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Californicating Colorado: A How-To-Guide

It#39;s time to stop and examine the safety and effectiveness of many of the prescriptions touted as cure-alls for the side-effects of Colorado#39;s growth. Assuming that the rapid suburbanization is bad, planners usually propose a mix of land-use controls, housing subsidies, and public transit. This, we are told, will preserve open space, provide affordable housing, and reduce congestion. It won#39;t. As California, an acknowledged leader in land-use controls, subsidies, and mass-transit boondoggles, raise the price of housing, and lower living standards. Want to Californicate Colorado faster than you can say real estate developer Just let government control land use.

Individuals move to the suburbs after considering the trade-offs between after-tax income, transportation costs (including congestion delays), housing, and municipal services. The California experience shows that more and stricter land-use controls increase housing costs and that housing subsidies to promote affordable housing increase taxes. When taxes and housing costs escalate, people trade short commutes for decent housing and more income. Employers eventually follow. And when land-use controls also prevent redevelopment, one sees cases like San Francisco. The Bay Area suburbs exploded, leaving behind a tourist city preserved in bureaucratic amber, populated largely by government dependents.

The direct costs of California#39;s land use controls are staggering. For one parcel near Carlsbad, California, land and normal lot development costs were about $30,000 a lot. The estimated cost of shepherding the development through the network of land-use controls More than the land was worth. No affordable housing will be built on these lots anytime soon.

On the Monterey Peninsula, zoning and bureaucratic control of private property are arcane arts practiced in the name of preserving open space, lifestyle, and community values. One attempt to build a house on a 1.08 acre lot in a built-up area required 20 public hearings. The commissioners had the absolute power to force the owners of the lot to change the shape, size, siting, height, texture, materials, plumbing, and color of the proposed house without regard to cost. Permission was granted three years and $600,000 later. Many peninsula property owners avoid legal permits, hoping against hope that their neighbors won#39;t turn them in. Architects rumored to be commission favorites become popular, while the definition of affordable housing becomes illegal room rentals, hot plate included.

The evidence also suggests that land-use regulation increases the rate of suburbanization by impeding attempts to redevelop land in metropolitan areas. Unimpeded by arbitrary zoning requirements, developers would probably build more densely and create more mixed-use neighborhoods. When limited by regulations, developers sacrifice profits and build out rather than up. Affordable housing moves to the edges of a metropolitan area and look-alike houses meeting government standards cover the landscape. People travel long distances between residential, retail, and employment centers. Congestion increases.

Land-use controls combined with poor municipal services produces sprawl even faster. While the U.S. and Canada have similar urban property crime rates, the U.S. violent crime rate is 4 to 6 times higher with a much greater differential between U.S. central cities and suburbs. Large Canadian cities have denser populations than large U.S. ones. Poor schools also create suburbs. In Canada, 57 percent of households resident in central cities have school-age children. In the U.S., where urban schools are infamous, the figure is 40 percent. Locally, entire suburbs have been created to house the parents repelled by the Denver Public Schools.

What can be done about urban sprawl First, one must accept the fact that suburbanization occurred worldwide with the advent of the automobile even in countries with excellent public transit. Many people apparently like living in lower density areas and prefer the automobile as their primary means of intra-urban transportation. Still, drive time is expensive, and there is abundant evidence that people will pay high prices to live in secure, centrally located urban neighborhoods with good housing and schools.

Unfortunately, urban governments have shown little taste for accommodating these preferences. They have impeded redevelopment with arcane land-use controls and political infighting, fought any change in the educational delivery system, and done little to improve policing, residential security, or the so-called criminal justice system. In fact, all the intellectually impoverished city and regional planners offer growth weary Coloradoans are variants of the California model–meddlesome public policies guaranteed to produce identical suburbs, miserable commutes, costly housing and lower standards of living.

Why not look instead to the agency that produced many of the older European cities so admired for their character and charm In short, encourage a freely functioning real estate market in which private developers are generally free to develop private property as they see fit. Houston, for example, has no zoning. Its rundown areas appear to redevelop faster and contain more mixed-use neighborhoods. It also has many neighborhoods in which people want to live at prices they can afford. Otherwise, of course, its developers would go out of business. Contrast this with the California model. There, government-land-use czars on salary never make mistakes.


Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colorado.

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.
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