Peter Calthorpe, Wendell Cox and the Future of California

CNU Co-Founder Responds to Recent Wendell Cox Editorial

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Wendell Cox titled "California Declares War on Suburbia," proclaiming Californians are under attack by urban planners' penchant for density. In response to the grand assertions written in Cox's characteristically bombastic tone, CNU co-founder Peter Calthorpe pens a lucid rebuttal to Cox's claims, highlighting the shifting demographics that are changing the way we live. 

American Dream 2.0: California Updates the Suburbs 

California is in the midst of updating its future.  New infrastructure investments such as high-speed rail and new land-use patterns generated by state legislated environmental goals are being framed up as because of economic needs and changing demographics. A battle between a future of more sprawl and smart growth is at hand.  For many the realization that future is not the past and the American Dream needs to be updated is increasingly clear.  But for others the urge to retreat to old patterns is powerful.

It is interesting that the advocates of sprawl can only justify their propositions with half-truths, stereotypes, and outright lies.  Cox in his recent WSJ article “California Declares War on Suburbia” is a good example. He starts by claiming that business and people are fleeing the state because of regulation, taxes and a war on single-family homes.  He claims that 1.6 million have ‘fled’ the state.  Unfortunately the facts do not back this up; in the past decade the state grew from 33.8 million to 37.7 million with a net in-migration of 2.6 million.  And even if he was correct, this supposed exodus was during a time that California was arguably building too much of just the type of development he is advocating; low density, auto oriented development at the urban edge. 

While it is true that some parts of the state have high housing costs (on the coasts typically) this is only partly due to regulation.  More of it has to do with NIMBY opposition to infill development, rich job opportunities and a desirable quality of life. 

He then goes on to claim that ‘California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home’.  Once again this is wrong on many levels.  First there are many indications that the housing market has sifted dramatically making traditional single family the most popular option with a declining segment of the market.  A survey by none other than the NAR concludes that over 50% would choose to live in a higher density community if it was walkable, and nearer transit and jobs.  This sift is not surprising in that 80% of new home buyers will be households without children.  Simple demographics are trending away from large lot SF toward small lot bungalows, townhomes, apartments and condos. Aging empty nesters, young childless couples and singles no longer need or want a large yard in a distant location.

 A recent study ULI study concluded the state already has 2.1 million more large lot homes than the market will need in 2035.  This is in fact part of the reason for the collapse in home values; we overbuilt one segment of the market with a ‘one size fits all’ mentality.

Backing this study up are several others:  a RCLCO 2008 survey found that 77% of the younger generation reports wanting to live in an urban core, rather than the suburbs where they grew up, and are willing to live in smaller spaces to be able to afford their lifestyle. A 2009 RCLCO study found that 75% of retiring boomers want to live in mixed-age and mixed-use communities, in more urban settings.  Bottom line; California overbuilt large lot single family and now needs to build moderate density options for an increasingly diverse population.

It is also not true that the state has declared war on the SF dwellings, or suburbs for that matter.  The recent Sustainable Communities Strategies being developed for the major regions around the state are attempting to balance housing choices to meet the future market demands, rather than just building more subdivisions at the fringe. 

It is a good thing that ABAG is attempting to find housing opportunities closer to jobs and services, that is what the preference surveys show people want. When asked if they would trade a large lot at the edge for a smaller lot with shorter commutes 59% said they would.  So it is logical that in 2035 the region would increase bungalows, townhomes and multifamily. 

Southern California is faced with similar new housing needs.  Its proposed growth plan will result in a housing mix in 2035 of 50% SF, 17% townhomes, and 33% multifamily. This sift is simply what the market wants, not as Cox claims an attempt to “radically restructure urban areas, forcing much of the new hyper-density development into narrowly confined corridors.” 

These new regional plans are right on transportation too.  Putting housing near transit, jobs and within walkable areas is an obvious attempt to provide people with transportation choices, a good thing in regions chocked with congestion.  Giving people more smart growth can have big impacts across the state over the long term.  A study called Vision California highlighted the difference in 2050 of smart growth vs business as usual:

·       Saves over $7,300 per household annually on automobile costs and utility bills.

·       Saves $1.1 billion per year from lower infrastructure costs for new homes.

·       Reduces fuel consumption through 2050 equivalent to 2 years of the USA’s oil imports. Amounts to a savings of $3,100 per year per household.

·       Reduces GHG emissions equivalent to the emissions offset by a forest a quarter the size of California.

·       Reduces pollution-related respiratory disease, saving more than $1.6 billion annually.

·      Reduces passenger vehicle travel (VMT) by more than 4 trillion miles, the equivalent of taking ALL cars off of California’s roads for 15 years.

All this fear mongering about forcing people into high-density living is based on a backward looking stereotype, not hard data.  The reality is that people need choices, a broader range of communities, locations, and housing types than had been the norm over the last decades.  We now understand that too much of any single housing type will lead to devaluations, and that too much dependence on the car is becoming a financial and social burden to many. 

Building for the past markets rather than future demographics and evolving preferences will bring us back to the housing crash of 2008 in short order.  The alternate, building for who we really are rather than the stereotype of who we where will create more affordable lifestyles, less environmental stress, and a more balanced housing stock.  This is what California is after.