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Land-use policies at heart of housing crisis

Smart growth demands that communities balance concern for the environment, the economy and social equity. If public policies favor one of these concerns over the others, society suffers.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a growing trend around the country that puts social issues, including housing needs, on a back burner. The result is a growing housing crisis that affects families across the economic spectrum and places extreme pressures on low-income to moderate-income families.

Priced out of reach
Housing costs in many of the nation's major metropolitan areas are soaring. As prices rise, millions of working families are struggling to afford a home that meets their needs.

Many families are just one small crisis away from homelessness. More than half of the nation's 7.2 million lowest-income working families spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Over the next 10 years, the U.S. population will increase by about 24 million. New households are being formed at a rate of about one million per year, and those families need homes.

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Policies that restrict the availability of land for residential development increase the cost of housing beyond the means of many working families. Yet lost in the ongoing debate over growth is a clear understanding of the economics of development and the market forces driving demand for housing.

Land-use restrictions hurt families
In many places, planners and local elected officials talk about meeting the housing needs of all families, but their policies are focused on slowing growth or maintaining -- even increasing -- the exclusivity of their communities.

Instead of promoting housing, they adopt policies that restrict the supply of buildable land and increase the cost of housing. These policies include large-lot zoning, urban growth boundaries, creation of massive agricultural reserves and restrictions on multifamily housing.

Despite all the talk about smart growth, little is being done to overcome the inertia of existing planning and land-use policies.

What can we do to improve our communities, meet housing needs and protect the environment? Two key challenges must be overcome.

First, communities must revise outdated land-use regulations. If a city, town or county does not revise its zoning codes and development regulations, then no one should be surprised when it does not get architecturally diverse, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use communities.

People say they want communities like Shaker Heights, Ohio, or Alexandria, Va. Well, Shaker Heights was planned and built about 90 years ago, and George Washington walked the streets of a thriving Alexandria when he was a young man.

In most places, zoning and development codes simply don't allow those kinds of communities to be built any longer. If that's what citizens want, then they'll probably have to alter their community's zoning and development codes in order to get it.

Second, communities must overcome NIMBY, the "not-in-my-back-yard" resistance to legitimate development proposals. Often, a local government will talk about smart growth and policy makers may even adopt smart growth codes and regulations. But when a developer proposes a smart growth project, the neighbors say: "No way. We don't want that kind of development here. We don't want that kind of density in our back yard."

Smart growth requires courage
If a community puts together a comprehensive plan and a zoning plan, and says, "We want development here," then we need leaders who have the political will to say, "This development is in the best interests of the community."

City officials can't say they're for smart growth, then back down every time a small group of people complains about an approved project that meets the vision of the comprehensive plan.

Whatever they do, planners and elected officials must take into account the needs and desires of consumers. They should develop policies that enable consumers to have those elements of home and community and the amenities that are most important to them, and do so in ways that protect the environment and promote economic development.

History repeatedly demonstrates that policies that disregard the power of the marketplace are doomed to failure.

Policy makers must resist the temptation to impose top-down solutions to local growth-related challenges. Instead, they should create policies that allow consumer preferences to guide their communities to a sustainable vision of smart growth that maximizes quality of life, economic development and preservation of natural resources.

Embrace our common goals
We all want the same things. We want a nice house that provides a safe, nurturing environment for our families. We want to protect natural resources and improve air and water quality. And we want thriving communities that will stand the test of time.

Our best hope lies in more communication and cooperation among citizens, local policy makers, home builders and others who care about the quality of the places where we all live, work and play.

We can overcome the problems associated with growth if we recognize common concerns and work together to create great homes, great neighborhoods and great communities.

-- Posted: March 5, 2003
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