Thursday, March 5, 2009

Supply and demand, and revisiting the land use law causes of the housing bubble …

   What role does land use regulation have in determining housing prices?  In 2005, I published a piece in the Urban Lawyer (“The Three Levels of Ownership,” 37 Urb. Law. 385), which relied on economic studies that, as I put it, “place[d] much of the blame [for high prices] squarely at the feet of laws restricting new housing construction.”  By limiting supply through laws to protect the environment, foster low density, and preserve community and character, land use laws had driven up housing prices, the argument went.  I quoted a study that chided other analysts for focusing too much on the demand side and not enough on the supply side.   
House     Nearly four years later, I conclude that my comments were overstatements, at best.  In 2009, our news is filed with stories about how the housing bubble was caused primarily by high demand, which was fed in turn by easy credit, subprime loans, and the irrational exuberance of buyers who felt that housing prices would continue to rise forever.  Once these unsustainable forces were popped, housing prices stalled and then fell.  And one of the weirdest results is that the ability of a modest-income family to buy a house may have become tougher in some instances because credit is so much tighter.  I acknowledge my errors, and I wish I had emphasized more strongly in my piece the observation that the housing boom of 1998-2005 did not necessarily coincide with an era of tougher land use regulations or tighter supply.   
     What can we learn from such “overstatements”?  In 2005, in analyzing applications of some of the models, I concluded that “the politics of land use are often messy and unpredictable and do not always fit economic models.”  Perhaps a lesson from our current observations is that economics of supply and demand is equally complicated, and that pat, one-directional answers are likely to be oversimplifications …      

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March 5, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Turn off that sprinkler! … pretty please …

Lawn    Will the American public accept a new level of environmental regulation of their home lives?  At the Public Interest Environmental Conference at the University of Florida last week, one of the most interesting talks was given by Dr. Pierce Jones of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, who offered compelling scientific evidence that could support a ban on lawn irrigation in a state such as Florida.  Like California, Florida has experienced a population boom over the past half-century, a growth in natural uses for water, and a recent drought, all of which have placed nearly impossible demands on the drinking water supply. In both states, water shortages are causing local governments to deny applications for new residential developments.  But unlike in California, where agriculture soaks up most of the water, in many Florida counties it is residential use that takes a disproportionate share.  For many Florida households, watering the grass (which otherwise would wilt in the intense sun and sandy soils, despite decent rainfall) drains as much water as all indoor uses.  Replacing grass with less thirsty plants and landscaping could save colossal amounts of precious water.  It all makes sense. 
    So where are the politicians arguing for compulsory restrictions?  As the nation ponders drastic steps such as a carbon tax and huge subsidies for fuel-efficient cars, why doesn’t government put serious pressure on citizens to take simple but effective steps such as using a programmable thermostat or pulling out their lawn irrigation systems?  It is because politicians in most places know that the bulk of citizens still aren’t ready for government to tell them how to live their lives at home, even for steps that seem both reasonable and socially responsible? 

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March 4, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 2, 2009

The suburban ideal of ... the great university campus …

Uflorida    I spent last Friday on a typical American public university campus: the University of Florida in Gainesville.  As I wandered around the enormous acreage –- in Europe it would be considered a middling sized country –- I pondered how our big college campuses reflect our American land use preferences.  Unlike European universities, which are often dropped into dense cities like businesses, big American universities typically are isolated and landscaped, like suburban planned developments.  The residences at the UF are relatively low density (there are few high-rises at Gainesville) and are nestled (or is the word “sprawled”?) in an idyllic campus of lawns, gardens (the dogwoods and azaleas were out in north Florida in late February), woods, and wetlands.  It seemed like an ideal planned suburban community –- or perhaps a retirement resort, considering all of the entertainment and recreational options enjoyed by today’s student.  And the new urbanist notion of “multiple use” appears to have no meaning on the campus: I lost track of the number of impressive stadiums –- not fields, but actual stadiums –-  specially dedicated for every conceivable sport.  (Why argue with success? UF boosters might respond, citing their frequent athletic championships).
   But suburban paradise comes with a cost, we know.  To shuttle its 50,000 students around the small country, the university runs a fleet of buses the size of which one could invade Russia with; unlike at my state university way back when, UF students appear actually to ride the buses. And, in a novelty to me, hundreds (thousands?) of Florida students ride scooters across the campus.  In this way, they do resemble European college kids, except that in Rome or Berlin a student rides her scooter from one end of the city to the urban university, while in Gainesville it is simply to get from one end of campus to the other –- for example, from the pleasant “exurban” new dorms beyond the sports stadiums to the humanities classrooms in the 1920s collegiate Gothic “downtown.” 
   These observations raise an intriguing question.  Do our university campuses resemble planned suburbs because the architects draw from suburban experiences?  Or do our suburbs copy the green and pleasant college campuses that form some of the fondest memories of our designers, architects, and suburban homeowners?  Or, most likely, do both reflect a commonly shared land use ideal that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche?

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March 2, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)