Sunday, November 17, 2013

MSPaint and Minimum Lot Size

I've had a few discussions lately around "Preserving the character of a town", ecology, and minimum lot size. People like to say that requiring larger lots leads to a more "rural" feel, and I disagree. I'm not going to pretend to use science here, but bear with me. I've also talked about some of the social aspects before, but I couldn't avoid digging into them again.

Compare these two communities:

* Disclaimer: Actually used Photoshop for the histogram to calculate color coverage and not MSPaint.

Both of these places are about 80% Green, open land. The top one (City) is about 6.3% red houses and the bottom one (Burb) is 4.75%. The remainder is roads: 14.3% in the top one, 15.1% in the bottom one.

Which one of these two communities is likely to have open space like operating farms or walking trails? Large sections of undisturbed land for wildlife habitat? City of course. Also, City has a higher population by at least 20% (more houses, assuming none are apartments, which are illegal in Burb) and possibly less money spent on road maintenance (fewer roads).

Why is it then that suburban communities do everything they can to look like the bottom map in the name of "preserving character?"

Let's say these two communities are in the same market. Assuming houses can't be built on existing roads because they'd be illegally close by town law, Burb is essentially full, whereas City is still half empty (Keep in mind that both are technically 80% open). If there is a demand for 1% more map coverage in housing, what happens? City absorbs most of it, and those who want the extra private space Burb offers push up the prices in that community, pushing those who can no longer afford it out. Those who prefer denser living have no problem finding affordable housing in City. The two communities begin to homogenize internally, and vary wildly externally. What if those that work in Burb can no longer afford to live there? Tough: Spend extra on a car and gas and commute from City to a community where you are not welcome as a voting citizen.

Meanwhile, Burb argues that they can't provide a nice community and a high-quality school system if they allow people of lesser means who pay less in taxes on smaller properties into the town, and there is merit to this.

Of course, no city around here looks like City, with the massive empty area around it (a Green Belt). Some cities elsewhere in the country and certainly in Europe look like that. Why? In a major metro like Boston with cold weather and rocky soil, housing is the most productive use for the land. Not farms (which are more productive and certainly more cost-effective elsewhere), and certainly not nothing at all. The only way to maintain empty land when there is a demand for more housing is to use the force of law to somehow make sure nothing is built on it. Aside from the lot size minimums used in Massachusetts, Portland, Oregon is famous in the US for legally requiring a Green Belt around the city while allowing high densities inside of it...this of course has its proponents and detractors as it creates some bizarre distortions of its own.

The liberals should hate the state-sponsored inequality here, and the libertarians should hate the government manipulation of markets. Does that mean the current system is entirely wrong? Not quite...

The only way to not require the force of law here would be to loosen the growth restriction laws that created these bizarre maps in the first place and allow supply to increase in-line with demand organically. If the demand for housing goes up the combined 2% coverage we're talking about and Burb didn't have exclusionary zoning laws in place, some people would subdivide their lots at a personal profit and allow new growth to occur. That, of course, fundamentally would alter the neighborhood for those who did not subdivide. There are two huge downsides for neighbors here: They now live in a place they didn't chose to live in, and if the new houses are--for whatever reason--a negative on property values, they have been injured in their most important investment on top of that. Others would build on huge lots in City and destroy the open space. Clearly, completely unrestricted growth isn't a great idea, either...for these reasons and many others.

However: Growth has been the story in the world for a very, very long time. We should expect it to continue. The way I see it we have two choices: Continue to sprawl outward and destroy the environment while ghettoizing an underclass in state-sponsored poverty zones, or liberalize our land use laws somewhat in places where it makes the most sense: near jobs, existing dense areas, and transit centers. This would certainly cause some pain for some people as the rules of the economic game change, but as a society, I figure we win... if only burb looked at it that way. I wonder who in this fictional town would protest the gaining of a large park and an expanded tax base (20% growth, now the same as City) with about 15-20% of the land of the city being changed: