Sunday, January 23, 2011

Growth the Magic Dragon

I was quite taken by the apparently guileless conclusion to a recent pro-growth editorial by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in the Boston Globe.

So when you wonder why more people aren’t moving to Massachusetts, don’t blame the weather. That explanation lets us off the hook too easily. Instead, think about how difficult it would be to add a couple hundred homes in your town and recognize that the Bay State stagnates by design. While our anti-change rules may keep our communities looking the way we like them, they also mean that we do a worse job of providing affordable housing than deep red states, such as Texas. This country is being shaped by local land-use rules, and around here, those regulations have now resulted in Massachusetts losing a seat in the House of Representatives.

Is this really how we want to live?
Glaeser is in favor of substantially reducing regulations so that Massachusetts can add a lot more housing and new residents. Heh. I don't recall any of my fellow Massholes wondering why more people weren't moving to Massachusetts. Or pining for them. Should we really be troubled that Texas does a better job with "affordable" housing when Texas's population density is a full order of magnitude lower? Massachusetts has a population density of 810 people per square mile. Texas? 80.

 Ought we really to suppose that Texas would be just as delighted by growth if its population were 10 times as great? I doubt it.

Predictably, a Harvard economist thinks that growth is the magic dragon. The tail that should wag the dog. Well, none of us regular folks needs to be anti-growth to worry a bit about our quality of life here in the overcrowded northeast corridor. Maybe Glaeser can walk to work, or telecommute. Maybe he doesn't have to drive on the expressway or catch a rush hour subway car.

 Massachusetts has one big city, Boston. And we're piled up ass to elbow anywhere within an hour's drive of it. So, is this really how we want to live? I'm not sure. But do we want lots more folks living here? No. Not really. To quote Jack Nicholson, "don't come selling crazy round here. We're all full up."


  1. Population density is a poor metric to use when comparing a fairly lush small state with a massive and largely barren one. One of these things is not like the other. (Comparing metro areas is reasonably like-to-like.)

    Growth is the alternative to stagnation. Pick one. You're willing to pay more to live where you do, good for you. Higher taxes and almost everything else that goes into cost-of-living, likewise. As follows for actually wanting to live in a place of such high population density in the first place. As long as there are enough people willing to pay that premium that can continue.

    Be aware that the usual result of anti-growth policies in construction (which are generally also anti-rehab for existing properties, leading to urban blight, but that's a digression) is an exodus of middle and lower-middle class workers, particularly middle-class families with children, with an accompanying rise in poverty levels, increasing social stratification and income disparity, and increasing pressure on low-income social-support systems and on tax structures. San Francisco is a case in point, as is NYC. (Current census data affirm that this is indeed occurring in MA.)

    I assure you that other states/cities will happily welcome your job-skilled middle-class economic refugees, along with their tax revenues.

  2. Right, but what's the difference between "anti-growth" and growth that's slowed to a tolerable rate?

    During the boom we had plenty of new real estate developments, and very few deteriorated properties that weren't re-habbed. Now after the collapse, we have plenty of stock.

    You're right that Massachusetts poops out a fair share of
    skilled "economic refugees". We call them college graduates. Many of them stay, and many more leave because they do the math on the cost of living here versus elsewhere. I'm a bit agnostic on declaring that to be cause for alarm versus sensible and natural. We're holding our own. It's unrealistic to expect a dense area like this to grow quickly in any event, and certainly without adversely impacting quality of life. Especially traffic.

    Maybe population density is a "bad metric" but it's still a good point. We're already ass to elbow around here within an hour's drive of Boston. And within that area, the zoning is almost never acre+, It's quarter acre. It's in the far suburbs out well past the hour drive zone where you see the acre+ zoning. That will change gradually. IMO it makes some sense for towns just beginning to see serious development to start out with acre+ zoning. That way they get a virtually automatic review of any development.

    Fact is, even western MA is a fairly settled area, and if you want to make a big addition, someone local is going to have something to say about that. If you can't handle that and you want to build how you want, when you want, at the quality and size you want, you're in the wrong place.

    Besides, some years ago big developers tricked the liberals into passing an affordable housing law called 40b. Briefly, the way it works is that if a developer chooses to build "affordable housing" in any town that lacks sufficient affordable housing according to gov't standards, then the get an expedited process which seriously limits the town's say. Developers who face an uncooperative town threaten to build 40b housing, and if necessary they follow through.

    It's gotten so bad that local towns tried to have it repealed by referendum this fall. This effort failed, because "affordable housing" sounds good.

    Maybe the social networking of the 21st century will allow us to decentralize to the point where a big central city as a crammed hub becomes less relevant. In the meantime, much of what we face here is a "how many pounds fit in a 5 lb bag" problem.

    For what it's worth, I'm open to changes that provide reasonable housing within the confines of what middle class people can afford. What we need is better types of housing. Something between big low-income housing projects and McMansions. There probably hasn't been a modest 2BR or 3BR ranch built around here in 30 years.

    But then that's probably a function of density, too. If you're poor, you live in a big apartment complex. If you are lower middle class to middle class, you can maybe afford a condo, because there's not much single-family housing stock in your price range. If you are solidly middle class, you can buy in the 3BR range from mostly existing stock.

    Most new stuff from the just popped boom is McMansion. And I think a lot of that has to do with the high cost of the real estate in a densely populated area. The cheaper the land, the more you can differentiate the price based on the size and quality f the house. The more expensive the land, the less you can differentiate the price based on the size and quality of the house. In terms of percent of total cost, of course.

  3. What we need is better types of housing. Something between big low-income housing projects and McMansions. There probably hasn't been a modest 2BR or 3BR ranch built around here in 30 years.

    As I said, the natural result is an erosion of middle and lower-middle class populations. Even (especially!) that available existing stock will be pushed way up in price by supply constraints.

    Out-migration of your skilled young grad natives is definitely a bad thing. You'll get some replacement with in-migration (hey, nice hip cities are kewl places to live! Until you have kids ... ) but if they fail to climb the ladder far/fast enough they too will eventually out-migrate. And back we go to stratification problems ...

    Having ranted all that, let me say that the biggest problems faced by cities such as Boston in the long run are those created by the very geographical factors that grew them to huge/dense in the first place, most all of which boil down to the first rule of real estate. Location!

    I don't know that they're particularly solvable when you start running out of land. You can at best tweak the directions of growth some and hopefully in an intelligent and sustainable way.

    Oh yeah -- never trust a developer. They're like sharks. If they quit swimming (developing) they die. It's what they do, and few of them are very adaptable in their behavior. They will keep doing what they know how to do by any means they can manage until they can't manage it any more.

  4. Yup. The Boston area has a ton of inherent problems due to geography and age, Preposterous street configurations and a lack of available space. Plus being on the coast, the metropolitan area can't grow to the east.

    The constant influx of college kids sure mitigates the problem of later outflux compared to places where young adults leave and no one new comes.

    This area really can't grow in ways that other newer and less dense regions can, and for better or worse, the people here don't really want it to, anyway. It's all well and good for an economist to preach what "needs" to happen, but often they're working from a model that explicitly fails to value some of the things that real people value even if economists can't put a price tag on them, quality of life stuff about traffic congestion, space, etc.

    Then an economist will generally say something like "that's the sort of stuff you have to learn to live with if you want to grow." Which cycles right back into the question of how we want to live.

    So what's the model for pretty slow and sustainable growth in a mature settled region? It's a problem, right?