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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Housing Density and NIMBYs

Housing density has been and will remain the most common disagreement with regards to new development in existing towns. The politics surrounding this issue can be fierce with strong emotions on all sides. The battle over density usually starts when a developer purchases land with plans to build medium to high-density residential. One resident will hear about the pending project and will rally the troops. This person is usually referred to as a NIMBY which stands for Not In My Back Yard. This neighborhood watchdog will then broadcast the message that an evil developer is trying to profit with a new development and does not care about its impact on the surrounding community.

This was the case with Daybreak and many other new urban communities across the nation. The question that I would like to ask most NIMBYs is this: how did you inform yourself about the topic of density and its effects? Some of them call on first-hand experience. The neighbors near many developments complain about the traffic that the development is causing. Of course while the infrastructure that will accompany the development is only starting these neighbors pass judgment by what they see immediately. This short-term, subjectivity should not be taken as fact, but many NIMBY’s present it as fact. Many NIMBYs that I have talked to use the words “its just common sense” all too often when trying to explain their information source. While I feel that common sense is a valid tool that cannot be underestimated, I also feel that it is sometimes confused with myth.

These myths are traditional in my opinion. Passed down through the generations and are added to with each new generation. The history of where these myths started reaches back as far as the 1800s. The US started as an agricultural nation and transitioned into an industrial nation with factories and mass production. This transition was accompanied by waves of immigration from Europe. Each new wave contained different ethnic groups that were overtly discriminated against. This discrimination clustered these immigrants into densely populated areas with the least desirable jobs. This segregation along socio-economic status lines resulted in the materialization of many of the myths that are associated with density.

Fast forward to the age of suburbia that started after World War II. Being enabled to travel long distances via automobile, people could more economically live in the suburbs and further segregate themselves. Zoning use ordinances specified separation of land use and from then on commercial could no longer coexist with residential. In many cases this meant separation of density as well. Fast forward again to the 70s and 80s where the government decided to build “project housing” which not only segregated people of lower socio-economic status, but actually concentrated them. Many of these were an immediate failure with rampant crime and social problems. The images created by these projects reverberated with further intensity in the media particularly in movies and television. The “inner city” was a dangerous crime ridden area only suitable for those “other” people. All of these events perpetuated the myths of density with a simple philosophy: guilty by association.

So what is the real story behind density? The best way to answer this question is to address the myths often cited by NIMBYs one at a time.

Myth: Density will lower the value of my home. Many things can lower the value of a home, but density is not by itself one of them. In fact researchers have conducted many studies on single-family housing that is located in proximity to dense residential developments. The conclusion of these studies is that there is not a significant difference in the appreciation rate of those single family homes located in close proximity to high residential developments and those single-family homes located further away. In fact the percentage of appreciation is 2.9 versus 2.7 percent. This is not a significant difference. However, if you have an apartment building located next to your home that is 5 stories tall, over 30 years old, the grass is browning, windows are broken, loud music is blaring from the windows, and the paint is literally peeling like a sunburn, then this will obviously lower the value of your home. Of course, if a single family residence was in the same state, then it would lower the value of your home as well.

Another myth is that dense housing will create more traffic. Obviously if you add more cars to an area you will have more traffic. However, research has proven that higher density housing decreases traffic per person. Single family detached homes average 10 car trips a day. Compare that to the 6.3 car trips per day made by people living in townhomes and condominiums. Density is also needed for public transportation to be feasible. The Mid-Jordan TRAX line would not extend to South Jordan at all if not for the density that will make up the Daybreak Town Center. This mode of transportation will bring an additional choice for transportation that is likely to be used considering gas prices. Daybreak further mitigates traffic by having most necessities within walking distance which encourages the two-legged commute.

The most prominent myth about density is that it creates crime. This claim is absolutely false. Numerous studies have been conducted and the conclusion is that per population, crime is the same in higher density housing as it is in single family housing. The perception of crime is perpetuated when the observer holds an entire apartment complex to the same standard as one single family home. So when three juveniles from the same complex commit a crime and the police show up at the apartment complex three times in one year, it is considered “crime ridden.” On the other hand if the police show up for a juvenile in a single family residence this is considered an “anomaly.” Crime research indicates that crimes increase in accordance with certain socioeconomic indicators such as education attainment, unemployment (particularly of males), and the poverty rate.

The final main myth is that dense residential housing is unattractive and is only desired by lower-income households. Considering the changing demographics and preferences of consumers, this assumption is not based in reality. This market appeals to empty-nester and first-time home buyers tremendously. As with anything in real estate it is all about location, location, location. You can buy a single-family home in some locations for half of the price of a town home in south Jordan. Considering that the average income earner in Utah currently cannot purchase high-density housing in many areas, I would have to say that it is not just the poor that are moving into condos and townhomes. If the housing has a good design and is well maintained it will attract quality residents who care about and participate in their community.

So who is winning this battle, the NIMBYs or the New Urbanists? The New Urbanists have the clear lead, but this depends greatly on where you live. In North Dakota and Oklahoma , the NIMBYs are holding their ground. If you live in Utah , Colorado , Texas , Florida , or California on the other hand, the New Urbanists are definitely ahead of the game. Since its inception in the early 80s, New Urbanism has grown at a phenomenal rate in most states. Locally, more and more new urban developments are popping up. They are called by different names such as smart growth or transit oriented developments, but they are the same with respect to density.

In fact, South Jordan will shortly be surrounded by these developments. With the Herriman Towne Center , Daybreak, Jordan River , and other future communities coming to light, New Urbanism will also be the future of development locally. A number of strong forces demand this density. Energy costs demand homes that are more efficient, smaller, easier to take care of, and closer to the necessities of life. Businesses now want to locate their operations in communities that are vibrant, walkable, and have transit nearby. Density is the vehicle that has to be used to accomplish these attributes. The government wants density as it allows for less expenditure on infrastructure per tax payer. Finally, people are demanding more density and they are voting with their feet. The success of dense New Urban communities speaks volumes about this demand.

Density will have its place in the future of South Jordan, but if not planned correctly it can cause problems. Density cannot be thrown in a community in a half hazard manner in order for the developer to make a buck. Instead it should be planned and integrated correctly according to transect planning and community needs. These new developments must feature good designs that are sensitive to the context of the surrounding community. These designs and features must be maintained by a community organization such as a HOA. I can see why many NIMBYs are opposed to housing density, but assumptions should not be made based on false associations of the past. To those NIMBYs who will fight till their last breath any development that has more density that 2 units per acre consider if your beliefs about density are actually true. Also consider if your energy might be better spent ensuring that these developments are integrated properly instead of trying to ban them all together. Density is here to stay. Instead of a battle of how many units per acre, we need to ensure that these units are built, maintained, and located in a fashion that will enhance the community for all of us.


Anonymous said...

Daybreak Man,

Nice post, I think you underestimate NIMBYs though. Everyone here wants a massive 7000 sq. ft Mcmansion, on a 1/2 acre lot. They want to put kentucky blue grass on the lawn and maybe some bushes, but no trees because that would block people from seeing their life's accomplishment. Their stucco palace cannot have anything but other stucco palaces nearby otherwise their neighborhood is under attack. These people say that the density puts an undue burden on public services, but they have no idea on the amount of money the city has to spend each year to give them the infrastructure that is needed for their sprawling neighborhoods. My opinion: let the free market reign, but if they are going to cost the public more, then they should pay more taxes.

Anonymous said...

I really don't mind housing density as long as it is not all section 8 housing. Like you said, concentrating people of a low socio economic status harms the community.

Adam cohen said...

The ratio of single-family to multi-unit housing has implications for municipal revenues and expenses. New Urbanists should be aware of the need to keep the various modes of housing in balance. Please see an analysis prepared for Salem, Oregon at