Not Just for the Gentry: Can the "New Urbanism" of Green City Neighborhoods, Convenient to Transportation and Jobs, Also Provide Affordable Housing?

By Dreier, Peter; Steckler, Beth | The American Prospect, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Not Just for the Gentry: Can the "New Urbanism" of Green City Neighborhoods, Convenient to Transportation and Jobs, Also Provide Affordable Housing?


Dreier, Peter, Steckler, Beth, The American Prospect


WE NEED TO IMAGINE A FUTURE IN WHICH Los Angeles is the greenest and cleanest big city in America," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in his April 2006 state of the city address. That s a tall order when you consider Los Angeles' long-standing love affair with the twin icons of suburbia--the car and the single-family home. Yet many agree with Villaraigosa that it's time for Los Angeles to kiss the suburban sweetheart goodbye and start courting urban green.

After three decades of significantly improving air quality through tougher automobile emissions and factory standards, Los Angeles is losing ground again. The idling ships and trucks at L.A.'s port, the nation's largest, are a major source of pollution. Proposals to "green" the port range from having docked ships turn off their engines and plug into electric outlets to encouraging rail rather than trucks to move containers out of the port.

But that still leaves the ears, which produce about half the air pollution in California. If current sprawl trends continue, more people will commute even longer distances on publicly funded highways. More than 18 million people live in greater Los Angeles' 177 cities, five counties (Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura) and nearly 35,000 square miles.

Between 2000 and 2004, Southern California, the nation's second-largest metropolitan area, was also the second fastest growing, mostly on the urban fringe, 40 to 75 miles inland from coastal jobs. Two of the nation's fastest growing communities, Rancho Cucamonga and Moreno Valley, are located 42 and 60 miles inland from L.A. Between 2000 and 2005, Rancho Cucamonga increased by 32 percent, from 127,000 to 169,000, while Moreno Valley spiked by 25 percent, from 142,000 to 178,000.

ENDLESS SPRAWL?

The combination of cheaper land and fiscally trapped small cities welcoming new single-family subdivisions, encourages developers to build on the suburban fringe rather than near the urban center. But the "externalities"--the economic and social burdens caused by traffic congestion, insurance premiums, potholes, pollution, and health problems--aren't factored into the costs that residents, and the public sector, have to bear.

Hardly any piece of open space seems immune. Environmentalists are currently fighting development of the 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch, 75 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. The Tejon Ranch Co. plans three large projects. Tejon Mountain Village would include a 23,000-acre resort with spas, boutique hotels, shops, and more than 3,000 homes. Its proposed Centennial project would replace more than 12,000 acres of grasslands, oak woodlands, and chaparral with some 23,000 homes and 1 million square feet of retail and commercial buildings. An industrial complex would destroy another 1,100 acres of farmland and grasslands.

Some portray Los Angeles as a model of the free market, with developers simply responding to consumer choices. But the patterns of how Angelenos live, work, and commute are not simply the result of millions of people making separate, individual choices. They also reflect government policies--about housing, transportation, zoning, taxes, business location, and others.

The average home in Los Angeles County sells for a cool $500,000--affordable to just 19 percent of the region's population. Several factors led to the price run-up: low interest rates, adjustable-rate and interest-only mortgages, and the failure of residential construction to keep pace with population growth. From 2000 to 2004, the areas population grew by 1.6 million people who, assuming roughly three per household, needed about 533,000 new homes. Actual construction, however, was only about 350,000 units, a shortfall of 183,000 units--this during a residential building boom.

INSIGHTS AND OBSTACLES

Choices--and the relative cost of alternatives--are shaped by public policies. So any effort to address the region's imbalance between the location of housing and jobs will require changes in government policy as well as changes in consciousness and individual behavior. …

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