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Tim Coyle

Will COVID-19 Wreck ‘Smart Growth’?

The architects of ‘smart growth’ – which captured the imagination of local planners and other officials just before the turn of the century – intended all future housing to be a lot denser.

Furthermore, SB 375 (Steinberg) – a law enacted over a decade ago to ingrain climate-change politics in all land-use planning – urged, among other things, siting housing development to coincide with the location of transit hubs to, presumably, facilitate commuting.

Now, health officials – at all levels of government – are telling us amid the COVID-19 scare to spread out. In other words, de-densify.

At the same time – for a variety of reasons – residents of high-density, urban areas are fleeing those places for distant suburbs and exurbs. This is not the plan the originators of ‘smart growth’ had in mind.

So, the whole ‘smart growth’ model is a scrambled mess. What’s to become of it? Has it now been rendered meaningless?

I don’t think environmentalists – principal advocates of ‘smart growth’ – will ever give up this precious asset. They will fight on. Globally and project by project.

But, some of the problems they face, in light of virus protocols and other recent developments, reflect a growing resistance to apartment living, when:
• Favorable financing makes buying a single-family home more possible;
• Downtowns (where preferred infill housing exists) is perceived as dangerous;
• Residents may suspect public transit on which they must now depend; and
• Having a roommate (to help defray high rents) may be problematic.

In other words, the reticence of people to embrace already sluggish ‘smart growth’ will likely swell with increased attention to COVID-19 mitigation.

But, ‘smart growth’ has always failed to take into account the assorted vagaries of the private marketplace. Indeed, advocates have stubbornly insisted things should go “my way or the highway”. Maybe that’s why it’s never caught on.

For example, smart growthers regularly rejected the desire of those among housing consumers for single-family, for-sale homes – concentrating instead on high-density, multi-family designs. Either intentionally or not, proponents of ‘smart growth’ ignored polling which shows well more than 80 percent of Americans want to home with a yard and, ultimately, to raise a family.

Smart growthers have been slow to learn they can’t persuade home shoppers with just a slogan or green-house gas scare tactics. Most consumers have thought about their purchase a long time. To them it’s a life-changer.

In fact, homebuyers haven’t taken the bait. New home sales rose last year by nearly 20 percent – the greatest increase since 2006.

In reality, ‘smart growth’ mandates don’t really work in America. If a citizen of this great country wants to buy a four bedroom, two and one-half bathroom, 2,000-square-foot ranch-style home he or she can. Only the bank or another buyer can stop the sale.

As silly as the COVID-19 protocols may be they cannot – nor can ‘smart growth’ designs – upset the freedom an American to choose a home.