Ending Economic Apartheid


Thanks to its greenbelt and slow-growth policies, Boulder, Colorado is the nation’s most-expensive and least-affordable housing market of any city not in a coastal state. As a result, as noted in an op-ed in The Hill, the number of black residents in Boulder declined by 30 percent between 2010 and 2016, leaving less than 1.6 percent of the city with African-American ancestry.

Closer to my home, the Bend Bulletin argues that the state of Oregon “works against affordable housing by, among other things. . . artificially increas[ing] the price of land through its urban growth boundary system.” Although cities are required to maintain an inventory of developable land within their growth boundaries, the paper notes that permission to expand their boundaries takes years.

The Oregon legislature effectively admitted that this is a problem last year when it passed a law allowing two cities to develop land on up to 50 acres of land outside of their growth boundaries. But can anyone seriously believe that adding 100 acres of new housing will make housing more affordable in Oregon?

To make matters worse, the law is to be administered by the state Land Conservation and Development Commission, the same commission that wrote the rules requiring urban-growth boundaries in the first place. Even if 100 acres were enough, they certainly won’t be timely. Applications to be one of the pilot cities are due November 1, more than a year after the law is passed. Considering this is actually only a preapplication, it could take another year to get final approval. Once approved, the pilot cities will probably take a year or more to implement their plans. Those plans will no doubt be appealed by 1000 Friends of Oregon or some other group. So it may be several years in all before ground is broken for the first new home under this law.

This is the wrong way of dealing with land use in general and housing affordability in particular. Oregon needs to abandon urban-growth boundaries and Boulder needs to abandon its greenbelt and its limit on construction permits. These policies violate people’s property rights and freedom of movement. In the end, it will probably take a court ruling, not a legislative action, to strike them down.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

Photo: Eddyl [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons