Last week The Garden Island Newspaper published an op-ed I wrote in support of most of the policies in the new Kaua’i General Plan update. The gist of the piece is that we are facing an affordable housing crisis (everyone agrees with that) and so to bring the cost of housing down we need to make it easier to build (some people agree with that) while doing more to minimize sprawl (some other people agree with that), and that’s why the direction set by the General Plan is the right one for Kaua’i (almost nobody agrees with that).
But, I provided almost no evidence for any of those claims. In my defense, it was a short column, there was a lot to cover, and printed newspaper pieces don’t allow for linked citations. So — I asked you to trust me, and left it at that.
But, the second most important rule of the internet is to not trust the guy using emotional rhetoric (which I did) to make an argument without any citations (which, gulp, I also did). So, if you’re skeptical of my claims — good, you should be! And you should also read the 4,000 words below.
Claim #1: Kaua’i is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis.
Since we all agree with this, I won’t spend much time on it. But, according to the General Plan, the median home price on Kaua’i is $730,000 which is 300% higher than the national average. And, also according to the plan, 44% of Kaua’i households spend more than 30% of their household income on rent or mortgage. Using the definitions from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, this means that housing on Kaua’i is unaffordable for almost half of the island’s households. If you’ve lived here for long enough, you know someone who’s lost their home. Maybe they moved off-island, or moved in with their family, or maybe they set up a tent in a county park. Regardless, this is clearly a crisis.
Claim #2: The price of a house is not fixed into its construction cost, but changes depending on the supply and demand.
This is not intuitive. So I understand if you stopped reading my TGI piece after I said it. But, it’s important, so let me explain. Or, even better, let Noah Smith of Bloomberg view explain:
Suppose there are 2000 people in a city, living in 2000 apartments. One quarter of the people are rich, and rent apartments for $4000 apiece. Three quarters are poor, and rent apartments for $1000 apiece. The median rent is therefore $1000. Now build 400 fancy new luxury apartments that rent for $5000 each. And suppose no new people move to the city. All 500 rich people move into the fancy new $5000 places, leaving their old $4000 places vacant. The previously-$4000 apartments fall in price to $2000, and 500 poor people move into them, leaving 500 of their apartments vacant. These are used as second apartments, storage, or whatever. The rent of the 1500 apartments that used to all cost $1000 falls to $900 because of this drop in demand for low-end apartments. The median rent of the city’s 2400 apartments is now $900, down from $1000 before.
Like any economic model, this doesn’t happen exactly like this in real life. In the same way that an additional lane to Lihu’e would induce me to drive through Kapa’a more often, thereby exacerbating the same traffic problem that the lane was helped to solve (which I’ve previously written about at Civil Beat and will write about more below), there is an argument (as Noah Smith explains/refutes in his piece) that building new homes on Kaua’i could induce people to move here.
But, while the evidence for induced demand in traffic is well documented, it doesn’t work the same for housing.
How often have you avoided driving somewhere on Kaua’i because of traffic? If you’re like me, the answer is “a lot.” And that’s why new roads induce you to drive more, creating the same traffic problem they were meant to solve.
But, how many people avoid moving to Kaua’i because they can’t find a house? Probably not very many. Home construction on Kaua’i is currently at its lowest level in decades, yet home purchases by overseas buyers are at the highest level ever (45%).
Clearly something is attracting lots of people to Kaua’i. But it’s not the supply of homes that’s drawing them here. And building less homes won’t keep them out — it’ll only end up pricing locals out (as is currently happening).
The point is that it’s not the construction of high end homes that contributes to unaffordable housing. It’s the lack of supply at all levels. In other words, if home supply is not the cause of high demand, then home restrictions can never be the solution to high prices.
While our conversation about growth often conflates supply and demand, it’s important to keep them separate. The County has lots it can do to control housing supply, and much less it can do to control housing demand (as I’ve written before at Civil Beat).
“The question for a planning document is not how to prevent that demand from changing the city“ writes Vox’s Mathew Yglesias, “ but how to channel that demand in a constructive way that builds an inclusive city.”
Which brings us to the next point I made in the piece.
Claim #3: Regulations increase the cost of housing by decreasing supply.
While Kauai saw an average of 596 new homes built every year from 1970 to 2010, this decade has averaged less than 75 per year. One contributing factor is that Kaua’i has had an affordable housing mandate since 2008 which requires one third of homes in a new development to be “affordable.” Not a single new development has been permitted since that mandate went into effect. Low density zoning patterns have also resulted in a limited amount of small/affordable residential lots, zoning ordinances prohibit multifamily dwellings (including things like ricer cookers in bedrooms) on most residential lots, neighborhood covenants often prohibit ADUs, and the onerous permitting process weeds out all but the most dedicated (and wealthier) soon-to-be homeowners. All of these end up restricting home construction and increasing costs.
The evidence for this is overwhelming. If you’re interested in a deep dive into the weeds, here’s a brief review of the literature:
- 1987 study by Katz and Rosen compared San Francisco neighborhoods and concluded “that house prices are between 17 percent and 38 percent higher in those communities in which growth moratoria and/or growth control plans are present.”
- 2003 paper by Glaeser and Gyourko showed that “measures of zoning strictness are highly correlated with high prices.” And they conclude that “Building small numbers of subsidized housing units is likely to have a trivial impact on average housing prices (given any reasonable demand elasticity), even if well targeted toward deserving poor households. However, reducing the implied zoning tax on new construction could well have a massive impact on housing prices.” The “zoning tax” they refer to are minimum lot sizes, onerous building regulations, prohibitions on multifamily units, height restrictions, etc.
- 2007 study by Ihlanfeldt showed that not only did regulation increase the cost of housing in Florida, but that it also led to bigger houses as developers struggled to be profitable.
- 2015 report by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office showed that 25% of the cost of housing in highly regulated markets around the country are due specifically to regulations (the same “zoning tax” referred to above). They write that in California this results in more cost burdened households, longer commutes to work, less home ownership, and more crowded households. Their suggestion to the state legislature is, among other things, to focus on policies that increase the density of their urban cores.
- 2017 study by Hsieh and Moretti looked at how access to high productivity urban jobs was limited because of housing constraints due to strict building restrictions. They show that land use regulations lowered aggregate economic growth in the US by 50% between 1964 to 2009. Fifty percent! That’s not a typo. While the policy implications spelled out in their conclusion are focused on reducing land use regulations, they also highlight how increased public transportation can have the same positive effect of connecting workers to high paying jobs. Yes, Kaua’i isn’t a high productivity urban area, but it’s important to think of housing constriction as economic constriction. And, as a tangent, this has profound effects for how we think of Honolulu. The highest paying jobs in the state are in Honolulu, yet access to the city is restricted by high housing costs and lots of traffic. Increased economic output helps out the entire state in a variety of ways (access to jobs, increased tax revenue, more money in circulation, etc). While I don’t want to get too diverted (or lose any more readers than I already have), this makes outer island support for Honolulu rail not such a crazy idea. Or even (queue the firing squad) a good idea.
- Etc, etc, etc
And then there’s unregulated Houston. Its affordable housing and consistent economic growth have made it the ultimate success story in the argument against zoning regulations.
That is, until Hurricane Harvey. In the words of Paul Krugman:
Having no zoning, no control, can be disastrous — which is what we’re seeing in Houston now. But all too many blue states end up, in practice, letting zoning be a tool, not of good land use, but of NIMBYism, preventing the construction of new housing.
In fact, liberal (in the non-political sense) land use policy is probably the secret behind Texas economic growth: the state doesn’t offer high wages, but it does offer cheap housing even in huge metro areas…
What we need is effective land-use regulation that doesn’t strangle housing construction.
Which, brings us to the next set of claims.
Claim #5: Regulation is necessary.
Houston is affordable because of its lack of regulation, but as this 2009 Zaninetti paper shows, that affordability comes with some major costs. Its sprawling low density developments and lack of separation between uses have contributed to some of the worst traffic and worst air pollution in the country. Its lack of regulation regarding building in flood prone areas contributed to Hurricane Harvey being the most expensive storm in history; and its endless miles of concrete and asphalt without adequate drainage exacerbated the damage. Not to mention that chemical factories are literally exploding in residential neighborhoods.
But, you don’t need to go to Houston to see the need for greater control over build-out patterns.
We can see it every day while sitting in Kapa’a traffic. Most Kaua’i jobs are in Lihu’e, but most of the island’s houses are in Kapa’a. That’s not a road issue, it’s a planning issue.
We can see it in agricultural land that primarily grows houses rather than crops. That’s not a farming issue, it’s a planning issue.
And we can see it in the County of Kaua’i’s increasingly dire budget statements. Spending more every year per person on municipal services isn’t a bureaucratic issue, it’s a planning issue.
Claim #4: Unregulated building patterns increase government expenditures.
Every year during the budget process we hear the same conversation from our elected officials about government waste and doing more with less. Yet, there has been no recognition of one of the fundamental drivers of our budgetary woes: declining density.
According to Kauai’s Land Use Buildout Analysis, over the last 15 years, 39% of new homes were built on agricultural or open zoned land, while only 17% were built in the medium-density zoning district (R-6), and less than 1% in the multi-family zoning districts (R-15 and R-20).
It costs the county significantly more money to provide municipal services (trash pick-up, police/fire protection, road maintenance, administrative expenses, etc), to those 39% of new homes on agricultural land than it does to provide service to anyone in the middle of Kapa’a or Lihu’e. Our sprawling development patterns are why the county of Kaua’i spends 30% more per person than the City and County of Honolulu.
This is a pattern seen around the world.
- 2003 study by Caruthers concluded that in the United States as density increases, per-capita costs go down — and vice versa.
- 2008 study by Sole-Olle and Hortas-Rico showed that adding new low density developments patterns resulted in a 10% per-capita increase in the cost of municipal services. This is four times higher than the average per-capita increase in municipal services from all new urban developments in Spain.
- 2014 journal article by Anderson cites inefficiencies arising from declining density as a leading cause for municipal bankruptcy (when combined with high poverty and increasing pensions from retiring baby boomers).
Claim #5: Roads don’t solve traffic. Planning does.
Here’s a quick overview from the first of those pieces:
As early as 1947, studies were proving that new roads and new lanes don’t reduce traffic.
“‘Traffic generation’ was no longer a theory but a proven fact: the more highways were built to alleviate congestion, the more automobiles would pour onto them and congest them and thus force the building of more highways,” writes Robert Caro in his groundbreaking book The Power Broker, “which would generate more traffic and become congested in their turn in an inexorably widening spiral.”
The evidence is so prevalent that it’s called the “fundamental law of highway congestion.”
Economists view traffic as a cost of driving. The more traffic, the higher the cost. As traffic increases, less people are willing to incur the high cost of wasted time — and they either drive at a different hour, take the bus, or avoid driving all together. So traffic always reaches equilibrium. Which is why fears of Carmageddon in Los Angeles never materialized.
When new roads are built, they simply fill back up to their equilibrium point.
(If you already get the gist, feel free to scroll down to claim #6. If not, read on.)
Phrased differently by Jane Jacobs in Death and Life of Great American Cities:
Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves. Wherever people are thinly settled, rather than densely concentrated, or wherever diverse uses occur infrequently, any specific attraction does cause traffic congestion… The spaces required for roads and for parking spread everything out still farther, and lead to still greater use of vehicles.
Or, even better, Lewis Mumford’s famous 1955 essay on transportation:
Your one-eyed specialists continue to conduct grandiose plans for highway development, as if motor transportation existed in a social vacuum and as if (our town) were a mere passageway or terminal for vehicles, with no good reasons of its own for existence.
To these experts, a successful solution of the traffic problem consists of building more roads, bridges and tunnels so that more motorcars may travel more quickly to more remote destinations in more chaotic communities, from which more roads will be built so that more motorists may escape from these newly soiled and clotted environments.
Instead of curing congestions, they widen chaos.
Because we have apparently decided that the private motorcar has a sacred right to go anywhere, halt anywhere, and remain anywhere as long as its owner chooses, we have neglected other means of transportation … The major corrective for this crippling overspecialization is to redevelop now despised modes of circulation — public vehicles and private feet.
Or, best of all, Kauai’s first General Plan update in 1970:
[Oahu has been] led into a blind alley of unsolvable traffic problems and a hopeless dispersal of people and services which cannot possibly be served adequately by any economically feasible alternative to the automobile. The resultant destruction to the limited land and natural resources has not yet reached its inevitable limits, but the grotesque evidence of an environment spawned and predominately controlled by a helpless, psychological addiction to a pathetically inefficient method of transportation is there for all to see.
The question should be asked. Should Kauai and the state continue to fund the development of roads and highways knowing full well that they eventually generate more traffic, more dispersal, more congestion than they are designed to alleviate?
Or, should Kauai now, while there is time, move towards a better, more convenient, more efficient, safer and less destructive system of transport; and in so doing maintain and improve the quality of the environment, hence the quality of life?
To those accustomed to the relative leisure and comfort of driving on Kauai, such foresight and imagination is as difficult as the foresight required on Oahu twenty years ago.
The people of Oahu failed. Will the people of Kauai?”
I know I said I’d avoid emotional rhetoric and stick to the facts, but I had to share those three prescient pieces.
Despite overwhelming evidence that roads induce traffic, there is actually mixed evidence on the role of sprawl and commute times. While the research is clear that increasing density reduces traffic fatalities, much of the literature suggests that sprawl decreases commute times because it also often decentralizes employment. However, on Kaua’i, decentralized employment is not an outcome of sprawl. When someone builds on agricultural land, they are not generally also creating a job nearby. And, as I’ve written before, there is strong resistance to commercial activities in residential areas.
According to the Kaua’i Socio-Economic Analysis developed for the General Plan, Lihu’e has nearly half of the jobs on Kaua’i. While the East side had nearly 21,000 residents in 2010, there were only 4,570 jobs in the area. That, more than anything, is the reason for the Kapa’a traffic mess.
Claim #6: We need regulation to preserve agriculture and open space.
As I’ve written before in Civil Beat:
As our agricultural land competes in the high-end market of homesteads instead of cropland, we have experienced a 28 percent decrease in small farms on Kauai since 2007. This decline in farms (along with the fall of sugar) has led to an average annual loss of 3,500 acres of cultivated land over the last two decades.
“And so, each day,” wrote Jacobs, in explaining this pattern across America, “several thousand more acres of our countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find.”
The bottom line here is that if we want farmers to be profitable, we can not have them competing in the same land market as housing.
Claim #7: Land use regulation causes inequality. It can also reverse it.
I’ve written about this in depth before for Civil Beat, but it’s important to reiterate. Zoning policies can either exacerbate inequality and racial segregation, or they can work to reverse them. The first residential zoning codes were meant specifically to protect the property values of high-income areas by keeping poor people out. They quickly devolved into race based codes meant to keep black people in isolated neighborhoods. While race-based zoning was ruled unconstitutional in 1917, the exclusionary ideas simply morphed into residential zoning ordinances like the low-density lots we’re used to on Kaua'i. Today, nearly every suburban neighborhood around the country is built behind regulations that create an invisible barrier to entry.
If you prohibit families from installing an extra kitchen, then you are also effectively prohibiting multi-generational families from a neighborhood. And if you only allow large lots, then you are barring entry to low-income families.
There is strong support from case law, popular accounts, and the academic literature that local governments often adopt exclusive large-lot zoning, minimum house size requirements, and bans on secondary units precisely to make their housing more expensive and thereby indirectly exclude lower-income racial and ethnic minorities.
Which is why studies continue to show a “strong and significant … relationship between low-density zoning and racial segregation.”
And while government policies have helped create this problem, they can also begin to solve it. There is strong research showing the lifelong benefits of safe streets and well connected neighbors — and the harms of the opposite. Just growing up in a better neighborhood has been shown to increase annual income by 16%.
That same Brookings Institute Paper mentioned above explored the policies which have been shown to “break the chain of exclusion” such as: increasing densities, mandating a mix of housing types, delineating clear growth boundaries (which leads to more multi-family housing inside the town cores), increasing access to public transportation, reducing regulatory delays in the permitting process, and by creating walkable neighborhoods and access to transit (which reduce the high cost burden of transportation).
But, as the paper warns, there is a fine balance point between a growth management program which brings about higher housing costs because it doesn’t allow for enough growth, and one which allows for too much growth and creates sprawl.
And none of these policies can be enacted in a vacuum. You can’t delineate growth boundaries without increasing density and you can’t increase density without planning for a mix of housing types and uses. You can’t expect a mix of housing types if there are long regulatory delays and you can’t increase the density of town cores without simultaneously building adequate multimodal transportation options.
All of this can be boiled down to one question:
How do we enable more construction (to bring down house prices) while reducing government expenditures, traffic, and inequality?
This is the fundamental problem at the heart of land use planning and it’s what the General Plan attempts to solve. We need a vibrant community dialogue around these issues. But, we also need to make sure that all solutions address both sides of the equation.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for your dedication. But, I have to add one more thing. The main driver of my support for the General Plan is climate change. It changes everything. How we live. How we drive. How our economy functions. It is, hands down, the biggest issue we face as an island, as a country, and as a planet. And, we only have one chance to get this right. We need to get to zero carbon emissions within my lifetime. Which means that by 2035 (the timeframe for the General Plan), we need to be well on our way.
And there are two approaches that Kaua’i can take.
Or, we can forge a more inclusive path. Where reducing the cost of housing comes from the same systems approach that reduces our emissions which comes from the same systems approach that grows our economy. (More on the idea of a three tiered sustainability model in this must read journal article by Fiorino).
climate change is just a numbers game. Personal virtue doesn’t count for much. The imperative is to build low-carbon systems, not individual low-carbon houses, and to get as many people as possible into those systems.
A building is a system. A neighborhood is a system. A community is a system. Part of making those nested and overlapping systems low-carbon is maximizing the number of people within them, minimizing the distances they have to travel, and providing them services with the minimum amount of energy and infrastructure.
While the General Plan has the goal of 40% emissions reduction by 2030 and 80% emissions reduction by 2050, that’s not what makes the document so powerful from a climate change perspective — it’s that it spells out an entirely new system of development. One where we can walk to work, where people can afford to live here, and where we can thrive without fossil fuels.
Most importantly, it’s a future that we can build together.