walkitout (walkitout) wrote,


Yeah, never get involved in this. That said, I'm reading Anthony Flint's previous book, _This Land_ (review will eventually follow, presumably, but it's nowhere near as compelling as _Wrestling with Moses_) and he's talking about green buildings and sprawl and densification and smarth growth and the New Urbanism and you know the drill. Given the publication date (2006), one assumes it was researched and written during the housing boom. In his summary of attempts to do some regional anti-sprawl planning, he talks about backlash against initially popular smart growth legislation and initiatives by governors. The backlash came in a couple of forms: ballot initiatives or legislation to undo the smart growth rules and new rules that took the fast-track "good" development and made it so it fast-tracked _all_ development. In retrospect, it is extremely obvious what must have happened. Smart growth seemed like a great idea, so it went through. Once in place, a bunch of developers standing under the overturned bucket of cash that was poured into the housing market under Bush and "Serial Bubbler" Greenspan must have redirected that stream of green stuff to make it possible to build what they've always built: vast tracts of something or other on ag land.

The farmers, of course, must have loved this: finally, they can get out from under a huge load of debt and retire. Towns aren't necessarily all that bright when it comes to planning development -- they rarely realize just how much it will cost them to build roads and run services to those new developments and they _always_ overestimate how much they'll get out of the new tax base. And all the people who went for Smart Growth because it sounded like a good idea also went for Property Rights because that sounded like a good idea, too.

Once they saw the results of Property Rights, of course, Oregon shoved through another ballot initiative to undue that horrific mistake, but that wasn't until _after_ the book was published -- that's not in there. So here's the question: when is the right time to redo zoning?

If the developers own the land, they'll be pissed if you stop them from building on it. It would be nice to put the rules in place before they buy the land. Probably not possible, altho land purchases by builders do relate to the business cycle in fairly predictable ways, which I'll get back to momentarily because _that_ is the whole point of this rant. Towns tend to be so desperate for anything to get going during the worst of a downturn that they're loathe to put new rules in then. Towns are _most_ likely to put things in place when they're watching the cookie cutter crap surround them (slam the door after entering) -- but there's huge resistance at that point with half-finished projects, already purchased land, projects have been okayed but not built, etc. There's just never a good time.

And now, returning to my point: homebuilders unload land at the end of a boom, trying to find a sucker who doesn't realize a bust is in progress. If they can't find a sucker, they may _still_ unload land, because they develop incredible cash flow problems when in-flight projects need cash to finish and they aren't able to sell completed projects in a timely fashion because a bust is in progress and buyers are loathe to buy when they think they can get a better deal by waiting. And that's an ordinary cycle -- what we just went through was substantially worse than usual.

The bust has been in progress for long enough that developers who were really in crisis have more or less gone bust; the big wave of panic selling is done. But there are still some cherry deals out there for people with the cash and foresight to buy while it's cheap -- and there are some builders out there who still have a lot more on hand than they are happy with. Also, there are some builders out there betting that some of their land ain't never gonna be developed after all and hoping to find someone willing to take the other side of that bet. The tide is turning right now -- purchases are headed up. In much the way that the stock market is a leading indicator of a turn in the economy as a hole, builder land purchases are a leading indicator of a turn in the housing market. Now would be the _perfect_ time to set some hard boundaries around metropolitan areas, and it is not going to happen.

The good news? One of the policies that survived the smart growth backlash, and seems to have persisted and expanded since then, has to do with roads. No one is building new ones any more -- with limited money locally, and nothing coming from the Feds, I would expect that developers looking at having to provide all the road costs for greenfields development might decide to do some infill along existing transit corridors instead. We can hope.
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