Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tear-downs: Annoyance or infill?

[Fallout from the Housing Slump, Part I]

   Many established neighborhoods are concerned about the “tear down” phenomenon, in which a small house is replaced by a much bigger one.  Tear downs have become more popular in recent years with the high prices of houses; a family wishing to “move up” will often find it easier to stay, avoid the high cost of land and transactions costs, and take advantage of relatively moderate costs of construction by building a new house on their old property.

   Neighbors are not so thrilled with having a bigger house nearby, of course.  National Public Radio broadcast a segment this morning about complaints in Kenilworth, an affluent suburb outside Chicago, where little old houses now exist next door to giant McMansions.  One neighbor is unhappy at the loss of her view, privacy, and shade from a now-torn-down tree that was once in her neighbor’s yard.  Of course local governments should check their zoning laws to ensure that new houses aren’t “too big” for the area (no three-story houses, for example, in a neighborhood of one-story bungalows) and don’t come too close to property boundaries.      

   Other than this, however, I assert that tear downs are a fairly healthy phenomenon.  They are the quintessence of infill –- new construction in already built-up areas, as opposed to development “sprawl” in greenfields and exurbs.

   Why is there so much pressure for sprawl when there are so many old urban and suburban areas in which higher density and infill could be tolerated?  The reason is that American families don’t want to live “just anywhere” –- they demand neighborhoods with “good schools” (I’ll let you figure out precisely what they mean by this) and other community amenities.  Many older areas simply don’t make the cut.  And they demand more space than generations past to fit their huge vehicles, their big-screen TVs, and their new expectations of high-square-footage in the affluent society.   

   Accordingly, land use law shouldn’t make it too hard for families to tear down and rebuild.  We might hope that more people would want to stay in their old houses.  But if law makes it too difficult to rebuild, families will simply move to the exurbs.  Neighbors may not like it, but tear-down-and-rebuild is a “second best” option for land use policy.


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Why is there so much pressure for sprawl when there are so many old urban and suburban areas in which higher density and infill could be tolerated?

Part of the problem is that higher density inevitably means loss of character. I thoughtful infill can mean more space and modern amenities for a family, without creating a white elephant at the end of the block. But when a single-family home is demolished for a multi-unti condo, there is no way to preserve the character of the original building. If this happens enough times (as in my town, Madison, WI) you lose whole blocks of historic character to higher density.

Posted by: the Rising Jurist | Sep 27, 2006 6:49:04 AM