Bashing the Burbs

Common sense and Joel Kotkin in New Geography says don’t do it.

An excerpt.

“For the past century, California, particularly Southern California, nurtured and invented the suburban dream. The sun-drenched single-family house, often with a pool, on a tree-lined street was an image lovingly projected by television and the movies. Places like the San Fernando Valley – actual home to the “Brady Bunch” and scores of other TV family sitcoms – became, in author Kevin Roderick’s phrase, “America’s suburb.”

“This dream, even a modernized, multicultural version of it, now is passé to California’s governing class. Even in his first administration, 1975-83, Gov. Jerry Brown disdained suburbs, promoting a city-first, pro-density policy. His feelings hardened during eight years (1999-2007) as mayor of Oakland, a city that, since he left, has fallen on hard times, although it has been treated with some love recently in the blue media.

“As state attorney general (2007-11) Brown took advantage of the state’s 2006 climate change legislation to move against suburban growth everywhere from Pleasanton to San Bernardino. Now back as governor, he can give full rein to his determination to limit access to the old California dream, curbing suburbia and forcing more of us and, even more so our successors, into small apartments nearby bus and rail stops. His successor as attorney general, former San Francisco D.A. Kamala Harris, is, if anything, more theologically committed to curbing suburban growth.

“Sadly, much of the state’s development “community” has enlisted itself into the densification jihad. An influential recent report from the Urban Land Institute, for example, sees a “new California dream,” which predicts huge growth in high-density development based on underlying demographic trends – like shifts in housing tastes among millennials or empty-nesters rushing to downtown condos.

“Yet it’s not enough for the planners, and their developer allies, to watch the market shift and take advantage of it. That would be both logical and justified. But the planning clerisy are not content to leave suburbia die; it must, instead, be cauterized and prevented, like some plague, from spreading.

“Ironically, it turns out that the “new California dream” is more widely shared by planners and rent-seeking developers than by the consuming public. During the past decade, when pro-density sentiment has supposedly building, some 80 percent of the new construction in the state was single-family, a rate slightly above the national average. Over time, Californians continue to buy single-family houses, mostly in the suburban and exurban periphery. They do it because they are like most Americans, roughly four of five of whom prefer single-family houses, preferably closer to work but, if that proves unaffordable, further out.

“This includes both working-class and upper middle-class markets. The more-affluent, including many largely Asian immigrants, have been willing to buy high-priced homes closer to employment centers in places like Irvine or Cupertino, near San Jose. Meanwhile, the less-affluent of all ethnicities continue to move further out, to places like the Inland Empire or the further reaches of the Bay Area. These peripheral areas have continued to represent the vast majority of growth in both greater Los Angeles and around the Bay Area.

“Meanwhile, some of the urban-centric residential construction now being put up will, as occurred in the housing bust, may be fashionable but, in some cases, not so profitable over time. Construction is being driven mostly by tax breaks, Uncle Ben’s essentially ultralow-interest money for wealthy investors and, in some cases, subsidies. Overall, the Wall Street Journal notes, the rental market is beginning to “lose steam,” as people again start looking into buying homes. This may suggest that new speculative building in places like downtown Los Angeles – where there’s good evidence that rents and occupancy levels are, if anything, getting weaker – may end up in tears.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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