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Monday, August 20, 2012

“Open space good, development bad!”

The only time we don't want more open space
is if we'd have to buy it from Larry LeBlanc.
By Linda Felaco

In Animal Farm, the barnyard animals say “Four legs good, two legs bad!” Here in Charlestown, the ruling elite, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, has a similar mantra: “Open space good, development bad!” But is all development always bad?

When my parents bought their house in Cranston in the late ‘60s, it was newly built on a street of a few older single-family homes. As I was growing up, some of the larger lots got subdivided and more new homes were built, including a few duplexes, and some of the larger homes were divided into apartments. Sure, like here in Charlestown, people would show up to the zoning hearings to raise objections to the smaller-sized lots, but unlike here in Charlestown, in Cranston, homeowners were generally granted variances to subdivide their properties.

When my husband and I were house-hunting in preparation for moving back to RI, we wanted acreage, so I automatically ruled out Cranston along with all the other cities. But a surprising number of properties in Cranston still came up in our searches for properties of an acre or more. Turns out that by squeezing more homes into already-developed areas, western Cranston was allowed to stay relatively undeveloped and still has a surprising amount of heavily forested open space. Go figure.


(In case anyone’s wondering why I didn’t buy a place in western Cranston, our second, equally important criterion was to be able to get to the beach in 10 minutes or less, so ultimately the choices came down to either here or SK.)

My anecdotal evidence of this paradox was borne out earlier this year by Matthew Yglesias, author of The Rent Is Too Damn High. He wrote in Slate that

[O]ne important reason that there’s been growing pressure to turn farmland over to other uses is that we have severe regulatory constraints on the number of people allowed to squeeze into the already-developed parcel. If you turn some neighborhoods of single-family homes into rowhouses and build some more tall apartment buildings on your most expensive land, then there’s still plenty of suburban-style land left over for the large share of people who want to live there. Developers don’t need to go out and find some new land and turn it into new subdivisions. A country with a growing population is bound to have both infill and greenfield development happening, but the current state of land use regulation in the United States is very heavily biased toward the latter in a way that’s destructive to pastoral goals and open space.

Imagine that. Larger lot sizes actually lead to less open space. Keep this in mind when Planning Commissar Ruth Platner proposes increasing the minimum acreage required per bedroom.
Walkable streets are an important component
of Smart Growth.
(Photo by Zach Vesoulis/Wikimedia Commons)

As it turns out, the two largest demographic groups in the country right now, baby boomers and millennials, don’t even want the McMansions or the big lots. This might have something to do with the current housing glut in Charlestown. According to another piece in Slate:

Boomers and millennials … want … smaller homes on smaller lots in walkable, service-rich, transit-oriented communities. Boomers, who have just started turning 65, are empty-nesting and downsizing. But they are going to have to work much later into what they thought would be their retirement, and they fear the fate of their parents, who had their car keys taken away and ended up in the nursing home. Millennials are in the process of getting married and having kids, and according to market surveys, 77 percent simply don’t ever want to go back to the ‘burbs. At the end of the day, traditional subdivisions are isolating and expensive, while millennials are increasingly connected, are more into tech than cars, and are seeing their economic future more like their grandparents’—full of hard work and living on a budget.

Add it all up, and the National Association of Realtors estimates that—today—56 percent of Americans want the attributes of this new American dream in their next housing purchase. Yet only 2 percent of new units being built today fit these attributes. … [Such housing also] happen[s] to be good for the planet, reducing energy, water, and waste by at least one-third.

AKA “Smart Growth,” which favors high-density, mixed-use, walkable developments. A principle Platner professes to believe in—as long as it happens somewhere else. Smart growth-type projects are exactly the sorts of projects that the Planning Commission looks for excuses to scuttle any time they come in over the transom.

So if the long-term trend is away from the 1950s Ozzie and Harriet-style ideal of the freestanding single-family home in the suburbs, what’s to be done with all these unsalable vacant homes on the market? Banks are now actively experimenting with turning foreclosed homes into apartments or single-family rentals. And earlier this year, the Federal Home Finance Agency (FHFA) announced a plan to solve the vacant home problem by renting out some of the more than 210,000 homes currently owned by Uncle Sam due to mortgage defaults.
Affordable housing, CCA-style.
Thoreau spent $28.12 1/2 to build
his cabin in the woods.

But putting all those vacant homes on the rental block will inevitably drive down prices in already depressed markets. So the authors of Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, policy, and society—have proposed a radical idea: Vacant houses should be destroyed.

"[N]ew, nonresidential uses should be identified for the government’s stock of vacant homes. It means turning houses into offices, storage facilities, and artist studios. And in those cases when there’s no demand for such alternative uses, FHFA should demolish these excess structures and sell the underlying land for parks, community gardens, or—if thought of strategically—as part of larger wildlife corridors or active forest lands."

Demolishing homes to create wildlife habitat I’m sure would give Ruth Platner multiple orgasms. Granted, here in Charlestown, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to tear down habitable homes when we’re facing a state affordable housing mandate and we’ve already got vast tracts of untrammeled open space. And converting single-family homes into apartments can potentially overload water and sewer capacity. But what if instead of bailing out struggling homeowners via a tax-forgiveness program like RHOTAP, we let them subdivide or rent out available space in their homes? It wouldn’t cost the town anything, it’d spare people’s dignity, and it’d prevent the continual drag on property values caused by foreclosures. How’s that for a win-win-win?