Urbanists: "Fundamentally Misaligned"


The story I’m writing today is very different from the one I started out to write.

The single issue that seems to drive debate in urbanist circles is our nation’s housing crisis. Urbanists of all types agree that home prices and rents are hurting communities and entire metropolitan markets. Urbanists also seem to agree on the causes of the stratospheric prices of housing in our nation’s metro areas. Hot markets. Zoning. Housing production that hasn’t kept pace with the demographics, especially following the trauma of the Great Recession. Regulatory hurdles that drive up prices. Even geography.

These conditions effectively created today’s YIMBY movement. YIMBYs want to counter the forces that limit housing production. YIMBYs want to spark more housing construction with the ultimate goal of bringing prices and rents down. Fundamentally I don’t disagree. Housing is far too expensive in far too many metro areas. It impacts far too many people.

But it’s not universal.The most livable cities, in my opinion, are the ones that have a diversity of housing types that allow people across the economic spectrum to live comfortably. Cities that have housing diversity end up having a greater mix of land uses, and a shot at pedestrian orientation and greater walkability. Cities with housing diversity have a much greater chance at being multimodal by nature, encouraging things like biking or the spread of public transit. You know, the things most people seem to enjoy about cities.

But I’ve often thrown caution at this idea, because it could lead to unintended consequences. Or, at least consequences I assumed to be unintended. Taken to the extreme, YIMBYism could lead to even more economic and social disparity in our cities, because new housing construction would be concentrated in the areas where the demand was strongest. It could lead to overbuilding in some areas, and a continued lack of investment in areas that could use it.

An unspoken factor in today’s housing crisis is the devaluation of Black-owned property in metros across the country. This effectively transfers wealth from middle and low income Black communities to upper-middle and high income, largely White communities. Black avoidance in many metros creates artificial scarcity.

I sought to prove how it did so, and that it had happened before in America.

I was going to write about how the mid-twentieth century rise of suburbia was our nation’s first experience with YIMBYism. Following World War II there was a dire need for housing after two decades of depression and global war severely limited housing production. I was going to write about how suburbanization served the metros that saw huge growth in the latter half of the 20th century quite well. Metros that saw their primary growth spurt take place at this time were able to mask disparities as they grew.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine's online platform. Pete's writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years' experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

Photo: Aerial vies of rail tracks, courtesy jeffdavis2.com