Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times caught my eye recently and struck a chord. It describes the awful wealth gap that is increasing, seemingly by the day, with each newly minted tech billionaire in the San Francisco Bay Area. He reports that despite the fact that “the annual household income necessary to buy a median-priced home [in San Francisco] now tops $320,000,” California lawmakers recently killed Senate Bill 50, which would have undone zoning restrictions in the state. Changing these zoning restrictions would make it possible for more dense housing to be built, thereby increasing the supply and providing some relief to the non-billionaires in California.
One of the worst things about this, for me, is that the state senator who led the charge to kill this bill was Democrat Anthony Portantino. He represents Los Angeles-area communities like Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and other smaller exurbs east of L.A. where increased housing density is apparently not that popular. Shouldn’t democrats and liberal Californians (of all people!) be on the right side of the density issue?
Increased Density = More Sustainable Living
The benefits of increased housing density are many. Increased density in urban areas is advantageous for citizens’ health and well-being (lower rates of obesity, etc.), and is more environmentally friendly. It enables and supports sustainable forms of transportation (more walking, public transport, and biking; less driving). Density also has clear economic benefits - according to author and economics correspondent for The Economist Ryan Avent, “Economists studying cities routinely find that after controlling for other variables, workers in denser places earn higher wages and are more productive. Some studies suggest that doubling density raises productivity by around 6 percent while others peg the impact at up to 28 percent.”
In a century that will be tested like never before by the challenges of climate change, we can no longer afford the comforts of the past and we must embrace urban planning policies that will help limit climate change, rather than assist it (at worst) or look the other way (at best).
In My Own Backyard
In my own neighborhood of East Andersonville on Chicago’s North Side, a few blocks away from my apartment, residents petitioned the Alderman and city council to down-zone several blocks that are immediately east of the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood, Clark Street. The area in question was zoned “RT” (accommodates detached houses, two-flats, townhouses and low-density, multi-unit residential buildings) and they worked to down-zone these blocks to “RS” (detached houses on individual lots). The reason for this change was that developers had been buying neglected single-family homes on these blocks, tearing them down, and building 2-3 story/2-3-unit buildings in their place. The residents pushing for the down-zoning claimed that they wanted to “preserve the charm of the neighborhood.” Were some of the new buildings ugly? Absolutely. I understand the desire to have aesthetically pleasing architecture, but it seems to me there would have been ways to accomplish this by including architectural detail/style specifications in the building code for the zone if that’s what they really wanted. Remember, this zone is literally steps away from two major Chicago city bus lines, hundreds of cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops. This is not suburbia – this is a neighborhood in the 3rd largest city in the country.
“NIMBYism” isn’t always bad, of course. Obviously, if suddenly there was a proposal to build a sewage treatment plant next to where I lived, I would not be happy, and definitely would not want that in my backyard! But when the people who petitioned for this zoning change bought their homes, it was already zoned “RT” meaning they should have known full well what they were getting into. It’s a little like moving next to a sewage plant and then trying to shut down the sewage plant. And unfortunately, in this case they were successful: these blocks were de-zoned and there will be no future development of higher density buildings there.
I’m not suggesting some sort of “liberal purity test” here – I consider myself pretty liberal and progressive, but I still am far from perfect as far as living a model sustainable life goes (if there is such a thing). But when supposedly liberal-leaning people in large urban areas actively fight against growth, diversification, and relative affordability in their neighborhoods, that’s problematic to me.
Denser, Greener Urban Communities
Imagine instead, if the residents in the zone fought for changes to the regulations that specified historic character, provided guidelines for how new buildings interact with and affect natural light, gave consideration to green spaces and trees, required building materials from demolished structures to be recycled, and insisted that new buildings must be built with a very high standard of energy efficiency (perhaps LEED for Homes or ZNE-ready). In my view, that is a forward-looking urban planning policy; changing the zone to stop any progress just because one doesn’t like what that progress looks like hinders meaningful change.