Study says Americans prefer smart-growth communities; Is smart-growth smart though?

According to a study, the Community Preference Survey, conducted for the National Association of Realtors®, Americans favor walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, with 56 percent of respondents preferring smart growth neighborhoods over neighborhoods that require more driving between home, work and recreation.

Walkable communities are defined as those where shops, restaurants, and local businesses are within walking distance from homes. According to the survey, when considering a home purchase, 77 percent of respondents said they would look for neighborhoods with abundant sidewalks and other pedestrian-friendly features, and 50 percent would like to see improvements to existing public transportation rather than initiatives to build new roads and developments.

The survey also revealed that while space is important to home buyers, many are willing to sacrifice square footage for less driving. Eighty percent of those surveyed would prefer to live in a single-family, detached home as long as it didn’t require a longer commute, but nearly three out of five of those surveyed — 59 percent — would choose a smaller home if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less.

The survey also found that community characteristics are very important to most people. When considering a home purchase, 88 percent of respondents placed more value on the quality of the neighborhood than the size of the home, and 77 percent of those surveyed want communities with high-quality schools.

Is Smart Growth Smart?

In an article by P. Michael Saint published on Real Estate Investors Daily back in November, 2009, discusses the book, “The Housing Boom and Bust,” by economist Thomas Sowell and Sowell’s opinion of how “Smart-Growth” initiatives and land-use laws created an artificial limit of supply, which therefore increased prices because of the “created shortage” of available land when there is, in reality, plenty of land.

In Sowell’s book he points out the following with regard to smart-growth:

  • A study of housing costs found that land use restrictions in the name of “smart-growth” policies had added costs of more than $100,000 per home in 50 metropolitan areas.
  • “…in particular localities around the country, housing prices had skyrocketed to the point where people had to pay half their incomes to buy a modest-sized home ……almost invariably, these locally extreme housing prices have been a result of local political crusades in the name of locally attractive slogans about ….”smart growth”
  • In contrast to areas with “smart-growth”, Houston didn’t even have zoning laws, much less the “vast array of other constraints common in San Jose or other places with severe land use restrictions. Coldwell Banker estimated that a house that costs $155,000 in Houston would cost more than a million dollars in San Jose.”

In his book Thomas Sowell quotes author Eugen Weber from his book “The Hollow Years; France in the 1930’s” in which he says “bad ages to live through are good ages to learn from“. This makes me wonder if, even though the housing boom felt good while it happened, as we saw later, many elements fueling the boom were bad which is why the real estate market crashed, we should consider this a “bad age” and learn from it? If so, then I wonder if we would consider “smart-growth” smart? Sure, if we ask consumers if they like the idea, without telling them what it adds to the cost of a home, or what the long term effects of an artificially created market are, then, of course, they like the idea…after-all it all sounds so sexy….but if the consumer knew the reality their opinion may be different.

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