Smart Growth Strategies Prompt Dumb Objections

 

Joel Kotkin is just thinking about the children. Too much, if you ask me.

As you may recall, two weeks ago it was Wendell Cox who used the Wall Street Journal opinion pages to herald the “war” that California’s urban areas are launching on the suburbs. 

For whatever reason, the Journal really has it cut out for California, because Kotkin’s piece—which isn’t actually an op-ed but rather a sycophantic quasi-interview by Allysia Finley—levies similar criticisms of California’s land use policies, but with some even more strained logic and offensive biases. 

I’d rather not make a career out of responding to erroneous analyses of California’s demise. But, as a loyal Californian and fan of truthfulness, I can’t ignore this latest volley of claptrap. 

Cox and Kotkin both claim that policies that discourage suburban development and/or encourage dense urban development are undermining the notion that California is the promised land. This myth of the California dream is particularly powerful for Kotkin, who contends that California used to be “God’s best moment.”  

This is the blithe vision that none but the most daft have ever believed. The only cliché about California that is more abiding than sunshine is that of noir (itself a ponderous metaphor, but we’ll go with it). Well known scholars such as Mike Davis has covered that ground extensively, as has almost every other honest student of California. So, to base public policy on a myth—or, more accurately—one half of a myth makes little sense. 

Does California have its prosaic problems? Sure it does. In fact, I conducted an insightful, cordial interview with Kotkin about two years ago in which he lucidly described some of California's demographic challenges. Let’s look at those that Kotkin identifies this time. 

Kotkin’s central claim is that the four million people who have reportedly left California in the past ten years have done so for two interrelated reasons. Restrictive local land use policies have made coastal areas unattainably expensive. So, rather than consign themselves to miserable outer suburbs, families are up and moving to states like Texas and Nevada because of low taxes. This trend has rendered urban areas like San Francisco and West Los Angeles “boutique” cities that cater only to the wealthy. 

I couldn’t agree more with Kotkin’s implication: a more diverse range of residents should be able to live in lovely places like San Francisco and Santa Monica. By all accounts, Kotkin should be overjoyed by Senate Bill 375. If all goes as planned, it will enable more people to live in expensive places near the coasts while relieving pressure on single-family home prices.

Except, according to Kotkin, the policies that would promote housing—and de-boutiqueify these cities, by a) enabling more people to live in them, and b) creating more places like them—carry the air of a Stalinist plot. “Things will only get worse in the coming years as Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and his green cadre implement their "smart growth" plans to cram the proletariat into high-density housing,” writes Finley. 

Let’s overlook the rhetoric of socialist class struggle and focus on supply and demand. If the coasts are such nice places, then it would stand to reason that, if offered sufficient housing stock, people would willingly live in them rather than subject themselves to “cramming.” 

Alternatively, if those cities don’t increase their density, then the only way to make them more diverse, and suitable for the middle class, is to kick out the rich and let families squat in their mansions. Viva la Revolucion! And good luck figuring out the espresso machine. 

It’s clear, then, that Kotkin’s objections to smart growth are not reasoned policy analyses. They are ad hominem attacks against a class of people whom he finds icky. According to Kotkin, if you’re not rich then “your chances of being able to buy a house or raise a family in the Bay Area or in most of coastal California is pretty weak.”  

You can’t raise kids in multifamily dwelling in coastal California? Who does Kotkin think he is, Dr. Spock? I'd like him to tell his theory to my mother -- and to the millions of other parents who have raised perfectly decent children in tight quarters. 

On this point, it’s worth quoting Kotkin in full: 

What I find reprehensible beyond belief is that the people pushing [high-density housing] themselves live in single-family homes and often drive very fancy cars, but want everyone else to live like my grandmother did in Brownsville in Brooklyn in the 1920s.

(This is the moment when, if I was John Stewart and this was The Daily Show, I'd be looking plaintively into the camera and stuttering, "But...he...just..said....") 

Let's make this clear: Kotkin is claiming that the reprehensible people who are unbelievably supporting SB 375 are the very same single-family-home dwellers whom he venerates. This would be contradictory at best--but it also happens to be wrong.

In fact, the current governor (who had nothing to do with the passage of SB 375) famously lives in a multifamily building in Sacramento. Granted, the former governor lives on a property in–where else?—West Los Angeles that could comfortably fit several extra families. And that’s just in his carriage house. (How convenient for him.) Regardless, who’s the one who’s making land more expensive? 

As for the legislature, I have no idea where they all live. Probably in one big houseboat on the American River. But I do know that SB 375's author, Sen. Darrel Steinberg, represents Sacramento (which is a city, last time I checked). And I know that, on average, Democratic voters are more likely to be urban dwellers and that Republican voters are more likely to be suburbanites. Kotkin must know this, unless he has forgotten where Nancy Pelosi is from.

So the voters who have supported SB 375 are in fact more likely to already live in denser urban environments. They support SB 375 not because they want to make everyone else miserable but because they want more people to enjoy the urban experience. Most of us city folk don't give a rip about what happens in the suburbs; if they want to stay boring, homogenous, and sparely populated, that's fine by me. 

Meanwhile, I’ve never met Kotkin’s grandmother, but I’m sure she’s a very nice lady and would not like her grandson to say mean things about her home. But that’s beside the point. All the people who currently live in Brownsville—because they’re hipsters who dig the lifestyle or families who enjoy the inestimable financial benefits of participating in New York City’s economy—would probably not like him to say mean things about their lifestyle either.  

Kotkin then offers up a notion that is both logically and grammatically nonsensical: "The new regime…wants to destroy the essential reason why people move to California in order to protect their own lifestyles."

This is where it gets personal. I live in an apartment. So do most of the people I know. By and large, all of us are pleased with our lifestyles because we get to live in great cities and reap their estimable social and economic benefits even if we don’t have vast backyards or fences to shield us from people who make us uncomfortable. I support more dense urban development not just because I think it’s a fine way to live but also because it will, indirectly, reduce my cost of living if the supply of apartments—which are already in high demand—increases. 

This is how land use economics works. 

So let’s recap: Kotkin disparages people like me for liking a lifestyle that he disagrees with. He thinks that more people should live where I live (i.e. near the coast) but he doesn’t think that coastal areas should build more housing, and he definitely doesn’t think that the state should promote that housing. Because then there'd be too much of a bad thing, even though people want that bad thing very badly if it's located in the right places. 

And that’s why, according to Kotkin, California shouldn’t have passed SB 375 and instead should have maintained the status quo. Or something like that. 

Kotkin also spews some nonsense about the evils of green energy, but, to be honest, I’m too exhausted to write any more. Something weird is going on here, and I'll be damned if I can figure it out.

If Kotkin wants to discuss further, I invite him to join me in my fourth-floor hovel and witness my childless depravity firsthand. He can bring his own espresso. 

This article has been updated since its original publication on April 26. For an excellent numbers-based analysis of these issues, see Robert Steuteville's May 1 essay in Better! Cities and Towns.