Is smart growth anti-poor and anti-black?

Published March 1, 2001

The national movement to combat the alleged ills of urban sprawl is guilty of false advertising.

Proponents of anti-sprawl policies, often termed “smart growth,” portray their effort as an environmentally sensitive campaign to protect communities against the ravages of economic progress. In fact, smart growth is often nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt by well-heeled suburbanites to keep newcomers from their neighborhoods.

Through such smart growth measures as urban growth boundaries and restrictive zoning practices that inflate housing prices, environmentalists and smart growth advocates shamelessly exploit the selfish desire of some suburbanites to close the gate to less-affluent families seeking the American Dream.

Americans are homeowners

As has been the case since World War II, Americans overwhelmingly prefer suburban living over inner-cities or older closer-in suburbs. Eighty-three percent of respondents to a survey conducted by the National Association of Home Builders reported they would rather live in a single-family detached home in an outlying suburb over a townhouse in an urban setting.

Minority and moderate-income Americans are no exception. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, minorities accounted for 42 percent of the growth in home ownership between 1994 and 1998.

Suburbs are attractive for a variety of reasons, but better schools, improved economic opportunities, and low crime rates are considered to be key. Economists Julie Berry Culen and Steven Levitt calculate that, between 1976 and 1993, a city typically lost one resident for every additional violent crime committed there. It is not difficult to understand the flight of African-Americans from Washington, DC to the suburbs when, in 1997, instances of violent crime were six times more frequent in the city than in the suburbs.

Anti-sprawl is anti-minority

The growing anti-sprawl crusade imperils the significant social and economic gains made by minority Americans in recent years. Wherever anti-sprawl policies have been aggressively implemented, the cost of housing has soared, and access to affordable housing by low- and moderate-income families has plummeted.

Urban growth boundaries have been especially dangerous in this regard, causing dramatic housing inflation wherever they’ve been employed.

An urban growth boundary is a politically designated line around cities beyond which development is prohibited or significantly curtailed. By forcing new development into the crowded urban area, the amount of land available for new home construction is automatically reduced. By limiting the supply of develop-able land, urban growth boundaries force an increase in housing prices.

The inflationary effect of urban growth boundaries is especially apparent in Portland, Oregon, where a strict smart growth program has contributed to a dramatic escalation in the cost of housing.

In 1991, Portland was ranked as the 55th most affordable city in America. Since then, a rapid rise in housing prices, attributable primarily to the urban growth boundary and other anti-sprawl policies, has caused Portland’s rank to fall to 174th–the second least affordable city in the nation.

Between 1995 and 1997 alone, more than 80,000 single-family homes in Portland became unaffordable due to housing price inflation. In one inner-city Portland neighborhood, home prices doubled between 1990 and 1995, from $41,300 to $83,800, seriously undermining the chances of moderate- and low-income families seeking to own homes.

Portland is not the only example of affordable housing lost to anti-sprawl policies. More than 100 cities, counties, and regions across the country have adopted some form of urban growth boundary. After Napa, California implemented an urban growth boundary that resulted in a 74 percent reduction in residential building permits, the average value of a single-family home in Napa County skyrocketed by 158 percent, to over $373,000.

Great if you’ve got yours

Unfortunately, many affluent suburbanites are waving the smart growth banner precisely because of the movement’s track record in keeping home ownership out of reach for less-affluent families. A case in point is Prince William County, Virginia–a major suburb in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

In 1998, Prince William County’s board of supervisors approved the region’s first comprehensive “slow growth” plan. The Prince William plan set aside nearly half of the county’s land in a “rural crescent” in which future new home construction and other development would be allowed only on ten-acre plots. The result, predictably, has been a dramatic increase in land prices. Says one developer, “the downzoning is creating a buying panic . . . that’s driving land prices up. The building community doesn’t have many places left to build.”

Another result of Prince William County’s plan is that highly affluent home buyers, attracted by the large, secluded lots and gated developments, are moving to the county in droves. Many of these new residents first sought assurances from the county that the land-use restrictions would continue to be enforced once they purchased their homes. They didn’t want to pay $1 million for a home only to see townhouses and fast-food restaurants built near their neighborhoods.

Victoria and Ralph Schmidt, for example, who made their fortune in pharmaceuticals and public relations, built a mansion replete with libraries and an art gallery on a 20-acre plot. They moved from their upscale development in New Jersey to take advantage of Prince William’s guarantee of no development infringing on their space. Said Mrs. Schmidt, “We bought protection.”

Fellow Prince William newcomer Greg Gorham, a software developer, moved from another Virginia suburb because a builder constructed 20 townhouses on land next to him. “That was the thing I really didn’t want to have happen to me again,” said Gorham.

Whose land is it, anyway?

Some African-American property owners have a less charitable opinion of the impact of smart growth policies on their economic fortunes.

LaVerne Neal, 70, owns a 75-acre plot of fertile farmland in Lower Richland, South Carolina–a predominantly black farming community southeast of Columbia. Her late husband’s grandfather purchased the land 130 years ago after being freed from slavery. Back then, the farm was just a swamp. But after generations of hard work, Neal’s family turned it into a profitable farm that harvests corn, cotton, and trees.

Although much of this development occurred during segregation, Neal told The Washington Post, “at least nobody messed with our land. If I could pay my taxes, I didn’t have to worry about my land.”

That was before the arrival of the smart growth crusade. The Neals and other Lower Richland residents are worried that Richland County’s newly adopted anti-sprawl program will cause them to lose their land. The plan–“Richland County’s 2020 Town and Country Vision”–was unanimously adopted by the county council as a way to control sprawl.

The Richland County plan includes an especially onerous provision that prohibits almost all of the county’s prime farmland from being developed. In addition, the plan may prevent the Neals and other farmers from harvesting their trees, a major crop for Lower Richland farmers. Farmers may also be required to set aside portions of their land for hiking and bike trails.

LaVerne Neal doesn’t like the plan at all, as she believes it will destroy her ability to make a living off her 130-year-old farm. Says Neal, “I don’t like the idea of them controlling what I can do with my land. I think if I struggled, I ought to be the one to make the decision of what I’m going to do with my land.”

Neal’s sentiments are echoed by other Lower Richland residents, who say the plan would reduce the value of their property just as demand for it is rising. Neal’s son, Joe, a Baptist minister and Democratic state representative, says, “This is a net loss of wealth for poor people. As far as I’m concerned, this is a taking.”

The proponents of smart growth, on the other hand, cannot say enough good things about the Richland County plan. Architect Andres Duany, who popularized the New Urbanism style of neighborhood planning that is held up as the alternative to suburbia, called it “a first-rate plan.”

Environmentalists claim Richland County farmers who protest that they can’t sell their land under the plan are not real farmers at all, and that their views need not be taken into account. Dell Isham, head of South Carolina’s chapter of the Sierra Club, told Investor’s Business Daily, “For the true farmer, it’s good. If it’s the person who wants to develop and subdivide their farmland, it’s not to their advantage.” According to the Sierra Club, the Neals–who have owned and farmed their land for 130 years–and other predominantly black farmers in Richland County who have the temerity to want to sell their land, are not “true farmers.”

A license to violate rights

Lower Richland residents are not taking the matter lying down. The Lower Richland NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union are considering a lawsuit against Richland County, claiming the plan violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantee that the government cannot take land for public use without just compensation.

Writing about the Lower Richland case in The Nation, William Steif, a self-described liberal, warns Americans should beware when they hear the phrase “urban sprawl” bandied about by smart growth advocates. “It is an excuse to do all sorts of things that may not be very nice,” wrote Steif. “The vagueness of the term really allows you to do damn near anything.”

Anti-sprawl policies mean many things to many people. To environmentalists who generally disdain any sort of economic development, “smart growth” is a useful weapon in the ongoing campaign against private property rights. To some affluent suburbanites, it is the perfect way to pull up the proverbial drawbridge and prevent others from sharing in what they have.

But to millions of Americans like the Neals–still pursuing the promise of home ownership, a safe community, and economic improvement–anti-sprawl policies are an obstacle (and sometimes an illegal one) to their right to seek prosperity.

John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. His email address is [email protected].