The upside of 'density packing'

Living closer together helps the environment, shortens commutes, and promotes affordable housing.

By , csmonitor.com

The construction of high-rise apartment buildings, condo clusters, and townhomes is often met with howls of protest. But high-density development is good for the environment. It is a solution to traffic gridlock and long commutes. And it helps make real estate more affordable.

A few years ago the extremist group the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for a $50 million arson that destroyed a five-story apartment building under construction in San Diego. If the group was trying to make a statement about helping the environment, it was a dumb move. High-rise residential buildings enable hundreds of people to live on only a couple of acres of land. That frees up lots of extra space for animals, forests, and other natural habitat.

Hundreds of people living in single-family homes, by contrast, require dozens of acres of land. Apart from squirrels and birds and the like, the natural habitat of animals is destroyed or disrupted.

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I've observed people who consider themselves environmentalists scoff at condo complexes, townhomes, and other high-density development projects. But true environmentalists know that the closer together we humans live, the more space there is for wildlife.

In addition to preserving open space, closer-knit housing is also a solution to our cities' traffic gridlock and long commutes. High-density developments located near or within business districts, or close to mass transit points, enable a lot more people to be closer to work. By contrast, single-family housing areas, because they take up so many more square miles of space for the same number of residents, forces people to live much farther from their jobs. The result is the traffic and commuting nightmares so common in America's metropolitan areas.

While new multifamily housing developments could worsen traffic in certain pockets, they would ease traffic overall, especially because higher concentrations of people make new mass transit projects more financially viable.

Not only are worse commutes bad for their own sake, but also bad for the economy and for family life. Longer times behind the wheel mean billions of man-hours in lost economic output, as well as lost time spent with family or doing other activities.

In my neighboring county of Loudoun County, Va., near Washington, D.C., some politicians refer to townhome and condo developments pejoratively as "density packing." In the county's western section, developers are allowed to build only one house for every three acres. Yet Loudoun is a booming high-tech area. As more and more people are forced to live farther out, businesses will have a harder time finding suitable labor.

Loudoun residents are concerned about the expansion of the D.C. metropolitan area, with its associated housing tracts and strip malls, into their county. But demand for housing is high there because of the lack of housing availability - i.e., the lack of "density packing" - in closer-in suburbs. It is a vicious circle; citizen groups lobby to prevent the construction of new multifamily housing developments, forcing newcomers to live farther out. Then new citizen groups sprout up in those farther-out areas, and the outward expansion continues. I would not be surprised if the outer edge of the D.C. metropolitan area reaches West Virginia (50 miles west of D.C.) within a decade or two.

Multifamily properties also make housing more affordable. Real estate prices in many of America's metropolitan areas are so high because of huge demand for housing amid a limited supply of land. By increasing the overall supply of housing while consuming minimal amounts of land, such development eases upward pressure on real estate prices.

With the recent real estate boom, many US cities have been undergoing a housing affordability crisis. In addition to a reduced labor supply, one result is a declining percentage of children, because young families cannot afford to buy the houses. In San Francisco, for example, less than 15 percent of the population is under age 18, versus about 25 percent nationally.

The "smart growth" movement champions high-density development. Advocates thereof, however, typically seek to limit expansion of suburbs. While this preserves habitat and farmland, it results in skyrocketing real estate prices.

Developers should be free to meet the demand of those seeking the "American dream" of a single-family home with a yard. They should also be free to build multi-unit housing, especially because our demographics are changing in favor of the latter.

"Single-parent households, single-person households, empty nesters, and couples without children make up the new majority of American households, and they have quite different real estate needs," according to a report by the Urban Land Institute. "These groups are more likely to choose higher-density housing in mixed-density communities that offer vibrant neighborhoods over single-family houses far from the community core."

The United States is expected to expand by about 100 million people over the next 40 years. It potentially means consuming millions of acres of additional open space in order to accommodate them all. But that could be remedied if we build up, rather than out.

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