What to build where?

How many Italian restaurants should Bend have?  How many Vietnamese restaurants?  Should they be expensive, or cheaper?

If this seems like an odd question, it should look like an odd question for housing, too.  We have a pretty good way of determining how many restaurants, of what kind and at price point to build in Bend: a relatively free and unfettered market.  As long as you pass the safety inspections, you can serve whatever kind of food you like, and charge as much, or as little for it as you’d like.  If you have a good product, you’ll thrive.  If you don’t sell food that people like at a price that allows you to stay in business, you’ll go out of business.  Perhaps a new restaurant will take the space over and try something different.

It turns out that housing (and really, many other uses of land, too) are not that different from other things that we let markets allocate in the US.  However, cities tend to be some of the most highly regulated markets in the country. Anyone who thinks we have a “free market” for housing or commercial development isn’t well acquainted with the facts.

Just take a look at Bend’s zoning map:


What you can and cannot do with a given piece of property is spelled out in great detail in the zoning code, and mapped out for each lot.  Different types of permitted uses are given different colors in the map above, and often change from one block to the next.

The regulations below are taken somewhat at random from http://www.codepublishing.com/OR/Bend/?BendDCNT.html

  • Maximum lot coverage of 50% for single story homes, otherwise 35% in residential areas.  In “high density areas”, 50% is the maximum.
  • Buildings within the UAR, RL, RS, RM-10 and RM Districts shall be no more than 30 feet in height.

  • All buildings shall incorporate design features such as offsets, balconies, projections, window reveals, or similar elements to preclude large expanses of uninterrupted building surfaces, as shown in the figure below. Along the vertical face of a structure, such features shall occur at a minimum of every 40 feet
  • A minimum of 50 percent of all upper-floor housing units shall have balconies or porches at least four feet deep and measuring at least 48 square feet.
  • A minimum front yard setback of 20 feet is required for buildings or structures, except on corner lots within a platted subdivision, one front yard setback can be 10 feet; provided, that the garage is set back a minimum of 20 feet from the front property line.

That is not a free market.  Far from it: all those areas and the minute details of what you can do there are decided on by a “central planning committee” known as the planning commission.  By and large, these rules and regulations enshrine the car-dependent single-family detached house as the gold standard of housing, and make many other kinds of housing illegal in much of the city.  Perhaps that kind of housing is what people want, but why dictate it by law? If that’s what people want, that’s what developers would provide in any case.

The trouble is, no one knows exactly what to build where.  Smart people can do an OK job at guessing, but no one knows if perhaps that house on the busy corner might be better as a barber shop.  Or maybe as a small group of 5 or 6 apartments.  No one knows what ratio of apartments to duplexes to single family homes Bend should have.  Maybe a given person would prefer a giant house on Awbrey Butte, but not everyone has that money: maybe they’d prefer a duplex or an apartment near the trails on the west side of town to a larger house in NE Bend.  Some people would prefer a large lot.  Trying to decide how many of each kind to produce is what’s known as the economic calculation problem and is one of the reasons markets are a superior (if imperfect) system for allocating many of the goods and services in our lives.

I often read commentary about how “we moved here for this” or “no one wants to live like that”, but that presumes a lot of knowledge about why other people want to live in Bend.  The only thing I’d feel reasonably safe saying is that most of us enjoy the outdoors in some way; but in terms of housing?  Perhaps a single person in his 20ies would prefer to live in a small apartment and save money for skiing.  Maybe a family would rather live in a duplex to be near one of the magnet schools their children attend – which tend to be located in expensive neighborhoods.  A student might wish to rent a large house with friends near the new college.  A family might prefer living close to a job in Bend in smaller housing to a commute to Redmond.  Others want a large lot and don’t care about driving a lot.  To me, living within biking distance of work was really important – but other people may not care. Who are we to decide how other people should live?  Just as some people prefer a larger house further out, the choice should be available to live in denser housing closer in, for those who want it.  This isn’t something the government needs to mandate – it’ll occur naturally if the rules allow it.

Rather than attempting to plan everything out ahead of time, perhaps a more flexible approach would lead to a more dynamic, adaptable city?

Furthermore, the more difficult it is to get land rezoned and projects approved and development fees paid, the more it becomes the exclusive domain of large developers who want to work with larger tracts of land.  Instead of building a few apartments, as a small developer might, which makes a more incremental change in a neighborhood, the larger developer is going to want to build an entire apartment complex.  Change is inevitable in Bend, but if it’s an incremental evolution, perhaps it will be less jarring than the larger projects that are the result of a high barrier to entry.

“YIMBY” is not a partisan group and we do not believe that markets are the solution to every problem.  We take a practical view that more market and fewer regulations would help fix this particular problem.

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