“We are in a new century where we need to rethink single-family zoning,” says Robert Liberty, the man who is more responsible than anyone else for Portland’s unaffordable housing. The question any sensible person should ask is just what is behind Liberty’s obsession with and objection to single-family homes?
As of 1989, Oregon law required that Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, maintain housing affordability by regularly expanding Portland’s urban-growth boundary. In that year, Liberty — then head of 1000 Friends of Oregon — conceived of the “land use-transportation-air quality” (LUTRAQ) project. Based on analyses by pro-density consultants, LUTRAQ purported to show that increasing urban densities would lead people to drive less and help clean up the air.
In fact, as USC planning professor Genevieve Giuliani pointed out in 1995, LUTRAQ really showed that density had very little to do with driving. Instead, the LUTRAQ model reduced driving by assuming that every business in the Portland area would charge parking fees at their offices or shopping areas equal to at least one third of downtown parking charges. Of course, the region still has free parking almost everywhere except in downtown Portland.
Nevertheless, Metro was inspired by LUTRAQ to persuade the Oregon legislature in 1993 to allow it to meet housing needs by upzoning neighborhoods to higher densities instead of expanding the growth boundary. But people don’t really want to live in higher densities. So, not only do neighborhoods object to upzoning, but the market for higher densities is limited enough that Portland and other cities have to subsidize such development.
Metro, for example, plans to ask voters to allow it to sell $652.8 million worth of bonds that it will use to build high-density housing. Supposedly, the purpose is to provide more affordable housing. But we know that’s not true because high-density housing costs more to build, per square foot, than low-density housing. Besides, the bonds will be repaid out of increased property taxes, which in turn will make housing less affordable.
Liberty implies that “we need to rethink” single-family zoning because it isn’t affordable. But almost every city in the country except Houston has single-family zoning, and most of them are affordable. What makes housing unaffordable is restrictions on development at the urban fringe. As Matthew Ridley explains it, the regulation that’s harmful is that which defines “whether you can build,” not “what you can build.”
Moreover, as Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox recently pointed out, no city in the world has ever become more affordable by growing denser. In fact, the reverse is true: density policies make housing less affordable, first by driving up the cost of land and second because mid-rise and high-rise housing costs 50 to 68 percent more to build per square foot than low-density housing.
So what has Liberty got against single-family housing? We were once friends, and when I told him in 1995 that I lived on a third-of-an-acre lot, he solemnly replied, “I grew up on a 50×100 lot, and what was good enough for me should be good enough for anyone else.” This arrogant attitude suggests that, while he may object to large lots, he isn’t necessarily against single-family housing.
In fact, as his name suggests, he believes everyone should have the liberty to choose whether they live in a single-family home or a multi-family complex. But he also believes that he and his planner friends should have the liberty to influence people’s decisions by driving up the price of single-family housing. In 1997, Metro was inspired by LUTRAQ and 1000 Friends to adopt a plan that set a target of reducing the share of Portland households living in single-family homes from 65 percent to 41 percent by 2040.
Originally, Oregon’s land-use laws were passed to protect farmland. But Oregon and the United States both have huge surpluses of agricultural lands, while cities occupy a tiny share of the country. USDA’s 2012 Natural Resources Inventory found that only 2.3 percent of Oregon had been developed, while just 1.4 percent was urban. Well over 97 percent of the state remains available for farms, forests, and open space.
Despite this, as Portland State University planning professor Gerard Mildner points out, Liberty and Metro have an obsession with “density at any cost.” Mildner has clearly explained how Portland’s growth boundary makes housing expensive, but it has fallen on deaf ears. Instead, he is demonized by the powers that be as some kind of radical. In fact, the real radicals are those who take away people’s property rights and make housing expensive with the goal of creating what has been described elsewhere as the ideal communist city.
Some of the two dozen cities in the Portland area do want to expand the urban-growth boundary. But even if Metro approves any of these expansions, you can be sure that 1000 Friends will challenge those decisions in court, which at the very least will delay the process for years. Even after lands have been added to the boundary, Metro red tape has prevented development for another decade or more. That’s not the way to make housing affordable.
The bottom line is: why should Portland deliberately make housing unaffordable to protect abundant rural land when doing so doesn’t provide any real benefits for air quality or anything else? There are no good answers to that question except that Robert Liberty and his planner friends have obtained a lot of power in the region. Having lost sight of their original goals of cleaning the air, reducing congestion, and improving the region’s quality of life, they are now solely focused on the objective of increasing density whether it does any good or not.