The Anti-Sprawl Movement: Anti-Minority and Anti-Immigrant

Published October 1, 2003

August brought another unwelcome reminder of the elitist strains that infect the anti-sprawl movement.

The Center for Immigration Studies, in association with a Web site called Sprawl City, released a study titled “Outsmarting Smart Growth: Population Growth, Immigration and the Problem of Sprawl.” As the study’s title implies, it lays the blame for sprawl at the feet of our country’s newest citizens.

Restrictions Raise Prices

It has long been clear that the anti-sprawl movement is anti-minority. That racism is not purposeful or mindful on their part, but rather naive and mindless. Like the socialist planners who thought they could do better than the market, but wound up impoverishing millions, these anti-economists would prefer to restrict land use without raising prices. But it is an unavoidable fact that whatever is made more scarce costs more, especially when it is something people need and want, like housing.

A disproportionate share of U.S. households who do not own their own homes are minorities, African-Americans and Hispanics. They would buy houses if only they could afford them. The policies of smart growth–urban growth boundaries that ration land, and development impact fees that add thousands to the price of houses–are already driving the cost of housing beyond their means.

When challenged on this unintended consequence of their policies, smart growth proponents show themselves at best to be in denial, or at worst to have great faith that government will make the disadvantaged whole … though of course they have never run the numbers.

But the numbers are clear. A recent Harvard University study by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko found that much of the difference in housing costs from one part of the country to another can be explained by land regulation. Higher prices in the San Francisco Bay area, Portland, northern Virginia, and Denver are the product of planners, not the market. Housing prices in fast-growing Portland went through the roof at the same time housing was becoming more affordable in even faster-growing Atlanta and Phoenix.

No Room for Immigrants?

And now, the Center for Immigration Study contends sprawl is caused by immigrants. The truth is far more complex than their politically correct analysis would suggest.

Sprawl is caused by population growth and affluence. This might be a problem if sprawl itself were a problem. But the United States is a rich nation, barely 5 percent developed, with plenty of room to grow.

And while immigration laws, like all others, should be enforced, we have plenty of room to accept whatever rate of immigration is legal. Our record in that regard is exemplary. In the past 20 years, the U.S. has welcomed more than 17 million new foreign-born residents. At the same time, our lead in per-capita income has widened over that of virtually every other high-income nation.

Both the anti-minority and anti-immigrant strains in the anti-sprawl movement betray what might be called a “seniority”-based theory of human development: that those who have already “made it” can impose costs at will on those who have not. This is simply unacceptable.

The United States has been at its greatest and most successful when it has been inclusionary, not exclusionary and elitist. Our economic and land use policies should create an environment of opportunity so that everyone can prosper and create further opportunity for those who follow.

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning, and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university. His email address is [email protected].