings. The argument that the HAD to be compact because they had no means of speedy transport doesn’t wash because they had to work in the fields and woods way outside the town (by walking or riding horses or donkeys) but also because during these times hordes of people walked huge distances all over Europe (pilgrimages were the only vacation allowed to most..and as the Canterbury Tales show they were even a naughty break from the routine)

    Red frog

    September 8, 2009 at 9:45 pm

  2. Where I live it appears nobody wants a garden anymore.

    While the city still requires large (too large in my opinion) setbacks from the property line and many still grow a little grass out front, the east side is almost devoid of back yards. Many lots simply aren’t deep enough to allow much more than the obligatory garage, but those with extra depth are mostly covered with concrete or asphalt. Even with Vancouver specials on corner lots where access to the integrated two car garage is from the side, most of the back yards are paved to provide even more parking. Now certainly the fact that so many homes in the city contain suites, legal or otherwise, expands the need for parking, but when a 33’x120′ lot has 6 vehicles parked on it there’s a serious problem with both our society and the built environment that society has created.

    My house dates from the early 1950s. We bought it from the original owner and it’s not had many upgrades. Not only does it have gardens, there’s no fence around the front yard. The next door neighbours have also chosen to go without a fence around the front so there’s a really nice green space that’s big enough for a yard sale, badminton game, etc. that’s only interrupted by a pair of sidewalks. I really hate the current practice of surrounding every front yard with a thick concrete wall.

    The new plan to have laneway housing in Vancouver is going to eliminate most of the remaining back yards in favor of more concrete. While I understand the desire for more density, if there is no ground to soak up the rain and nothing growing, the problems of the city will only get worse.


    September 8, 2009 at 11:15 pm

  3. […] 1st big test gets mixed grade [CBC] Why I’m Moving to Salt Spring: Green Leader [The Tyee] Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth [Stephen Rees's Blog] Housing affordability improves, RBC says [CBC] B.C. leads the way as […]

    re:place Magazine

    September 9, 2009 at 7:39 am

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