Smart Growth a Dumb Deal for the Poor

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Yesler Terrace, Seattle, 1200 Residents to be displaced

Yesler Ter­race, Seat­tle, 1200 Res­i­dents to be dis­placed

In 1880, he was notice­able. Dressed in long coat and top hat, his one hand wield­ed a mag­ic wand punc­tu­at­ing the elixir in the oth­er.  His con­coc­tion cured all from headaches, to “kid­ney trou­ble.”

Today’s snake oil­er is col­lege edu­cat­ed, mar­ket­ing savvy and lends an infec­tious pas­sion to Smart Growth, the 21st Cen­tu­ry solve-all.  He and his slick sup­port­ers, claim to repair every­thing from jobs and cli­mate change to social jus­tice and traf­fic con­ges­tion, all while return­ing the envi­ron­ment to Hiawathan pris­tin­i­ty.

Unlike his 19th cen­tu­ry coun­ter­part, today’s Smart Growth plan­ner has wrought finan­cial wreck­age and shat­tered oppor­tu­ni­ties across a land­scape of Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties.  Sleek rail trains, trimmed pub­lic parks and dec­o­ra­tive­ly obstruct­ed “calm” streets hide his cus­tomers’ dashed hopes.

Once com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers escape the trance of mixed-use effi­cien­cy, gran­ite counter tops and gleam­ing stain­less appli­ances, once they real­ize the mean­der­ing bike path and com­mu­ni­ty swing sets are man­dates, not options, the wake-up is jolt­ing.

As Smart Growth plan­ning coax­es peo­ple out of sin­gle home sub­ur­ban liv­ing and into boxed quar­ters near tran­sit lines, par­ents soon real­ize the land their chil­dren play on is no longer theirs.  Dad can­not build a back­yard sand­box with his kids or spend the week­end con­struct­ing a new tree-house as a fam­i­ly project.

The eco­nom­ics of Smart Growth are sober­ing and hit few hard­er than the poor.  As growth bound­aries lim­it new home con­struc­tion out­side of the perime­ters, con­cen­trat­ed con­struc­tion with­in the defined area dri­ves hous­ing prices beyond the reach of most.

Accord­ing to Wen­dell Cox, pri­or to the Smart Growth surge of the 1990’s an aver­age home cost just 2.5 to 3 times the medi­an income of com­mu­ni­ty res­i­dents.  A per­son earn­ing $40,000 annu­al­ly could like­ly pur­chase a home for $120,000.

But, in 2006, in Smart Growth cities like Boston, Port­land and San Diego, homes respec­tive­ly cost 6, 5 and 10.5 times the medi­an fam­i­ly income.  Homes cost­ing just 4 times or more annu­al income are con­sid­ered “seri­ous­ly unaf­ford­able.

A fam­i­ly earn­ing $125,000 in San Diego would be hard-pressed to afford a home 10 times that amount.  Rou­tine­ly, they shrink their liv­ing stan­dards and move into ever small­er dwellings.

Hous­ing costs in Seat­tle are so exor­bi­tant; peo­ple are turn­ing to rent­ing and down­siz­ing.  The Walling­ford Apart­ments offer 190 square feet of liv­ing space at a cost of $825 per month.

But the poor do not earn $125,000 or even half of that. So, what becomes of them under Smart Growth? Look no fur­ther than Port­land, Ore­gon, her­ald­ed by the NYT as the epit­o­me of pre­scrip­tive plan­ning.

In the 1980’s, Port­land was one of the most diverse and afford­able mar­kets for sin­gle fam­i­ly homes in the coun­try.  By 1996, over 20 years of Smart Growth plan­ning had tak­en its toll.  Traf­fic con­ges­tion, hous­ing short­ages, increased home costs, high­er tax­es, cost­ly rail tran­sit and pri­vate back­yards swapped for pub­lic open spaces cre­at­ed a pic­turesque vis­i­tors’ par­adise borne on the backs of the poor and mid­dle class.

What was once a diverse city is now mock­ing­ly called the ‘whitest city in Amer­i­ca.’  In spite of afford­able hous­ing pro­grams and years of planner’s good inten­tions, Port­land has cre­at­ed a ring of pover­ty that has shoved poor blacks into low-income areas as the wealthy push them out of the city core.  Then City Com­mis­sion­er, Gretchen Kafoury said, “Oh my God!  We thought we were doing a good thing.”

In San Fran­cis­co, 36% of poor black fam­i­lies liv­ing in “com­mu­ni­ties of con­cern,” will be dis­placed to make way for tran­sit-ori­ent­ed com­mu­ni­ties.  Accord­ing to the Draft Envi­ron­men­tal Impact Report, “dis­place­ment is a sig­nif­i­cant impact that can­not be mit­i­gat­ed.

The suf­fer­ing of the poor under Smart Growth extends beyond hous­ing.  As com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers pay ris­ing mort­gages and tax­es, the mid­dle class is dwin­dling.  A 2013 study by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress shows that poor fam­i­lies rise out of pover­ty fastest when liv­ing in an area with a strong mid­dle class. With the mid­dle class in Smart Growth areas shrink­ing and hous­ing costs ris­ing, where does that leave the poor?

Call it Smart Growth, sus­tain­able devel­op­ment or region­al­ism.  To poor and low-income fam­i­lies, it is pure snake oil.