Killing the California Dream

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image14115451Californians need to give up on their dream of a “ranch-house lifestyle” and an “ample backyard” and the state should become “more like New York City,” writes LA Times columnist George Skelton (reprinted in the Mercury-News and East Bay Times in case you run into the LA Times paywall). After reading his article, the Antiplanner has just one question: Why?

Skelton argues that California’s population has grown in the last 70 years and is still growing. But he doesn’t seem to realize that the vast majority of the state is still rural. The 2010 census found that urban areas covering just 5.3 percent of the state is urban and houses 95 percent of the state’s population.

In 2000, California conducted a housing supply study titled Raising the Roof. The full text of the study is no longer available on the California housing department’s web site, so I’ve posted it here. Chapter 3 assesses how much land in each county is available for development, data summarized in exhibit 13(previously cited here).

The study concluded that the four counties surrounding San Francisco — Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, and San Mateo — had 595,000 acres of developable land. Santa Clara County (San Jose) had 235,000 acres, while Los Angeles and Orange counties had 509,000 acres. Even after deducting wet lands, prime and unique farmlands, flood zones, special natural areas, and areas needed by endangered species, the San Francisco area had 245,000 acres, San Jose 80,000, and LA-Orange counties more than 280,000 acres.

If these lands are available, why aren’t they being developed? Chapter 4 of the study pointed out that “the majority of California cities and counties have adopted one or more growth control and/or growth management measures.” These measures make it impossible to build more than one house at a time on rural lands, and make even building that one house difficult.

California counties also charge developers severe impact fees to cover infrastructure costs. “The problem with this system is that it doesn’t work,” says the study, because the impact fees are so high that developments aren’t feasible. In addition, the California Environmental Quality Act has been interpreted in the courts to prevent counties from development rural land without an environmental impact report that costs around $20 million, and counties won’t pay that cost and developers can’t afford to.

As a result, the amount of land that was considered undeveloped but developable in 2000 is almost all still undeveloped today. Opening that land to development would allow California to grow out, not up, which is a lot more affordable. As the Antiplanner has noted before, both land prices and construction costs are higher for dense development than for low-density single-family homes.

Skelton is just one of many Los Angeles residents who don’t understand their region.

• Many consider it sprawl, yet it is the densest urban area in the United States: 7,000 people per square mile vs. 5,300 for the New York urban area (and a national average of 2,500), so to become more like New York it would have to add 350,000 acres to its land area.

• Many think it has been paved over with freeways, yet it has the fewest freeway miles per capita of any major urban area: about 53 miles per million residents vs. 68 in New York (and 122 for the national average urban area), so to be more like New York would require building 188 miles of new freeways.

• Many think that all it needs is to build more rail transit, yet for every new rail transit rider it has gained, it has lost five bus riders, meaning rail transit is more harmful to transit riders than even Uber and Lyft.

• Finally, many think it has run out of room, when in fact there is plenty of undeveloped land available.

Contrary to popular belief, most Millennials would rather live in the suburbs, while only 17 percent want to live in big cities. California cities and counties have effectively conspired to deny people this dream. LA Times writers such as Skelton should take a closer look before supporting that conspiracy.

Randal O’Toole is the director of the Independence Institute’s Transportation Policy Center and author of the recent book, Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.

This piece originally appeared on The Antiplanner.

Cross-posted at New Geography