The Promise of Urbanism: A Response to Rachel Bovard in American Compass
In arguing against the AFFH rule, the conservative writer overlooks the broader urbanist vs. status quo debate.
Rachel Bovard has written a piece at American Compass bouncing off Wells King (republished at New Urbs), both responding to the Trump-Carson op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, or AFFH. Trump and Carson boasted that they were repealing Obama-era rule and saving America’s suburbs from left-wing federal social engineering. King argued that this could prompt positive reform of an ossified and outdated zoning regime. Bovard argues that the AFFH was in fact federal social engineering, and that the suburbs should remain bastions of eventual homeownership for all Americans. But while her ostensible target is the AFFH, she repeats a few common misconceptions about what zoning reform and urbanism more generally might look like if more widely implemented.
For example, she argues that “high-rise apartment complexes” would “overrun” former single-family zones, and that because Americans tend to view home ownership as aspirational, we should not encourage too much density or non-single-family housing in the suburbs. She also seems to suggest that other forms of housing are more suited for rentals, and that ownership should be encouraged. These may or may not be arguments against the AFFH, but they misunderstand the broader urbanist cause.
This is by no means unique to Bovard. Anybody under the “conservative urbanist” umbrella has probably had this frustrating conversation, where intelligent and critically thinking conservative interlocutors associate affordable housing, public transit, or urbanism in general with “communism” or “socialism” or, at best, “social engineering.” This speaks to a certain conservative blind spot.
But it also speaks to a certain failure on the part of urbanists to present their case to the broad public, which, generally speaking, knows very little about zoning, land-use master plans, traffic engineering, and any of the other policy nuts and bolts that determine, at least as much as markets do, what the American landscape looks like. The New Urbanists have probably been better at this than average, but their particular contributions are nonetheless often glossed over by defenders of the suburban status quo. This, then, is a broadly New Urbanist response to Bovard’s piece.
The core point of the New Urbanists has always been that New Urbanism is more or less old urbanism, and that old urbanism has precedents not only in the Old World but also in the United States. From the New England village to the 19th century railroad town or coal-mining settlement, to even the streetcar suburbs, most residential and commercial development in the United States before the 1930-1950 period was essentially “urban” in form.
This does not mean high-rise towers next to single-family houses. In fact, it does not necessarily mean high-rise towers at all! Despite “Manhattanization” being a buzzword, New York City is virtually the only “Manhattanized” city in the United States. The Mid-Atlantic cities are composed largely of rowhouses; the Rust Belt cities are largely composed of single-family neighborhoods, though tightly packed and laid out in traditional urban grids. “Urban,” in America, may mean something different than the sprawling suburbs so many of us are used to, but it most certainly does not mean something alien to American life or history.
Contra Bovard’s argument that denser options would overrun single-family houses, what most urbanists want is simply that a more classically urban built environment be an option today. In most older American cities, and in most (pre-zoning) classic towns, there’s a diversity of housing options, as well as neighborhoods with mostly single-family detached houses. It is exactly this kind of mix and variety which is essentially prohibited or severely restricted in many localities today.
While homeowners can feel besieged by density, the reality is that most land in most places is locked up by zoning codes for single-family homes or other forms of low-density development. This is not a policy area that most non-urbanists are aware of, let alone understand. But its consequences can be counterintuitive. In many classic towns—now governed by modern, low-density, separate use zoning codes—an older building cannot be replaced with the same type of building. Say a small building mixing ground-level retail with offices and upper-level apartments burns. In many localities, modern zoning prohibits this, and so even classic towns can slowly lose their urban form. (James Howard Kunstler discusses this in The Geography of Nowhere, perhaps the first popular tract promoting New Urbanist ideas.)
Another consequence of these codes is that projects which do contradict them—in zoning parlance, earn a “variance”—tend to be large ones, because they are the only ones worth shepherding through an excruciating bureaucratic and planning process. Most developers won’t bother to endure years of Kafkaesque municipal politics in order to build one duplex or a three-story apartment building. A tower or a block-long apartment complex or a complicated mixed use complex to be built in three “phases”? That’s more like it. (A counter to this, which would allow slow and incremental densification, is Charles Marohn’s “next level of intensity, by right” zoning concept. In other words, a house can become a duplex but no more; a duplex can become a fourplex, but no more, and onward.)
Bovard writes, “Millennials as well as working families aspire to homeownership in the suburbs.” She argues that ownership of a single-family home is still aspirational and normative in America. “The genuine preferences and aspirations of working families for space in a single-family home—not a cramped apartment in a high-rise—to raise a family and build community should be prioritized, not dismissed,” she writes.
This may be true, and whether the point of housing policy should be to promote ownership is a question for another day. But this is not, as she casts it, an argument against widening housing options in the suburbs, or anywhere else. Few, after all, can afford a detached house when starting out. One of the arguments for more “missing middle” housing options is that in between their post-college rental and their mid-career detached house, individuals and young families need to live somewhere. Doesn’t it then make sense to increase the supply of affordable housing lower down on the ladder, in the places that actually have economic opportunities and currently face housing crunches? And in any case, there’s no reason a duplex, a condo, or a townhouse can’t be owned rather than rented. They often are owned, and the mortgage on such a property is a good way to get one’s foot in the homeownership door. Contra Bovard’s argument that such properties promote renting and that renting promotes transience, a gradient of housing options in a single place enables more rootedness, such that a move up on the housing ladder doesn’t require a move to a brand new community.
It is easy for conservatives to ridicule those urbanists who seem to think that American suburbs can be transformed into Singapore or Copenhagen, who want to ban cars and build towers, and who view reform of suburbia as part of a constellation of social justice causes. They are one voice and orientation within the urbanist community. If conservatives cannot accept them, they should consider some of the others. Urbanism is a big tent, and it has room for conservatives.
“I will not live in a pod,” goes the too-online right-wing meme. And Americans will not live in pods. But in between the McMansion and the pod is not only a wealth of “missing middle” housing options and urban forms, but a great deal of our own country’s history.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.