Wendell Cox Launches Attack On Regional Planning, Common Sense

 

You may not yet have heard, but tanks are massing on the border of Santa Clarita. 

Special forces have ziplined into Poway city hall. Under cover of night, Jerry Brown himself stands resolute on the prow of a PT boat, his beloved corgi Sutter at heel, motoring up the American River towards Folsom. There, an unhinged planning director has gone native, grilling freshly slaughtered meat in a backyard. From atop the Coit Tower, you can hear it: the strafing has begun in San Rafael.

May God have mercy on all our souls. 

So implies the latest essay by Wendell Cox, “California Declares War on Suburbia,” published in this past Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. In it, Cox takes aim at Senate Bill 375, California’s landmark law promoting compact development patterns for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Any regular reader of CP&DR knows that over the past year the state’s “Big Four” metropolitan planning organizations--in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and the Bay Area--have been producing regional plans to comply with SB 375. Lamenting that 1.6 million people moved out of California in the 2000s, Cox contends that these plans will force housing prices up and thus drive more people out of the state. 

SB 375 is naturally irresistible to Cox, the outspoken libertarian urban scholar who, on a roughly annual basis, announces the results of such-and-such new study or analysis that conclusively proves the evils of smart growth. (See CP&DR publisher Bill Fulton's response to Cox's previous volley.)

What I’ve finally figured out is that, in his own mind, Cox does not dwell in the outer suburbs of which he is so fond. Rather, he seems to inhabit his own Frontier, an empty, windswept place where no one else will read his thoughts and, therefore, never discover their fallacies. Because if Cox did imagine that anyone would read his work, then he might for a moment consider that he puts up some pretty big targets. Think Moby Dick in a swimming pool. 

In the latest go-round, Cox’s logic follows a circuitous path, so it’s best to respond roughly in order of the claims that he presents. 

Since 2000 more than 1.6 million people have fled, and my own research as well as that of others points to high housing prices as the principal factor.

SB 375 and AB 32 did not pass until 2008 and 2006, respectively. In the first half of the 2000s, developers could not build homes fast enough in California. So, yes, it must be the climate change regulations and not the incredible demand for housing that has driven prices up. 

California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home

Let’s not confuse most popular with most common. And let’s not forget that the single-family home is most common because of the laws, regulations, and public investments that made it most common. 

Metropolitan area governments are adopting plans…

Here’s his first whopper of a falsehood: metropolitan planning agencies are government agencies, but they are not governments. They have no police power and exert influence only to the extent that they control some transportation funding. And much of their policymaking depends on the consensus of their members: typically cities and counties, which are governments. Notably, MPO planners have based SCS's in large part on the general plans of these constituent jurisdictions. (Cox should know that the SCS of the Southern California Association of Governments was adopted on a unanimous vote; and, no, the suburban representatives were not bound and gagged in a back room.)

… that would require most new housing to be built at 20 or more to the acre, which is at least five times the traditional quarter acre per house.

Cox has built a career on an appealing but often useless observation: less dense areas promote efficiency because cars burn relatively less gas when they travel at consistent speeds on uncongested streets. This metric, however, ignores overall fuel consumption that takes place when you have to drive to the next county to buy a quart of milk. 

If every urban area in California continued to build at four houses to the acre, the distances from homes to basic amenities would grow ever greater. And you can forget about your commute: unless companies are going to open up branch offices in Tracy and Palmdale, then commutes from Cox’s fantasy fringe to established job centers would become farcical. 

Big houses and the Frontier mentality are fine if you live and work in Jurupa. Sure, people like big houses.  They also like living close to their jobs. Some of them even like living close to other people. 

Cox ignores the inherent attributes of places -- charm, vibrancy, attractiveness, convenience, accessibility (see London, Paris, Santa Monica, San Francisco... you get the point) -- that would make a resident perfectly happy to live in close quarters and assumes that residents base their preferences purely on housing types. In other words, don't hire Cox as your economist, and please don't hire him as your real estate agent. 

But what about the inner suburbs? What about Milpitas? Or Covina? Or even Irvine? They can’t keep expanding. So if, as Cox’s whole premise suggests, population growth is a good thing, then how exactly are they going to grow without becoming more dense? 

State and regional planners also seek to radically restructure urban areas, forcing …

SB 375 doesn’t force anything on anyone. It provides incentives and a few penalties. No city is going to go out of business if it doesn’t comply.  Moreover, planners at MPO’s have insisted that SCS’s will cause anything but "radical" restructuring. Places that are suburban will remain largely suburban. Places that are urban will simply become “more” urban and thus relieve pressure on suruban areas. By promoting this high-density development, most new development will take place on a relatively small footprint, thus largely preserving Cox’s precious status quo.  

…much of the new hyperdensity development...

“Hyperdensity”? Hyperdensity is Hong Kong. It’s Mumbai. It’s a Hunger Games screening on opening night. The notion that Cox thinks any place in California could ever be hyperdense is enough to forever disregard him. (Ironically, I don't actually want to disregard him. I like a good contrarian.)

...into narrowly confined corridors.

This description implies that California’s boulevards will turn into sun-starved canyons, with laundry hanging between tenements. That’s hardly the case. But even if it was, Cox willfully ignores the premise behind directing density to “narrow” corridors: it keeps density out of single-family home neighborhoods. What a concept.

If the planners have their way, 68% of new housing in Southern California by 2035 would be condos and apartment complexes. This contrasts with Census Bureau data showing that single-family, detached homes represented more than 80% of the increase in the region's housing stock between 2000 and 2010.

On Day One of moral philosophy class, most professors review the naturalistic fallacy, otherwise known as the is-ought fallacy. It means that what “is” is not necessarily what “ought” to be. (For an example, see the American South, ca. 1600 – 1865.) Mr. Cox apparently was absent that day. 

Over the past 40 years, median house prices have doubled relative to household incomes in the Golden State….economic studies…have documented the strong relationship between more intense land-use regulations and exorbitant house prices.

I’m not going to tangle with Cox over studies. We all know that there’s a study for everything. I’ll only say that a lot more things were going on in the 1970s than just the introduction of land use regulations. There was also, say, Prop. 13, the oil crisis, the consumption of readily developable land, and disco too. 

Since then, California has weathered the flight of the defense industry, the slow decrease in oil production, the scourge of the War on Drugs, the closure of military bases, the evisceration of the public school system, the near-lifetime incarceration of nonviolent felons, and the rise of the Kardashians (who, not coincidentally, live in Calabasas). I have no idea what this has to do with home prices, but my point is that California is a slightly more complicated place than Cox makes it out to be. 

A 2007 report by McKinsey….recommended cost-effective strategies such as improved vehicle economy, improving the carbon efficiency of residential and commercial buildings, upgrading coal-fired electricity plants, and converting more electricity production to natural gas.

The California Legislature recommended the same thing. It’s called AB 32. 

It is better to raise children with backyards than on condominium balconies.

In a universe full of empty assertions based on nothing but aesthetic biases, rarely does logic flee from opinion with quite such haste as it does from this one. 

In point of fact, only an illiterate boor would categorically privilege the suburbs over all else. Cox needs look only to Betty Friedan (or Betty Draper, for that matter) to consider that maybe life holds more than meatloafs, soap operas, and chain restaurants. 

Plenty of young parents would be perfectly happy to live in nice, well located multifamily dwellings rather than in poorly constructed stucco boxes in the high desert. If only there were more such dwellings to go around. However, if Cox thinks that the outer suburbs are so darned attractive, then he can get bargains on just about as many homes in Riverside, Stockton, and Merced as he wants. Everyone else who can afford to buy is buying elsewhere, or so just about all the demographic analyses suggest.

A less affordable California, with less attractive housing, could disadvantage the state as much as its already destructive policies toward business.

Here, Cox conflates the form of housing with the supply of housing. Sustainable Communities Strategies explicitly account for projected population growth. Though Cox may not like them, all the odious little apartments in those regional plans are meant to house exactly the number of people by which each respective region is projected to grow. If Cox thinks all 10-plus million of those new residents should live in detached homes, then I’d like to see what sort of plans he has in mind. 

Conclusion

To Cox’s credit, he never denigrates the mission of reducing emissions and greenhouse gases. At least he shares that goal with the fact-believing community. I wish, though, that he had more to offer. Surely SB 375 and its SCS's have their flaws. But if California is going to absorb millions of new residents, reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and be anything less than a snarled hellhole a generation from now, then it needs to do something. For now, SB 375 is that something, and spreading falsehoods and half-truths about it will not help.

Cox would like to believe that war is coming. It’s not. But summer is coming, and it’s going to be a long, hot one if California—and the rest of the world—does not get its house in order. 

This piece has been updated since its original publication April 11.