Which Calls for More Regulation, Sprawl or Smart Growth?

How do you get more development like this -- with more regulation or less?

by James A. Bacon

One of the more potent criticisms of the Smart Growth movement is that smart growthers implement policies that restrict development, create housing shortages and make housing unaffordable for the poor and working class. The critics present ample evidence that metro regions with the tightest restrictions on development and re-development have higher housing prices overall than regions with fewer restrictions.

But there is more than one way to achieve Smart Growth, at least in theory. One way is is libertarian in inspiration: rolling back the suburban-inspired zoning codes that segregate land uses, cap density restrictions and impose minimum parking requirements on property owners. Undoing the massive government intrusion in local land use would go a long way to reversing the so-called “suburban sprawl” that is the antithesis of Smart Growth without imposing restrictions on new development. A different approach to Smart Growth is more activist: encouraging mixed use development and re-development, seeking more density and curtailing parking in order to push people out of cars.

Suburban zoning codes and regulations are almost universal across America in places developed since World War II, and even in some traditional urban cities. To what extent have activist city governments offset suburban mandates with Smart Growth and environmental mandates? Michael Lewyn and Kristoffer Jackson set to find out. You can read their conclusions in “How Often Do Cities Mandate Smart Growth or Green Building?” in a paper published by the Mercatus Center. Continue reading

In Defense of Airbnb

(cross-posted from cnu.org, with some modifications)

The public benefits of Airbnb (a website allowing people to rent out rooms in their houses and apartments) seem fairly obvious to me. Visitors and new movers can pay less for their lodging by renting a room in someone’s apartment than by renting a hotel room, thus enabling longer trips, thus enabling city economies to benefit from more tourism. So it might appear that Airbnb might make housing more affordable, at least for visitors and movers.

But the hotel lobby and a variety of other opponents have sought to shut down Airbnb, especially in high-cost cities like New York and San Francisco where it competes most effectively with hotels.

For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (whose is in the hotel business)* has written an op-ed arguing that Airbnb allows landlords to “vacate their units and rent them out to hotel users, further increasing the cost of living.”

In other words, Airnbnb opponents see lodging as a zero-sum game: what benefits visitors must harm existing renters. By this logic, govenrment should just outlaw hotels, since every hotel unit is a potential apartment.

More seriously, the zero-sum argument assumes that every room rented to a visitor would otherwise be rented to a roommate. But the two “products” are not reasonably interchangeable; roommates involve advantages (such as familiarity and a regular rent check every month) and disadvantages (such as a 365-day relationship) that differ from those of Airbnb “temporary roommates.”**

Moreover, the supply of Airbnb rooms is actually pretty limited; for example, I just searched for Airbnb rooms in San Francisco renting for under $100 (and thus cheaper than most private hotels) and found a grand total of 486 rooms (not counting entire apartments, which compete more with ordinary landlords than with hotels). When I searched for rooms cheaper than the cheapest hotel on hotels.com, I found only 74 rentals- hardly enough to affect housing prices.  In less expensive cities, Airbnb is even less popular and thus even less likely to affect housing supply; for example, in Houston, I found only 139 rentals for less than $100.

Feinstein argues that renters should at least be kept out of single-family neighborhoods, because temporary renters would create “a blanket commercialization of our neighborhoods. ” This argument makes no sense to me; renting a room in a house for a night is no more “commercial” than renting the whole house for a year.  In both situations, someone is paying for lodging.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I am an occasional Airbnb customer and thus have a small financial interest in this issue myself).

**I realize that this argument is slightly less absurd when the Airbnb host is renting out an entire house or apartment, since this “product” is more similar to a traditional tenancy.

Loudoun’s Broken Development Model

If housing stock like this Loudoun County beauty can't cover its costs in infrastructure and services,  the local governance model is badly broken.

If housing stock like this Loudoun County beauty can’t cover its costs in infrastructure and services, the local governance model is badly broken.

by James A. Bacon

Office workers need less space than they once did. Over the years businesses’ space needs per office employee have shrunk from approximately 250 square feet to less than 190 square feet, says Ben Keddie, vice president of Coldwell Banker Commercial Elite, as quoted in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Office space is expensive, and businesses have learned how to function with less of it. With the rise of the mobile workforce, open work spaces and office hoteling, it is easier than ever to conserve space and rein in lease and rental costs.

That trend has dramatic, if unappreciated, consequences for local governments’ real estate tax base and the management of growth and development. If businesses need less office space per employee, they need less office space overall. Which means the cost of office space drops. Which means developers build fewer new office buildings. Which means local governments are finding it harder and harder to grow their tax base.

Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, it appears, is facing that very problem. “A softening commercial office market has made it difficult for developers to make money on their commercial land, because there are fewer companies interested in large parcels,” reports the Loudoun Times. Indeed, it might be said that outlying counties in the Washington metropolitan region are facing a trifecta of troubles regarding commercial real estate: (1) business enterprises are shrinking their office footprints everywhere; (2) sequestration-related budget cuts have dampened demand even more in the Washington region; and (3) when Washington-area businesses do seek new digs, they show strong preferences for walkable urbanism, a higher-density, mixed use pattern of development that accommodates walking, biking and mass transit. Walkable urbanism is found mainly in the region’s urban core and along Metro lines, not in low-density burbs like Loudoun. Continue reading

Americans Are More Multimodal than Some Might Think

Because most Americans drive to work on any given day, one might think that they don’t use any other mode of transportation, ever.  But a recent review of federal transportation surveys shows otherwise.   In fact, 65 percent of American commuters take at least one non-car trip per week, and 48 percent take three or more.

(cross posted from cnu.org)

Women Flex their Biking Muscles

amy_george

Amy George

by Amy George

Riding a bicycle can be transformative to physical and mental well being, to families, to neighborhoods, and beyond. As cycling becomes more popular, more women and girls are enjoying its effects. However, representation among cyclists still tips male — 76% as measured per-ride in the U.S. Yet recent surveys show women overwhelmingly have a positive view of cycling. What is keeping so many women from taking to the streets on two wheels? Furthermore, why should we care, and what can be done about it?

Since 2010, Richmond as a community has taken several big steps in bicycle advocacy. RideRichmond formed that year, as did Mayor Dwight Jones’ Bike, Trail, and Pedestrian Commission. We have seen the creation of the dedicated, professional action and advocacy groups such as  Sportsbackers’ BikeWalkRVA and the VCU RamBikes program. In this landscape of growing bike-positivity, RideRichmond realized that women’s representation still is an underserved aspect of cycling advocacy. As believers in the bicycle, we could not stand by and watch the benefits of cycling distributed unequally to Richmonders. In order to begin this conversation, RideRichmond is hosting the first Richmond Women’s Cycling Summit on October 23 at the Virginia War memorial. Continue reading

Burbs Beware: Office Jobs Moving Back to D.C.

dc_office_spaceNot only are Millennials migrating to the Washington metropolitan region’s urban core, it seems that businesses are, too, in a reversal of the decades-long trend of businesses moving out of the central city to outlying counties.

Vacancy rates have risen in Washington, D.C., due to the contraction of legal services and government contracting tied to federal government spending. But according to commercial real estate firm JLL, private-sector tenants from Maryland and Washington accounted for 300,000 square feet of new leasing activity in the District. Reports Virginia Business magazine:

Doug Mueller, a senior vice president at JLL, noted that the migration is heavily populated by associations, technology companies and professional services firms. “The quality and location of office space with easy access to mass transit, abundant amenities and housing options also has a visible and tangible impact on attracting and retaining top talent,” he said in a statement.

According to JLL’s Office Insight report for the third quarter, since the start of 2014, a total of 21,200 private-sector office jobs have been added to the metro D.C. economy.

Continue reading

Virginia: The Energy Guzzler Capital of the East Coast

WalletHub

by James A. Bacon

Virginia is the 43rd most energy efficient state in the country, which is another way of saying that it is the 6th most energy inefficient among the 48 states included in a national ranking by the number crunchers at WalletHub. The finding is based on the publication’s energy efficiency rankings in homes and automobiles, two of the largest categories of energy consumption. The methodology has lots of limitations but it does provide an interesting place to start thinking about measuring energy efficiency.

WalletHub calculates home-related energy efficiency by tabulating the total amount of energy consumed per capita by residential homes and adjusting for degree days. (Degree days are a measure of how much temperatures vary from a base of 65° Fahrenheit.) Houses in a state like Virginia, with a relatively mild climate, might require less energy for heating and cooling than, say, a state like Arizona, which is subject to scorching heat, but that doesn’t mean Virginia houses are more energy efficient. Adjusting for degree days gets closer to an apples-to-apples comparison. By this measure, Virginia ranked 35th among the 48 states.

The calculation for automobile energy efficiency measures what is essentially the average miles per gallon of the state’s automotive fleet — annual vehicles miles driven adjusted by the gallons of gasoline consumed. By this measure, Virginia also ranked 35th in the country. Continue reading