Affordable, desirable, no growth: pick two

Life is a series of tradeoffs, and one of the important ones for cities is what’s known as a “trilemma”.  A city can have two of the following, but not all three:

  • Affordable – it’s a place everyone can afford to live.
  • Desirable – it’s a place people want to live, and a place people are trying to move to.
  • No growth – it’s a town that is not adding housing, and tries to avoid “changing the character of its neighborhoods”.

For instance, at one extreme, you have resort towns like Vail, Colorado: it’s a very nice place – many people would love to live there, or at least have a house there.  Since it’s at the bottom of a deep valley without much land, it has very little land for growth, so it fits “no growth”.  This means it is not affordable: the average house price, according to Zillow, is $835,000.

At another end of things, you have a city like Detroit that has plenty of room for growth, and is affordable with an average home value of $38,100.  The reason: not many people want to live there, and indeed, the population continues to decline.

Where the United States has not been doing a good job lately are cities where people 1) want to live 2) can afford to live and 3) therefore allow lots of housing to be built.  The best examples are probably cities like Houston, which Forbes ranked as the fastest growing city in the US in 2015.  Sprawl – which many of us are not fans of – plays a role in keeping places like Houston affordable, but another big factor is a relatively light regulatory touch: Houston does not have a zoning code like most cities in the US do: How Houston Regulates Land Use.

I’m not sure we should – or could, given the mountains to the west – emulate Houston’s sprawl, but the freedom to build where there’s a market for it would certainly help Bend add housing, and contain costs.  It’s also critical to remember that the freedom to build includes efficient uses of land like building up and in, not just out.

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