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:


  1. The difference I see between the two extremes is that the entirety of the Burb enjoys personal elbow-room, and knows the only way to keep it is to fight passionately against any additional incursions into their personal space. (Mass collusion via restrictive zoning guarantees it continues that way). In the City, folks are disconnected from open space, and less emotionally invested in fighting to keep it, and zoning restrictions continue to be relatively lax on additional development. One of the more aggressive attacks on restrictive zoning in MA is "Chapter 40B", where consistency of higher land/property values in Burbs, and coincident lack of availability of moderate-value housing, triggers State-authorized allowances for developers to get past local zoning restrictions and increase the housing density. Opponents cite insufficient infrastructure to support additional population, but it's hard for a City resident to feel sorry for anyone given the inequity of property values, and the burden shouldered by City residents for all those requiring social support who can't afford to stay in a Burb, and so wind up in a City instead.

  2. My bone with 40B, aside from if the communities can support it or not being a fair question, is how little there seems to be in terms of smart development thought behind them. I hate pod-housing as a rule, and I don't see how building a bunch of houses or apartment buildings right on top of each other on an isolated cul-de-sac does anybody any favors: We shouldn't shoot to look like California. The smaller towns should be planning more for intelligent growth instead of waiting for 40B to force unintelligent growth on them.

  3. I think this is a quite eloquent description of the reasons for and disadvantages of suburban settlement patterns! However, I believe that saying that Boston sprawls because development is a higher use than farming might be misleading. Although the land ultimately goes to whatever legal use will pay the most, I suspect proximity and access to Boston is a much larger factor than New England's rocky soil. Notably, in most cases, farming is a better return to towns than housing, because although the tax income is low, crops don't need schools or police. Every house is a net loss for a city; every farm (or office block) is a net gain.

    Because of the advantages you outline and a desire to control growth, a town government would probably wish it could have dense development in its core and a greenbelt. However, establishing the greenbelt means either spending a lot of money for parks or taking substantial land value away from property owners who are in that belt.

    Therefore, I believe towns rely on the only other way to control the number of people who want services that real estate taxes don't quite pay for: large-lot zoning. I think this appears to residents/voters who can keep their "elbow room." Some towns offer flexibility to developers who set aside a small portion of land for conservation and group houses together, but this seems to often create a patchwork of small greens in-between housing pods far from employment and shopping.

  4. Clearly, especially in suburban markets where schools are the great majority of the budget, households with multiple school-aged children are a huge expense. Tyngsboro, on a quick Googling, pays $11k per pupil, and the average SFH tax bill is about half that.

    I didn't mean to imply that the town government wouldn't prefer farms - just that the land value due to the proximity to a major metro compounded by the marginal agricultural value of the land makes it less attractive for farming than better soil further from cities (and America produces more than enough food). Because of that, the *highest and best use* of the land is likely to be housing.

    Dense development causes issues to town governments as well because it requires more complex infrastructure. Unless something has changed, to pick on Tyngsboro again, they still don't have a full-time fire department or equipment to fight fires above the third floor of a building. The only water and sewer they have is what they pay for from Lowell. At last count, Dunstable--which is physically the size of Lowell--had three police cruisers!

    To go back to my final doodle where i laid a dense town over the sprawl, clearly winners and losers have been chosen here by government: Let's say that I live on an acre lot across the street from another house on an acre lot. The law changes across the street from me and now I live across the street from four 1/4 acre lots. Assuming the land value hasn't fallen, the city probably is behind this and the former owner probably doesn't mind too much as the number of taxable properties just quadrupled. However, now my neighborhood is much denser and noisier without adding anything that would actually increase property value. What do we do here? Perhaps I lobby to split my lot as well and sell off the side lots?

    It's an interesting issue I think and one that has gotten so complex by the creation of the automobile. Before the car, there was a lot more value to living near work or near transit, and development progressed on a human scale. Today, proximity is often considered a bad thing. 100 years on and we're still trying to figure out how to live with the car.

  5. I know what you mean about cluster-zones as well. They do create more conservation land, but at least around here, they still are at very suburban density. Here's one in Tyngsboro built around an old quarry: Meanwhile, over in Tewksbury, they are building denser by the sort of pod housing that would make your average Angelino shudder:

  6. Corey, I think 40B was intended more as a threat than as an effective tool for managing growth. (The theory being that the fear of unrestricted high-rise apartments full of low-income residents would prompt Burb people to re-think their zoning approaches, and be proactive in remedying the lack of moderate-priced housing in their communities). Having a Burb/City plan that lays out the areas to be developed, the areas to be preserved, and the infrastructure to accommodate social and logistical needs, can direct developers to behave in more constructive and cooperative ways. Of course, Burb mentality being what it is, 40B mostly just guarantees soul-less, shoe-horned abominations and hard feelings all around. I do think you hit the nail on the head when you muse on transportation issues, the perverse impact of automobiles on growth patterns, and recovering the value of mixed commercial and residential zones. (One of the reasons I love Lowell so much is that the residential and commercial areas coexist in a way that's extremely rare in Eastern Massachusetts.).

  7. Thought you might enjoy this blog and post.

  8. Interesting. I thought I followed Strong Towns on Facebook but I don't. I just corrected that (Atlantic Cities just picked up the article).

    I forget where I read it, but I heard an interesting argument once that the East Side of Manhattan is wealthier than the West because Madison and Lexington Avenue make it easier to walk around and provide more frontage. I'm not sure what to make of that idea...